As in many parts of the world, citizens assemblies, juries and other deliberative assemblies are gaining popularity in the UK. The UK Parliament has recently commissioned a nationwide citizens assembly on climate change. My own efforts were on a much smaller scale: a citizens panel for Penzance, a town of 21,000 people, and one of 213 civil parishes in Cornwall.
The Penzance Citizens Panel on Housing and Homelessness was convened by Cornwall Independent Poverty Forum (CIPF) a network of church-based charities that address homelessness and poverty issues. The panel met for five evening sessions over six weeks, and listened to 9 presentations by expert witnesses. The question they addressed was as follows:
“High housing costs, low paid insecure work, eviction and homelessness are all issues that blight local communities in Cornwall, including Penzance. How can we as a community come together to address these issues?”
At the end of it they have come up with a report setting out 21 recommendations. Here is what I learned from the experience:
1. You don’t need permission from a decision-making body
Normally citizens assemblies, panels and other forms of ‘deliberative assemblies’ are commissioned by a decision-making body such as local or central government.
Cornwall Council refused to back this, and the whole issue of citizens assemblies has drawn a mixed reaction from elected councillors and senior council staff. By contrast, we found much more enthusiasm from local authority frontline staff.
With no backing we were uncertain whether to proceed since any deliberative assembly risks becoming a talking shop if it has no engagement and support by a decision-making body. In the end we went ahead and found that once the panel was set up, elected councillors were more than happy to come and speak. This suggests that ‘facts on the ground’ are more important than arguments with councillors over the principle or concept of deliberative assemblies.Print