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Now is the time to trust citizens on budgets

On 9th November, the Participatory Budgeting Unit ran a very successful national conference on participatory budgeting – 10 Years On: Participatory Budgeting and the Big Society. Plenary speakers included Paul Twivy, CEO of the Big Society Network, Lord Shipley, former leader of Newcastle City Council and Sergio Baierle, from Porto Alegre in Brazil, the city that created PB.

Now is the time to trust citizens on budgets

Across the room at the conference

Over 120 delegates turned up to the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster to hear a mix of plenary speakers and panels discuss how PB can be developed in the current economic climate.  Panels focused on PB work ‘on the ground’ and included local government officers, citizens and community sector organisations. 

 Ed Cox, Director of IPPR North who chaired the conference said:

“It was a timely and important conference.  The mix of experiences of PB in the UK and high profile speakers brought home not only the practical significance of PB but also how well it fits within current government thinking.  Sergio Baierle, in particular, had such a wealth of knowledge and experience.  It was great catching up with him, 10 years on from when I first went to Porto Alegre to find out about PB and bring it back to the UK.”

Sergio Baierle, in particular, was a speaker delegates were keen to hear from.  Having been involved in PB from the start in Brazil, he spoke about how PB was developed at a time of financial austerity and severe lack of services in Brazil, following the reinstatement of democracy.  And now the issue is that, as more wealth is created, PB is struggling to find its place as there is more money to go round.  Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of how PB developed in the UK.  It started at a time of plenty, with community grants pot approaches emerging with ‘additional’ or external funding.  Practitioners are now challenged to move PB from the additional funds that no longer exist, to core service budgets and resources and discussions about all the budgets within a neighbourhood.

“a most enjoyable and useful conference”  Charlie Fisher, Community Foundation for Northern Ireland

One very striking theme which emerged from the conference was how much the debate around PB has moved on, even from the last national PB conference in September 2008.  In 2008, PB was still fairly unheard of, and the focus of the conference was raising awareness and explaining PB.  This conference developed a much more mature discussion about how PB fits in the current economic and political context. 

“Congratulations on a superb event last week. It struck all the right notes with all the right people.” Leslie Silverlock, PBU Associate

There is no need to explain what PB is anymore, it is now widely used and accepted.  There are over 120 PB projects in England alone, with more in Scotland and Wales.  Hearing from the second panel of PB practitioners, which focused on innovations and PB developments, it’s clear that there is much discussion and thought about how to use PB with mainstream resources, how to involve partners, and how to have a meaningful discussion with citizens about the difficult decisions faced by the public sector.  There was a general feeling in the room that now, more than ever, is the time for citizens to be involved in decisions which affect them and PB is a perfect tool to enable that at the local level.

As Richard Watkins, a civil servant at the Department for Communities and Local Government said:

“It was interesting to see the difference between the previous PB Unit conference in Manchester in 2008…with this PB event...[It] seemed to be more a mature conversation about where do we go from here in the current political and economic climate”

Lord Shipley said, in his presentation, councillors are excited about PB because through it they are having more mature discussions with citizens, with greater mutual respect and trust.  They meet more people from their communities beyond surgeries, and have a more visible and active role as leaders in their communities.  And part of that is devolving the decisions on budgets to citizens, because it fosters trust on both sides.

On a final note, Nicola Kneale, a steering group member from Ruthin in North Wales said:

"I thought it was really well produced and well-planned: starting with the softer 'good news' and practical stories such as the Cae Ddol project I was involved in, and moved on really well to the deeper issues such as mainstreaming PB and a quite fundamental ideological debate near the end! I found it very useful and it gave me much food for thought.”

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