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Democratic deficits


The more unpopular governments become, the more they tend to behaving like control freaks.

YESTERDAY my wife and I attended a community workshop organised by South Cambridgeshire District Council. The purpose was to discuss proposals for establishing a community development trust, a charitable organisation, to cover the area around Northstowe, a large new town which is planned.

The new town, and the villages near it are close to Cambridge, and the whole region is economically strong, and growing fast. This prosperity reflects the international standing of the University, which over three decades has attracted a galaxy of high-tech firms to the area. That the new town will be built is a certainty. Many aspects of the development, however, are highly controversial. Among the most controversial are the size, and the separation between the new town and its neighbouring villages.

Commendable initiative

These issues, and many others (provision of facilities, transport, access, for example) have been considered in detail during the past two years by the district council, the county council, and local parish councils — the three strands of local democracy. On the major issues of size and "green space" there has been near unanimity.

The workshop was a commendable initiative to seek the opinions and ideas of residents in the area, and to explore ways in which the new town may be planned as a good and effective community and may bring benefit to all the neighbouring villages. The organisers did not underestimate the doubts and negative feelings, which many people have about the development, but they made a genuine effort to encourage us to look at the positive possibilities, which could come from it. This they did well, providing input of high quality.

Those of us taking part — including elected members of district, county and parish councils (of whom I was one) and others, attending out of interest and concern — contributed in an equally constructive way. In short, this was a good example of participative democracy at work.

A few days earlier, news came of the decision of inspectors charged with the task of conducting an inquiry into the plans for the new town. Over many weeks they had taken evidence from the local councils, and from the developers. Their basic decision, more details of which are to be given in the next few days, was to over-rule the wishes of the councils in respect of the number of dwellings to be allowed, and the provision of green space. The "independent" inspectors, whose role is built in to the planning process, are appointed by the government. The local authority, which is the planning authority, is obliged to pay the costs of the inspection.

It is not surprising that the inspectors' decision has provoked outrage, and fed the cynicism, which many people feel about politics. The outrage was strongly apparent at the workshop. What sort of democracy is it, people demanded, which allows the wishes of citizens expressed through their elected representatives to be negated by inspectors with no democratic accountability.

The system, which allows this to happen, cannot be blamed on only one political party. Governments of both major parties, over many years, have proclaimed their belief in devolving decision-making downwards, while in practice taking it ever more firmly into central hands. There are many examples of this in the management of the health services, education, transport, to take just three.

The more unpopular governments become, the more they are prone to behaving like control freaks. The behaviour over "our" new town is a good example of the tendency, but it is not the only one.

Monitoring children

There has been another, with national ramifications, in the past few days, with the publication of a legally enforced national curriculum, which will introduce the monitoring of children from birth. Children's progress is to be monitored towards 69 "early learning goals". At the age of five, each child will be assessed against 13 scales based on these goals.

To those of us who believe that children should as far as possible be free of stress, this is sheer madness. The scheme has been widely, but it has to be admitted not universally, criticised. The comments of critics, thankfully, give some cause for hope that the scheme will prove unworkable.

Thankfully, too, reactions at the workshop to the rejection by inspectors of the wishes of elected representatives give some hint that we may before long end our political apathy and use our right to vote on every possible occasion. If we do not, we must accept responsibility for what can best be described as a serious democratic deficit.

The writer is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. E-mail:

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