We the people will decide how the money will be spent: Reclaiming power, politics and money for the Common Good

Its time to make money a servant of politics, instead of its master.
Its time to make power the servant of the democracy, instead of its corrupter.
Its time to put transparency at the heart of policy making, instead of secret meetings.

Now, more than ever, is time for a real Powershift: Shifting power out of the hands of a wealthy few and into the hands of ordinary citizens.

“We the people will decide how the money will be spent.”
Hazel Rutherford, Resident, Newcastle

Thankfully a tool is at hand, and that tool is Participatory Budgeting. Simple, transparent, direct and accountable.  The antithesis of everything we have seen this week.  And the best news?  Its already happening in a community near you…

Participatory Budgeting – brought to the UK by Church Action on Poverty and now being taken up the length and breadth of the country – gives local people real power to decide where some of their tax money is spent. In a world that is becoming increasingly turned off from a seemingly cynical and corrupted democratic processes, it brings concrete evidence that local democracy can – and does – work.

Participatory Budgeting puts power in the hands of ordinary citizens, and puts local communities back at the heart of the democratic process.  Its based on the simplest of ideas: We should all have a say in how our public money is spent.  Money has the power to corrupt democracy, but money also has the power to redeem it.  And there is no greater example of the power of money to re-oxygenate democracy than Participatory Budgeting.

Over three years ago, as leader of the Opposition, David Cameron promised a radical shift in power from government to the people, writing that

Tony Benn once spoke about wanting a fundamental shift of power and wealth to working people. I too want that fundamental shift – to local people and local institutions.”

Now is the time to deliver.

Now is the time to shift the power from millionaire donors and hedge fund managers to ordinary citizens…  People like Sue from Manton in Nottinghamshire.

Sue’s father and grandfather were miners there, and she remembers the close sense of community she felt when she was growing up.  Like many of her contemporaries, she had had to leave school at the age of 15 to provide her parents with another income and then had spent most of her energy in raising her own family. Deep down though, she had always though she was capable of more.

Over the past seven years, Sue has helped Manton Community Alliance transform Manton almost beyond recognition. And key to that transformation has been participatory budgeting. It is an approach centred on the importance of valuing the knowledge and experience of local people and empowering them to identify their own priorities, find solutions to the problems affecting them and to make their own decisions about how public money should be spent.

Sue explained that, for the first time, local people have been given the opportunity to express their views, the belief that those views are valued and, critically, the confidence to express them. Participatory Budgeting has changed the attitudes of older residents towards young people and vice versa. As Sue says,

“One voice has become two and two voices have become four ….. and people now have a voice that is heard”. 

Manton Community Alliance is just one of over 150 local projects which our Participatory Budgeting Unit has helped to devise and organise a Participatory Budgeting process in.

PB is one of the simplest and most direct form of participation. In some areas, this involves local people pitching up at an evening gathering, and directly voting on how a specific pot of public money – anything from £5 – 100,000 – is spent locally.  In others, it has involved much larger processes to allocate pots of public funding of over £1 million.

The reengagement of people in the democratic process has to start at street level.  A strong democracy needs strong communities, which are able to articulate their own sense of identity, value and purpose within wider society.

  • Just imagine if one percent of public budgets were spent using Participatory Budgeting.
  • Just imagine if citizens were asked every year to directly vote on how their precious public money was spent in their local communities.
  • Just imagine the transformation in public engagement and the genuine powershift that would represent.

As far back as 2004 Alan Milburn MP saw the potential of PB, declaring that

“In cities as diverse as Chicago in the United States and Porto Alegre in Brazil, local people already control budgets and services. The results are impressive both in terms of public engagement and service improvement. We should be seeking to apply the same lessons in towns and cities in Britain.”

Participatory Budgeting was first started in Porto Alegre in Brazil in the late 1980s – as a direct response to the perceived corruption and lack of transparency in the political process.  Conditions not too dissimilar to those we now face in the UK today.  And today, participatory budgeting is practised in over 300 cities around the world, involving more than 12 million people. It has been praised by the World Bank, the United Nations, UNESCO, and the European Union.

And within the UK, participatory budgeting has won widespread cross-party support:

  • Lord Shipley, as Liberal Democrat leader of Newcastle City Council, lead a five year PB programme which involved more than 11,000 people in 20 projects which allocated over £4.5m in public funding.
  • Clive Betts, Labour MP for Sheffield South-East and chairman of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee at the House of Commons has made the case for participatory budgeting being at the centre of a renewal of local democrac
  • Baroness Newlove’s recent report for the Department for Communities and Local Government, Building Safe, Active Communities, includes strong support for Participatory Budgeting, and a specific Challenge (no 9) to “Ask Police & Crime Commissioners to commit at least 1% of their budget to grassroots community groups to use or have a say on.”

The movement to promote Participatory Budgeting has grown in strength in the UK over the past decade.  But its capacity to reinvigorate democracy – to bring about a true powershift – is greater still.

Now is the time to reclaim money, politics and power for the Common Good.

Now is the time for the Peoples Budget.

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