Flickr/Ewan-M. Some rights reserved.
It's often said that real, people-based democracy can only exist at a local level. This is a glimpse of real democracy in action in Brockley Ward, Lewisham.
Some years ago, Lewisham Council took the unusual step of making a certain amount of money available to each ward; this year, £15,000 for each of the 18 wards. Residents decide what to do with this money by discussion, argument and voting in local assemblies. The result is some amazing (mostly voluntary) hard work by residents, some wonderful improvements, some fun and well-attended assembly meetings, and a sense of real community for those who get involved.
Brockley is mixed in almost every way you can think of: race, religion, class, occupation, age, sexual orientation – the lot. The first thing to say is that the assembly reflects this mix, and there is barely a hint of antagonism between what might be identified as different 'interest groups'. In the assembly meetings, everyone is individual but with a common cause: to decide on, and do, good things for the neighbourhood.
Our meeting of Tuesday 17 March 2015 was chaired quite brilliantly by an elected councillor, Alicia Kennedy, who kept it interesting, giving space to people (like me) who wanted a say, and discreetly restraining people (like me) who might become annoying.
We heard presentations from people who'd been given grants the year before and wanted to continue their good work. Grants are for fairly small amounts of money – between £600 and £2400. Most of the presenters were nervous, being unused to talking in front of an audience. Quite clearly, each one had put in way more work, effort and yes, that over-used word 'passion' into their projects than could possibly be expected.
What were the projects? First, a tree planting initiative: new trees to replace old ones which have died. Second, the brand-new, not-for-profit, volunteer-run Deptford Cinema which promises great things – I have already seen one film there, 'Ring of Water', available nowhere else in the UK, and it was great. Next up, money for a big party for the opening night of the Brockley Festival – I've never been, but that sounds great too. Then, money to maintain and develop a beautiful community garden created last year in Breakspear Mews, that used to be weeds and a fly-tip. Next, another tree-planting project; then funding for a regular drop-in session, bringing old people together to do something creative. After that, funding for a project to introduce cooking classes for healthy eating in two residential hostels for young homeless girls (aged 16-25). Finally, 'Make a Skate Deck' to introduce young people to the work that goes into providing them with good stuff and to show them that it's work they can do, too!
All this, for a total of £15,000!
One of the great things was to listen to the volunteers themselves present their cases. Another was to hear the very intelligent public discussion of the people attending. Another, to have a delicious mug of Joan's lentil soup in the interval!
After the break, people told us about various things going on in the ward or elsewhere. First up, a project in neighbouring Catford to lessen the amount of doggy-poo in streets and parks. What do you do, when every morning your neighbour lets their pack of dogs out into the street to empty their bowels? Preferably not end up in prison for assault. Next, we were given a fantastic dance demonstration: real dancing, real creativity. Then, a short video about a place (Macaroni Woods) in the depths of the Gloucestershire countryside, where groups from Lewisham can go free of charge and hide out among the birds, bees and wild deer. I had no idea the place existed.
Last, and most controversial, was a presentation from a company called Global Street Art, who are going to organise a 'street art festival'. This brought in several contentious elements. First, it arrives with expectations of heavy subsidy by central government: £100,000 from the Arts Council. Second, no oversight by the assembly over what pictures would be painted; rather, businesses owning the walls would decide. Third, 'internationally famous' artists would be at work; hmmm... we all know what they can do. Imposition from above. The general opinion was: it's going to happen whether we like it or not, so we'd better hang in there and try to influence what would be in our lives over the next few decades. 'Art is all a matter of personal taste,' we were told. Oh, really? So I can think my doodles as good as Rembrandt's, and people think me sane?
Enough. I hope I've made this tiny glimpse of real democracy sound like something good. The money committed – not much in terms of total budget – makes all the difference to local assemblies: it means real power and influence over what happens, which in turn means that people have an interest in turning up. Local democracy integrates, empowers, informs, entertains, and it means that everyone has a chance to be a public activist. Above all, it transforms our neighbourhoods from fractured pockets fed by outside forces, to living communities. Watch out, makers of soap operas: we can be part of much more interesting ones, all on our own!