Mini-citizens’ assemblies where residents are chosen randomly like jury service and paid to make decisions on Bristol’s biggest issues could be introduced if Green councillors have their way.
Paula O’Rourke, a Green councillor for Clifton, has submitted a motion to next week’s full council calling on the city to adopt “deliberative democracy” where experts present evidence on complex topics to a cross-section of society who then decide what should happen.
She says it would transform local politics, engage and empower the public by handing them responsibility on major debates, such as Western Harbour, Temple Island and how to make Bristol carbon neutral by 2030, and that the city would be “run much better”.
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The Labour group, which has the majority on the council, says it is keeping an “open mind” on the proposal but attacked the Greens for spurning the chance of using their golden motion to bring their demand to stop Bristol Airport’s expansion back to the council chamber.
It has accused them of “faux outrage” following last month’s debate on the plans for Lulsgate which was cut short before a vote could be taken when it ran out of time.
Each party takes it in turns at full council to have a golden motion, which are guaranteed to be discussed.
Speaking ahead of the meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, January 14, O’Rourke said her “reboot democracy” motion would give the authority’s six area committees devolved budgets to let communities decide on spending priorities.
She said: “In order for a democracy to work, you have to have informed opinion.
“That’s what is wrong with our democracy. In the Brexit referendum, people did not know what they were making a decision about.
“Deliberative democracy has worked so well in places like Ireland.
“You put people with divergent views together – some may have very entrenched views – give them information and let them hear other points of view so they can make much better decisions.
“Bristol’s neighbourhood partnerships, which were replaced by area committees, never really worked because it was the loudest voices who got their demands. It was all about more hanging baskets because the people who wanted them were the only ones turning up.
“There are lots of areas that could really benefit from something a little bit more critical than hanging baskets.”
She said selecting a cross-section of residents like jury service for the decision-making groups and paying them to attend would empower those who currently feel excluded.
“I have called the motion ‘reboot democracy’ because people, both nationally and locally, are jaded by having top-down politicians telling us what they will do and there is no sense of being included, educated or understood,” O’Rourke said.
“People who attend these events are given a stipend because it is often the poorest and most disadvantaged who are not heard as they cannot afford the time.
“The administration might say they do consult people but you only have to look at the consultations we’ve had to realise people are presented with only a small number of options and don’t want any of them.
“The missed opportunity with Western Harbour was not involving everyone from the very beginning to decide what was really important.
“If we get people from across the city to say what they actually want, sit them down with all the costings and the different options and get them to spend two days looking at all the plans and potentials, they could make informed decisions and it would be really open democracy.
“We need to take the people with us. The city would be run much better.”
Citizens’ assemblies are not only held in other countries — there is one being set up by UK MPs on the climate crisis. A total of 110 people, from an original 30,000 chosen randomly, will participate over four weekends in Birmingham between this month and March where they will conclude what policies the government should adopt.
A Bristol Labour group spokesperson said: “Labour values local democracy and, as ever, are considering opposition motions with an open mind ahead of full council.
“Despite their faux outrage last month, the Green Party have now passed up their golden opportunity to discuss airport expansion at Lulsgate before North Somerset Council makes their decision.
“Meanwhile, they continue to encourage Bristolians to fly from Heathrow – which Caroline Lucas describes as the UK’s single largest source of carbon emissions – making a third runway there more, not less, likely.
“It’s clear that recent noise from the Green Party is shallow politics rather than genuine conviction.”
The Greens recently responded to Bristol Labour’s claims over their stance on Heathrow’s third runway, insisting they do not support expansion “at Heathrow or any airport”.
Adam Postans is a local democracy reporter for Bristol