The Green Party will be putting forward a proposal in Tuesday’s full council to reboot our democracy by introducing citizens assemblies in Bristol. We want to make sure voices from all of Bristol are heard in the big decisions we have to make.
Citizens assemblies are groups of local citizens who are selected to represent people from across Bristol and paid to attend meetings in order to discuss big issues facing the city.
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Many big decisions (like the location of the arena, the Western Harbour development and tackling climate change) are complicated and will have a big impact on all of our lives and particularly on local communities. We think people deserve to contribute to these decisions in meaningful ways.The council currently consults people on issues with online surveys and community meetings, but the design of these surveys means people can’t make their real views heard.
Furthermore, those with the loudest voices, for example campaign groups and developers, get heard while the quieter voices and experiences of local people, who are actually going to be affected by a particular decision, get drowned out.
As a result, poor decisions, that don’t work for local people, are often made. The decision to move the arena development from Temple Island to Filton, affects the entire city but the only person to have a say was the mayor, Marvin Rees.
Citizens assemblies work by selecting a cross-section of people who are representative of the whole city. A typical assembly would include adults of all ages, from all parts of the city with different types of jobs and life experiences and different cultural, ethnic and social backgrounds. Over a few days, often at weekends, they are paid to discuss a specific issues.
They listen to a range of views and expert opinions, ask questions and discuss the issue or plan in question. There are facilitators who make sure all voices are heard, and meetings are live streamed so anyone can watch.
Finally, the group are asked to vote on the matter and the result is shared with the council. Although, the ultimate decision on whether to go with the citizens decision or not rests with councillors and the mayor often politicians will normally agree to see the decision put into action.
Citizens assemblies have proven to be effective elsewhere, most notably in Ireland where a citizens assembly agreed that abortion should be legalised. This informed how people voted in the referendum on the subject.
This ‘radical’ change of direction in a deeply catholic country, demonstrates the effectiveness of citizens’ assemblies: the people of Ireland were able to agree on such an emotive subject, in a way brought the community together rather than tearing it apart.
After the bitterness and anger of the Brexit debate and the disappointments in Bristol of decisions on the arena, the Clean Air Zone and Western Harbourside it is time for a different kind of discussion in our City.
The Green Party are proposing “deliberative democracy” is used to agree major issues in future, and will be supporting citizens assemblies in our manifesto for the elections in May.
Sandy Hore-Ruthven is the Green Bristol mayoral candidate.
Main photo by Ellie Pipe