It turns out that when given a chance to have a say, the public do care about the government’s devolution plans – and they want their voice to be heard. That’s the message from last weekend’s ‘Citizens’ Assembly’ in Sheffield.
Last weekend South Yorkshire residents came together for the final weekend of the Assembly. These local people debated and then voted for a stronger devolution deal in the UK’s first ever Citizens’ Assembly, calling on local politicians to negotiate with the Government for a much more ambitious and democratic set of proposals.
Residents also voted in favour of a Yorkshire-wide regional assembly as their preferred model of devolution – opposing the plans to split Yorkshire up into a hotchpotch of devolved units, and rejecting the creation of an elected Mayor.
The Assembly clearly demonstrated citizens’ appetite for grappling with and deciding on complex constitutional issues – something it’s often said they don’t care about.
How did it happen? Over two weekends of deliberation, more than 30 participants – drawn as a broadly representative sample from Sheffield, Barnsley, Rotherham and Doncaster in response to an invitation by polling company YouGov – reached their conclusions through a deep process of engagement with the details of different potential devolution arrangements.
The participants were given unique access to national and local experts – on both sides of different devolution debates - to aid them in reaching their own conclusions on how South Yorkshire should be governed. Encouragingly, the project has been closely followed by Sheffield City Council, as well as politicians up and down the UK.
- For the Yorkshire & Humber area to form the basis for regional devolution
- For a directly elected regional assembly
- For stronger powers for the area to include some tax-setting and law-making powers, so there is real power for Yorkshire over issues such as transport infrastructure, economic development and education
- If asked to vote today, to reject the devolution deal currently on offer for the Sheffield City Region, but to press local politicians to push for a better deal (stronger, more ambitious, more democratic and based on proper consultation) rather than walk away.
The project, entitled Democracy Matters, has been organised by the University of Sheffield, University of Southampton, University College London and University of Westminster, in conjunction with the Electoral Reform Society, and has been funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Sheffield is one of two pilot areas taking part in the experiment – Southampton also has its own Assembly. Citizens in this parallel Assembly for the Hampshire area will gather to reach their final conclusions this weekend.
Why the Citizens’ Assemblies matter
The two Assemblies come in response to the sweeping constitutional changes currently facing the UK. In 2012, two out of three voters in Sheffield rejected the option of a directly elected mayor for the city, while in 2015, the City Region Combined Authority committed itself to public consultation on any new governance model.
The message from the Assemblies so far is clear: as the Government seeks to devolve powers towards local areas, they need to include citizens and not simply deliver their chosen solutions from above. The Democracy Matters project has given local people the chance to come to the fore and shape the devolution agenda. Politicians should sit up and take note.
At the same time, the Assemblies have been an exciting demonstration of the fact that people are more than capable of grappling with complex constitutional questions. By creating the space for citizens to inform themselves about the issues and debate with each other, the project has shown the potential for a new kind of democratic politics.
At its heart, the project challenges the myth that people are disengaged from politics. When they are given the chance to assess and meaningfully discuss local issues, they jump at it.