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'Reboot democracy' with Citizens' Assemblies

Green Councillors in Bristol have proposed putting decision making on some major issues in the hands of ordinary Bristolians through ‘Citizens’ Assemblies’ and other forms of participatory democracy.

Citizens’ Assemblies are a way of empowering a representative group of citizens to make decisions on important issues. A group of citizens are carefully selected to be representative of demographics in their area, are given a specific topic to address or problem to solve, and meet multiple times, with access to expert advice, in order to produce policies most of them can agree on. Greens are bringing the proposal to a Full Council meeting on Tuesday 14 January, where it will be first motion to be debated.

The approach can be useful to produce consensus on complicated or controversial issues which politicians might be afraid to deal with effectively. For example, Ireland has convened Citizens’ Assemblies to discuss abortion and same sex marriage, both of which led to referenda and changes in the law.

A pressing issue that a Citizens’ Assembly could tackle is climate change - something which Extinction Rebellion has long called for. Last year Greens proposed the successful motion that declared a Climate Emergency and committed the city to go carbon neutral by 2030. But over a year later they worry there has been little significant progress. They see a Citizens’ Assembly as a way of letting Bristolians lead the way on carbon neutrality, ensuring that nobody in the city is left out of important decisions. And a recent survey shows that 86% of the population of Bristol are concerned about climate change so Greens predict that politicians from other parties will be surprised by how enthusiastic Bristolians are for bold solutions.

In order to set out further details and funding the Green motion calls for the council to set up a working group to determine what types of participatory democracy are established and agree funding for them – with the proposal to trial at least two projects over the 2020-2021 financial year. The working group would include representation from all parties, community groups and people from Bristol’s different communities.

Green Councillor Paula O’Rourke is the motion’s proposer. She said:

“I’m proud to be bringing this motion to next week’s Council Meeting – we’ve got a rare opportunity to break through the usual political process. Democracy doesn’t need to begin and end every few years when you vote. We have a chance to bring people into making the decisions that will affect them and re-energise local democracy.”

In order to support people in taking time from work to take part in a citizen’s assembly and ensure access for those on lower incomes, participants are often paid a stipend. As well as Citizens’ Assemblies, the motion calls for the council to look into participatory budgeting, a way of using a democratic process to allocate part of a local budget. In Paris the process has been used with some success to allocate 5% of the city’s annual budget. Cllr O’Rourke suggests in Bristol it could be trialled with area committees, giving local communities a say in how to allocate fees levied on new developments (known as CIL funding).

“The Mayor often talks about engaging with people outside ‘the bubble’ of City Hall. This motion is a chance to make that a reality and allow ordinary Bristolians a say in making major decisions. I hope all parties will support it.”

Green Group leader councillor Eleanor Combley said:

“I’m delighted we’re bringing this motion to Council – it has the potential to really open up democracy in Bristol. Some people asked us why we did not choose to debate Bristol Airport Expansion again. The honest answer is that we sadly see no sign of Labour changing their position on it, so while we have not given up on campaigning on the issue outside of the council chamber, we are pursuing a new motion at Full Council that we hope has a greater chance of getting the other parties on board and giving ordinary Bristolians a say in how our city deals with the climate emergency and meets our carbon target.

“Labour had the opportunity to debate airport expansion with us at the Full Council meeting in December, but they made their position clear when the Mayor published repeated written statements in support of the expansion, and when they voted with Conservatives to stop that debate.

“If I’m wrong and the Mayor has changed his view on Bristol Airport expansion, it’s up to him to show that by rescinding the statement of support that he sent to North Somerset planning authority and replacing it with clear opposition.”

Notes:

“Extinction Rebellion believes that part of the problem is the way electoral politics works:

    • Political power in the UK is in the hands of a few elected politicians. Over the last 40 years, this system has proved incapable of making the long-term decisions needed to deal with the climate and ecological emergency. Politicians simply can’t see past the next election.
    • Members of parliament are lobbied by powerful corporations, seek sympathetic media coverage, and calculate their policies based on potential public reactions and opinion polls. This leaves many of them either unable or unwilling to make the bold changes necessary to address the emergency.
    • Opinion polls often gather knee-jerk reactions to loaded questions. They do not allow respondents to become informed or engage with others with different perspectives. For an issue as complex as the climate and ecological emergency, opinion polling won’t cut it.

Here is how a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice can break the deadlock:

    • A Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice will empower citizens to take the lead and politicians to follow with less fear of political backlash.
    • Citizens’ Assemblies are fair and transparent. Assembly members have an equal chance of being heard. Briefing materials, experts, and other presenters are vetted by diverse stakeholders and shared publicly. This produces informed democratic decisions.
    • Citizens’ Assemblies are especially useful when difficult trade-offs are necessary. For example, experts might propose policies for how to meet a 2025 target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions and the Assembly could decide which they prefer. They would also consider how to mitigate the impacts of changes on the most vulnerable people.”

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