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Francis Sealey, chair of Enfield Climate Action Forum, suggests that local "community hubs" like those that he helped organise in 2022 and 2023 can help overcome some of the shortcomings in the way democracy works in the UK.

people at the palmers green community hub in november 2023

In November a community hub was held in Palmers Green so that local people could express their concerns and ideas about their locality. It exceeded all expectations, with more than 120 people turning up to join in lively discussions on a series of issues. Held at the Palmers Green Mosque, there were people from different local communities and generations, giving the event a vibrancy and togetherness that is desperately needed.

Although we invited several councillors, only one turned up, though others expressed an interest but could not attend.

Community hubs are an important method of community engagement and vitally important at a time when our democracy is in danger and citizens have grown increasingly disillusioned with democracy itself and their representatives.

According to a recent Ipsos poll, only just over a quarter of people in the UK (27%) are satisfied with the way democracy is working, with three in five (61%) saying it has worsened in the last five years. In all countries surveyed people think radical change is needed to improve the current political system.

Although people have more faith in local rather than national government, local democracy is still fraught with problems. Only 30% to 40% of the electorate turn out to vote in local elections and in a recent mayoral election in Hackney it was down to 20%. As well as this, people largely vote in local elections to express what they think of political parties nationally.

With such a low turnout and voting behaviour, no winning party can claim to have a mandate from their electorate, and yet political parties do and that creates scepticism amongst its citizens.

As the Ipsos poll indicated, there does need to be a radical change to rescue our democracy both nationally and locally from further decline as that can be dangerous for the stability of our society.

We have to find better ways to engage with politicians in a deliberative way, and that is not happening now. Just nine per cent of the British public say they trust politicians to tell the truth, down from 12%  in 2022. This makes them the least trusted profession in Britain.

people at a session of the palmers green community hub november 2023

How can we change this? Well, one way is to encourage our councillors and MPs to engage as equal partners with their communities. Rather than hide behind the closed doors of their party machines and whips they should be free to engage with communities openly and transparently not fearing the wrath of their Political Parties if what they express does not fit with the party line.

Ward forums have been one way of doing this, but they are not entirely successful. Often they are poorly attended, they are organised in a way that places the councillors in control, the usual suspects tend to turn up and very few people if any attend who are under 50. They are not a shining example of community engagement and there have to be better ways.

One way of improving this is through community hubs that groups like Enfield Climate Action Forum, LocalMotion and the Co-op Membership Engagement Team have been piloting in Enfield in the last two years. These organisations between them have held five community hubs and three more are planned for this coming year.

The most recent community hub in Palmers Green turned out to be a huge success, with more than 120 people attending, which far exceeded expectations. The hub aimed to provide a safe place for people to express their concerns and ideas about their locality and over the next few months to design action plans on a number of the issues discussed. The issues covered a wide range of topics from wellbeing to employment, from the cost of living to climate change and much more.

It was much more democratic and engaging than, for example, a ward forum, with an independent facilitator in each session and a person to lead the discussion with a short introduction. There was no hierarchical structure and everyone there was treated as of equal importance. This led to a very open discussion that I know some councillors might find difficult because they have been raised in the adversarial party political structure where the party line is more important than open discussion.

Yet this format led to so many new and vibrant ideas emerging that we will all now have to over time turn into action plans. This will take time, but it will be important and could lead to a form of community collaboration that results in systemic change and a more inclusive democracy. And it will provide an opportunity for councillors to become leaders in their community working primarily for their community rather than the adversarial 19th-century invention of partisan political parties.

If we can do this we can begin to save our democracy, especially at the local level, from going into further decline and with trust restored in our local politicians. That must surely be worth working towards with benefits to us all.

The photographs show sessions of the Palmers Green community hub meeting in November 2023.

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