An inquiry into civil society, chaired by Julia Unwin, former chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, found that many poorer communities feel neglected. Ms Unwin said: “Across England people have told us that they feel ignored, and that decisions that directly affect their lives are taken without their involvement. A shift in power is needed so that the voice of people in communities is not just heard, but heeded. A much more developed and engaged democracy, including citizens’ juries, is urgently required.”
The Times reports an announcement by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport that residents are to be offered radical powers to veto or approve plans that affect their communities and outlined eight measures to be taken.
The government website says that this Civil Society Strategy will build stronger communities by bringing together businesses, charities and the public sector.
Decisions to approve housing developments, sell public assets such as community centres and swimming pools, or spend more on fixing potholes could be made using new forms of direct democracy. Ministers are proposing that local authorities use online polls and “citizen juries” to give residents a direct say in their communities, particularly in poor or remote areas.
The citizens jury would be a group of people selected at random — in a similar way to those used for criminal trials — to spend several days considering an issue. They would often be led by a facilitator, examining evidence in detail and cross-examining experts before making a recommendation or report.
Local authorities in six areas will take part in a trial over the next 12 months. It is part of a government strategy which aims to strengthen communities.
The strategy says: “Many people feel disenfranchised and disempowered and the government is keen to find new ways to give people back a sense of control over their communities’ future.”
As an indicator of the proposal’s potential, officials pointed to the Irish referendum on abortion laws in May, which was held after a citizens’ assembly of 99 people backed reform and to the role of a citizens’ jury in overturning plans for a nuclear waste dump in South Australia last year.
The funding of £90m to get disadvantaged young people into employment and £55m to tackle financial exclusion will be taken from an amount of up to £330 million from dormant bank and building society accounts and used to help the homeless, disadvantaged young people, local charities and other good causes in the UK over the next four years
The Local Government Association said that it would work with ministers to test ideas. A spokesman said: “Increased community involvement must go hand in hand with further devolution of funding and powers to the local level if the pilots are to be meaningful.”