When I started writing this blog I said that my aim was to try and find out more about how local democracy works and how I, as a concerned citizen could get more involved. So far I've been less than successful and it is difficult not to be put off by the empty rhetoric of participation that I have heard and read about in the past five weeks. I don't know why this has come as such a surprise to me. There is, after all, something philosophically incoherent about an approach to planning and implementation that makes a claim for legitimacy based upon grassroots support and participation, but which has been designed and imposed from the top down. The suspicion is that Suffolk County Council's New Strategic Direction is simply a strategy for implementing unpopular or overly risky social policies, against a background of stringent cutbacks while dressing them up as the people's choice.
Moreover, at some point the council will have to make some move towards 'engagement' with the public no matter how piecemeal this may turn out to be. However, the terms of this engagement, the methods used, the people chosen to be included, the options presented, the manner in which the information is collected, analysed and (re)presented for public and media scrutiny will all take place within the upper eschelons of the County Council. This is not local participation. It is not a grassroots movement or a bottom up approach to planning. It is top down planning with an insidious agenda to put the blame for cutbacks and reduced services somewhere else.
Why? Because by identifying Cameron's Big Society as the theoretical basis of the New Strategic Direction, the citizens of Suffolk are, de facto, implicitly linked to the processes through which jobs will be lost, services cut and the apparatus for the deliveryof public services dismantled. Thus as 'good citizens' we may seek to preserve our cultural heritage, for example the libraries and record office, by volunteering our time, by doing for free what was previously the means by which people earned a living. Or we may decide that we will not be used in this way and rather than becoming more engaged actually withdraw our support for Civil Society initiatives. As such the execution of the NSD may signal a diminution of citizenship, a hightened suspicion of the political sphere and of those who occupy public office. To take another example, imagine, hypothetically, that I am asked to engage in the debate about the future of Suffolk's Council run care homes. Presented with a limited range of options about the future of care homes I can a) make a choice from the limited range on offer or b) choose not to take part as a means of protest. Either way, my preference, that the homes remain in Council ownership is not presented to me as an option. Inactivity, has always been as much a political statement as activity. This approach makes the politicised nature of inactivity tangible and hence it may needle people into getting involved- but then again it may not. And even if legions of people step forward to participate then the problem remains that the agenda has been set and the terms of engagement demarcated at a different level. It is not true participation- it is participation lite (not the real thing).
Or put another way, when I was little girl my grandmother went on holiday to Blackpool and when I visited her after her holiday she offered mt the choice of two presents- a jigsaw with a monkey on it or a snow storm of Blackpool Tower. I looked at the monkey jigsaw and the snow storm and then I looked at the Diddy-Man that she had bought for herself after seeing Ken Dod in a variety show and I knew what I wanted. It wasn't a monkey jigsaw or a Blackpool Tower snowstorm. It was a Diddy-Man. I was very young. I hadn't yet learn the rule about being grateful for what you are offered. My embarassed mother tried to convince me of the relative merits of the monkey jigsaw and the Blackpool Tower snow storm. But I went home clutching my grandmother's Diddy-Man. I can remember the feeling very clearly of not wanting what I had been offered but of wanting something different. I suspect it is a feeling that I will be getting used to in the coming months where the choices that we are offered are not really choices at all. These strategies may work for a little while but people aren't stupid and a monkey jigsaw isn't a Diddy-man- no matter how it is dressed up.
So, Anyone For Tea? That will have to wait for next time.