three women at a table in the street

Closing the democracy gap in Wales, bottom up and top down

Much is made of the democracy gap, which means the failure of government to deliver what the public really wants. It can be read either as the reluctance of apathetic citizens to engage with the political process – at a minimum, by voting – or as a story of political elites which are increasingly detached from society, cynically exploiting popular sentiment for their election but not troubling themselves with the details. Or a bit of both, of course.

At the closing celebration in September of Renew Wales, a project that for ten years provided action planning and peer mentoring for community groups to respond to climate change, the democracy gap was a leading topic of discussion. Councillors and activists alike reflected on the difficulty of driving the change they wanted to see at local level, and identified several causes – bureaucratic inertia, the political climate set by London and Cardiff, and public apathy among them.

Set against that, we have the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which does provide a model of how government, business and civil society can work together, even if change is slow to materialize. And several people shared their experiences with People’s Assemblies, which have been springing up around Wales in recent years and which give ordinary people a chance to air their concerns.

People’s assemblies

An online event in Aberystwyth this year, for instance, brought together 40 or so people to discuss food in the area. It was a self-selected group, mainly community food activists and a few farmers, and hardly representative of the town and its hinterland, given that the supermarkets and cafes were not there. Nevertheless, there was enough difference of opinion to make it lively and instructive. A strong contingent spoke up for local food: short supply chains, buying food from people you know, growing more vegetables around the town and so forth. But this cosy consensus was challenged by some of the farmers.

“We need to question what we mean by local food,” said one (in Welsh). “Most people in the UK live in urban areas, they can’t grow their own food and they don’t have access to land or free time to do it. Is it right for us, in a nice rural area, to define local as Ceredigion or mid Wales?” From his point of view, urban Wales, England and the EU are the traditional markets, and also the responsibility, of Ceredigion farmers. It didn’t make sense to throw away a finely honed farming system in favour of much less reliable horticulture and arable crops, simply to satisfy the notions of idealists.

Is he right? That isn’t the point here. What matters is that people get to share their perspectives in an atmosphere of active listening, where the principle is that we want to hear from everybody, not to win arguments. This allows complexity to emerge and builds trust. For the local food contingent, it was an opportunity to sharpen up their ideas – what support might they be able to give farmers to diversify, if that’s what they really want? Meanwhile the farmers were, I think, gratified by the interest that people showed in food production, and glad of the opportunity to explain what they do and why.

Culture change

Change is also coming from the top. The Well-being of Future Generations Act makes it mandatory for public bodies to consult and collaborate with the public, and the Welsh Government has accordingly developed a programme of cultural change which aims among other things to level power differentials and encourage creativity, concentrating particularly on how meetings are conducted. Silent pauses for reflection, talking in rounds so that everyone gets heard, and even meeting outdoors are all encouraged. Although the Act is only binding on public sector staff, any civil society group wanting to change its working methods is invited to join in, for instance joining a ‘community of practice’ or simply trying out tips for better meetings.

Clearly we need a wave of change across Wales if we are to realize the potential of the Future Generations Act, and the recent proliferation of People’s Assemblies is an encouraging sign. Around the same time as the Aberystwyth event, Swansea held a similar one to develop a plan for its Bwyd Abertawe initiative, now funded by the Sustainable Food Places project. Later, an in-person People’s Assembly in Denbigh in June gave a boost to an emerging food partnership which was still buzzing at last month’s Denbigh Plum Festival.

All of these Assemblies drew on a growing pool of trained facilitators and a method of working which began in the Extinction Rebellion movement and then flourished on Zoom during lockdown. They also drew on the networking capacity developed by Renew Wales with its Food from the Ground Up events, the government’s culture change programme, and others.

Now, Vicky Moller of Grwp Resilience and Dawn Lyle of 4theRegion are creating a new organization to support deliberative and participatory democracy in Wales, training facilitators and sharing best practice. As Dawn says, “If we want the Welsh Government, and other public bodies, to involve more people in decision making and embrace the principles of participatory, deliberative democracy, then we urgently need to develop the resources and the expertise to do it well, here in Wales.”

Co-design and co-production

Farmers at a Tir Canol co-design meeting

There are many other strands to this citizen movement. In Gwynedd, the Lottery-funded Gwyrdd Ni project has been pioneering community assemblies to develop a shared approach to climate change. In mid Wales, the former Summit to Sea project – now Tir Canol – used a co-design approach over two years, running workshops and consultations with farmers, environmental groups and rural businesses in order to produce a ‘blueprint‘ for the area. It has now severed its ties with the original funder and partners are using the blueprint to seek funding for a range of projects to restore both human and natural wealth.

Another example of co-design comes from the Valleys, where the people of Treherbert came together to make a plan for the woodland around their town, documented in this film. Inspiration also comes from the Co-Production network which promotes citizen involvement with public services, and will be part of the as yet unnamed project that picks up the work of Renew Wales next year.

It’s easy to spot the weaknesses in government, whether at UK, Wales or local level. That presents us with a choice: we can give up and retreat into our private worlds, or we can seize the opportunity to create something new. In Wales, the government is inviting us, however imperfectly, to step up and join in. Let us all ask what we can do for our communities, and get involved.

The Well-being Economy Alliance Cymru (WEAll Cymru) is organizing a Zoom discussion on Revitalising Democracy on Thursday 10 November at 7pm. The Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November in Lampeter will feature many examples of citizen action, including a session organized by Sustainable Food Knighton who are planning a march to the Senedd next year.

Both images courtesy of Tir Canol

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.