You are on page 1of 2

P A R T I C I P A T O R Y

B U D G E T S

A sea change for
An experiment getting underway in St Helens this week aims to give local people more control over how taxpayers’ money is spent in their area. Ciara Leeming reports on participatory budgeting, which started in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre
Communities will be empowered to push for a greater say in how taxpayers’ cash is spent in a campaign that kicks off this week. Over the coming months, a series of workshops will take place in towns across the country, aimed at helping locals win more involvement in setting the funding agenda in their areas. The first event takes place in St Helens on 29 September. The People’s Budget campaign, co-ordinated by the charity Church Action on Poverty, is designed to increase the use of participatory budgeting – a movement that emerged in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre more than 20 years ago. The approach sees public bodies set aside sums of money and residents invited to vote on where it should be spent. A number of schemes have been set up in the UK since the then Labour government launched a national participatory budgeting strategy in 2006, but this new campaign aims to bring its use into the political mainstream. In Porto Alegre, residents helped allocate 18 per cent of city budgets but Church Action on Poverty’s Participatory Budgeting Unit (PBU)
12 THE BIG ISSUE IN THE NORTH · 26 SEPTEMBER - 2 OCTOBER 2011

has more modest aims: a goal of controlling 1 per cent of council funds is deemed a manageable place to start. Campaign co-ordinator Alan Thornton says: “Billions of pounds of our money is “Participatory being used by public bodies budgeting is without any democratic involvement of and increases local people but, now more than transparency ever when and trust in massive cuts are public being made, ordinary people bodies.” should have a say in deciding how taxpayers’ money is being spent. “A few councils and public bodies have been excellent at giving residents a say but there are still massive deserts where ordinary people have little or no voice. We believe participatory budgeting is democratic, increases transparency and trust in public bodies and draws people together. “In Brazil it was found to have quite a transformative effect on dealing with poverty and the gap

between rich and poor was narrowed. We think more communities in this country should push for this.” More than 150 communities have experienced participatory budgeting in Britain, helping to channel funds from organisations such as parish councils, housing associations and police authorities into their preferred projects. To be most effective the approach must work on a rolling basis, giving local people the chance to evaluate how the money was used when they decide the next budget. Notable examples include London’s Tower Hamlets borough, where over £2.4 million a year was spent in 2009 and 2010, including £150,000 decided by young people

THE BRAZILIAN EXPERIENCE
Participatory budgeting came from the grassroots. In 1980 – when Brazil was still living under a military dictatorship – community organisations in the city of Porto Alegre came together to demand popular involvement in local budgeting. It took another decade and a Workers Party election win to get the programme properly up and running. In 1990 fewer than than 1,000 people were participating but by 2003 26,000 residents were voting on almost a fifth of municipal budgets. World Bank research suggests the resulting direct improvements include sewer and water connections being extended to 98 per cent of households by 1997 and a quadrupling in school numbers since 1986.

H O M E L E S S N E S S

democracy?
The Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, where participatory budgeting began. Photo: Ricardo André Frantz

through their school councils. In the north, residents of Eastfield in Scarborough recently took part in their third participatory budget, allocating £18,000 to local community projects. Experiments have also taken place in Merseyside, Greater Manchester and Cheshire, often with the support of the PBU. Although it cannot overcome wider issues such as employment, participatory budgeting at its best can lead to improvements in the accessibility and quality of services and public “Deprived welfare amenities. communities Sheffield East should not be MP Clive Betts, invisible in the chair of the parliamentary decisions of committee on how public communities money is and local government, is a spent.” supporter. Writing in the Yorkshire Post in June, he said: “Elections and referendums should not be the only way for residents to have their say, and councils themselves have to put more effort into the ways they listen and respond to the public. “Some local authorities already have ways of asking their residents to make decisions about how resources are allocated in their neighbourhood, such as community councils with small budgets attached, or participatory budgeting events. These ideas are along the right lines but not

nearly ambitious or widespread enough.” This week in St Helens, and in the nine subsequent workshops, community groups will be taught about participatory budgeting and encouraged to lobby for change. Thornton believes groups will be more difficult for public bodies to ignore than individual residents. He says: “The government is making much of its localism and big society agendas and we are arguing that they should therefore give us a

meaningful say in how our taxes are spent. “A vote every few years isn’t enough – a healthy democracy should be much more participatory – but this means more than consultation exercises. “Marginalised and deprived communities should not be forgotten or invisible in the decisions of how public money is spent. If we are to have genuine localism, we need local people to have a voice in decisions such as these.”

‘PARTICIPATORY BUDGETING IS A GREAT LEVELLER’
Children as young as eight have been given a say in how funds are spent in Eastfield. The area’s pilot project took place in 2009, when the police authority, North Yorkshire County Council and Scarborough Borough Council made £32,000 available for projects addressing crime and community safety issues. Since then the money has dropped to £10,000 in 2010 and £18,000 this year, but local enthusiasm persists. Beneficiaries include a pensioners luncheon club and youth initiatives. A number of residents sit on the participatory budgeting steering group, alongside councillors and police figures. The panel sets the date of the public meeting and sends out notices to local households. Votes are counted in front of the audience, ensuring the process is completely transparent. Steering group chair Chris Parsons says: “It works well here and we would like to see more of it. Early on, some officials tried to direct how the scheme would work here but we knew participatory budgeting should come from the ground up. Residents stood their ground and we came to a good understanding of how things should work in Eastfield. “We have found that participatory budgeting is a great leveller. We’ve noticed that local groups seem to win more votes for funding than projects run by bigger organisations. Some projects have been funded year on year so they are delivering. I think people like it because they can see democracy being done, and we get involvement from across the estate. “To start with some of the councillors were a bit worried that participatory budgeting would take their power away but actually they have become more empowered because they are doing what local people want.”

26 SEPTEMBER - 2 OCTOBER 2011 · THE BIG ISSUE IN THE NORTH

13