Nottingham Evening Post – 22 September 2007

evening-post

Why New Speakers’ Corner is Word on the Street

In the 1960s grocers, former soldiers and miners would air their views to huddled crowds near the fountains in Old Market Square. Now a group is looking to set up a new ‘Speakers’ Corner’ – the first outside the capital.

“It is democracy in the raw,” said city council chief executive, Michael Frater. “It is what a square in the centre of a city is all about.”

The official definition of a Speakers’ Corner is a designated area for public speaking. It gives the chance for people to say what they really think – providing what is said is legal.

Grenville Green, vice-chairman of Nuthall Residents’ and Tenants’ Association, is already warming up his vocal chords in anticipation of the public speaking forum.

And in the true tradition of street level politics, he does not mince his words.

“It will bring these clowns down from their ivory towers,” he said. “In my experience you can find that people in positions of authority don’t listen to you.

“But this will put them to account. I am all for it.”

A Speakers’ Corner is located in the north-east corner of Hyde Park in London. Nottingham has been chosen as a potential pilot city outside of the capital, with Old Market Square as its probable home. Other pilots will be trialled in a small town and a rural setting.

If it takes off, debates and talks organised or supported by a local steering group could spin off into other parts of Nottingham. The city could also lead the way for other places.

Peter Bradley, director of the Speakers’ Corner Trust, and former MP for The Wrekin in Shropshire, said: “If Nottingham established a Speakers’ Corner, a lot of people would travel from other cities to see how it’s done.

“We chose Nottingham because it is a major city with a wonderfully diverse community. But also it has a special place in Britain’s history, where people fought long and hard for the rights of individuals today.

“The square in particular was a forefront for campaigning, especially in the 19th Century, when working people were campaigning for their rights.”

The concept aims to break away from the current passion for online debate, through message-boards, e-mails and blogs and get back face-to-face debate.

“We have tended to lose touch with our neighbours,” said Mr Bradley.

“The internet has opened up a wonderful range of possibilities for accessing information – but it also keeps us apart.

“What is important is bringing people back in contact with each other.

“That’s the best way to engage discussion – and it’s great fun.”

As well as citizens putting forward their views, events may include debates between politicians and interest groups, academics, faith leader and health workers.

The trust behind the initiative said the key thing is the events are accessible to all and “strictly non-adversarial”.

Research will be undertaken to decide which is the best part of the square to use. Factors such as busy public walkways, safety near the tramlines and practicalities of being on the council house footsteps are yet to be analysed.

Schools will be encouraged to engage with the project and a committee will be set up in the near future to support it.

Louise Third, from Ruddington, a fellow of sponsors the Royal Society of Arts, is backing the campaign.

She said: “It is about democracy and expressing your views.

“I am very interested in seeing what it could achieve.

“Anybody who has something to say could take up position there. And we have got to be good listeners too.”


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