Local Government First – 20 October 2007

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A speakers’ corner in every town and city
could help get people talking to their neighbours
says Peter Bradley

Most agree that our civil society is not working as it should. But though it’s fashionable to blame politicians for the decline of trust and falling voter turn-out, it’s also glib.

It’s true that the political parties have suffered dramatic decreases in membership. But so have the boy scouts and the Women’s Institute. Modern lifestyles, with their emphasis on aspiration, individualism and the internet, have driven a wedge not just between citizens and politicians, but also between neighbours. If we are to re-engage with the political process, we must first reconnect with each other.

That’s what the Speakers’ Corner Trust seeks to do. We want to get people to meet their neighbours and their politicians in a face-to-face exchange of ideas and opinions on anything under the sun – from public services to popular culture – so long as they are talking, learning from each other and rediscovering common ground.

In major cities, speakers’ corner initiatives might include the creation of public spaces as a focus for both citizens’ rights and civic identity. The shape of each initiative would be determined by independent steering committees made up of local people representing the public, private and voluntary sectors as well as a cross-section of the community. They would draw up rolling programmes of events (for example in community centres, schools and places of work or worship), supported by educational programmes.

These could be debates led by politicians or discussions stimulated by academics. They could provide new opportunities for councils to consult on public policy, for faith leaders or scientists to raise ethical issues, or for people simply wishing to explore ideas for their own enlightenment and enjoyment.

The central principle is that they should be accessible to all, strictly non-adversarial and non-partisan, welcome diversity, and seek to enrich and inform opinion.

The Speakers’ Corner Trust project is the product of a highly successful consultation over the last year. Now we’re engaged on our first pilot in Nottingham, a wonderful city with a free-thinking tradition, a richly diverse community and a progressive council which is serious aboutpublic engagement.

Of course it’s important to find new ways to strengthen public influence and confidence in public administration. But the trust’s initiative is also based on the belief that association between citizens enhances not just tolerance of diversity but also understanding of the challenges politicians face in balancing competing public priorities – and, perhaps, a growing recognition that imperfect though our democratic systems may be, for the most part they do work better than we sometimes admit.


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