Image: Peter O'Connor/Flickr, CC 2.0
How does democracy die? Rarely through a large dramatic event, more often, it just drains away. Death by a thousand cuts while we, the impotent people, have neither time nor energy to ward off each and every attack.
Take, for instance, the right to public assembly and debate. Let's start with a local story and, to most journalists, a “story in a teacup”. It surfaced, a fortnight back, in Letchworth Garden City. Irony! For Letchworth's origins lie in a political project, a philanthropic project designed to provide affordable and civilised housing for the ordinary citizen and to allow a free exchange of ideas and debate.
At its birth it was widely mocked for nurturing “cranks”: people prepared to question established mores and to contemplate alternative lifestyles.
(And here I'll declare an interest: I live in Letchworth, have stood for office locally and am committed to the values on which it was founded!)
In May 2017, Letchworth BID voted at one of their regular board meetings to bar political parties from having stalls – and therefore a presence – in the town centre. This, they have since claimed, was “to ensure equal representation from political parties when it comes to promoting their respective parties in the town centre”. Moreover, “securing political balance was proving to be a challenge”. This rings somewhat hollow: far from the town centre groaning under a surfeit of politics, putting up a stall at all is so unusual a circumstance that none of the main opposition parties – Labour, Lib Dem, Green – noticed they had been banned until just over a year later.
When they DID notice, there was an outcry - and media interest from both local outlets and openDemocracy. In response, a week later the BID issued a statement backing down on the policy, and once again allowing “legitimate political parties” permission to book space in the town centre.
There’s no apology, of course. No recognition that they owe an explanation to the people over whose town centre they have temporary dominion. Indeed they seem surprised that anyone would dare question why they did it.
And there are some huge questions still to be answered.
The official BID response claims that “securing political balance was proving to be a challenge”. But who gave them that responsibility in the first place? Who was consulted? What evidence was considered? Do they have the power to charge for permits to set up stalls that aren’t selling anything?
And most fundamentally – do they have the power to say no to political stalls? Why would they think they had such a power?
The local council suggested any and all questions about BIDs be addressed to the BID organisation themselves. But they won’t answer questions.
According to Herts Police: if the stalls were selling something, they would need a permit. But if people were just stood there handing out leaflets? Debatable. Though before the ban, local parties and, presumably, other political organisations were being asked to shell out. Yet negotiating the mishmash of bodies involved – Police, Council, BID – to get a clear answer is difficult to impossible.
There are other concerns around the original decision: the fact that it was taken in May 2017, the month before a General Election; allegations that the issue was raised by a local conservative councillor. We have tried to engage local BID, local council and local conservative party in an attempt to get answers to those questions. But don't hold your breath. The best we could get was a statement by one local Tory councillor that “the matter has never even been discussed at the North Herts Conservative Group”.
What is ‘BID’ anyway?
And anyway - who are these BID people? And why do they have such powers over our town centre? BID stands for Business Improvement District. BIDs are a recent creation and not entirely a bad idea.
According to the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government , they are “business led partnerships [...] created through a ballot process to deliver additional services to local businesses”. Local businesses ballot to decide whether they want a BID and, if the vote is positive, then all businesses in the designated area are in. They must stump up an annual levy in support of said BID which, under the auspices of a local board, goes toward four key areas: physical improvements, events and marketing, access improvements and security and business support.
One can see why central government likes the idea. After all, separate out the “real business” of cities, which is, of course, all about doing business, from the messy civic stuff like waste collection and potholes, and who can complain?
Quite a lot of people, it would appear. There are accusations of unaccountability and incompetence down in Penzance, revolt in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and, more widely, concerns that since 2004 the BID initiative has led to hundreds of millions of pounds being squandered through the machinations of shadowy quangos.
These are serious issues in their own right. However, the issue raised by Letchworth BID is the pernicious effect of BID's on democracy. For they are part of a pattern, begun under the last Labour government and continued under Tory governments since, of placing a premium on “public order” and commerce, while downgrading people power as messy and unrealistic.
Attempt to organise an event or demonstration today and be prepared for an onslaught of demands that one provide the local police, the council, or now potentially, your local BID, with details, plans, risk assessments. A couple of years back I was involved in running a minor demo in Manchester. Thirty people, meeting quietly just off Canal St, the heart of Manchester's LGBT quarter. In the end we convened “unlawfully”, being both unable and unwilling to stump up the several hundred pounds required to provide millions in public liability insurance for this event. In this case, not a BID issue: but nonetheless part of the wider problem of public spaces being increasingly policed and regulated by official busybodies.
More recently, we have seen the government condemning limits to “free speech” in Universities – for which read, for the most part, the freedom of the privileged and the opinionated to lecture everyone else – while standing firm behind Public Space Protection Orders, introduced in 2014, which give local councils sweeping new powers to determine what happens on their streets. And while PSPO's have mostly been used to tackle “problems”, like homelessness and bad language, there is mounting evidence of them being used to exclude awkwardness – like protests - from town centres.
How can this happen? In the decentralised privatised world of Britain 2018, getting answers to questions is nigh on impossible. And that, in itself, is an issue. Democracy is dying because no-one, least of all those in charge, knows who is in charge any more. And if they do, they aren't saying.
As it becomes progressively more difficult to navigate the permission maze, people are just giving up and staying at home. Result: politics is diminished, reduced to online shouting match as opposed to engagement with real people out in the real world.
Meanwhile, shopping centres the length and breadth of the country continue to lay claim to the title “Forum” as somehow synonymous with a-place-to-buy-stuff. Along the way, its origins as a place where the true business of the city, of the place where passion and debate happened, is increasingly consigned to the dustbin of history.