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The Effectiveness of Public Participation in Urban Policy Making Essay

New Labour came to power in 1997 proceeded to re-establish the power of town planning and adopt a more socially and environmentally aware programme of urban policy. Progress was slow at first, apart from the creation of the D. E. T. R. (Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions), and the publication of a series of consultative documents on the importance of urban renewal, socially inclusive policies, joined up thinking and community development.

This re-orientation is reflected within the shift in academia towards the importance of the micro level of society i. e. towards the individual, the local community and social interaction. In other words community involvement and public participation have been promoted to the forefront as a means to create urban policy. Local government continues to push forward the agenda on public participation.

Authorities clearly recognise the benefits of engaging the public and are increasingly trying to involve people in local decisions and developing service delivery. So what is public participation, how is it defined in its literal sense and within the context of the question, what forms does it take, and why? The D. P. L. G. of South Africa (Department of Provincial and Local Government) defines public participation as a principle and approach that includes members of the public in the making of decisions and choices that concern them.

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The organisation known as M. A. P. P. (Mobilization for Action through Planning and Partnerships) tells us that public participation is the involvement of citizens in governmental decision-making processes. Participation ranges from being given notice of public hearings to being actively included in decisions that affect communities.

Perhaps the most wide, abrupt and idealistic meaning of public participation was provided by the Californian organisation going by the name of H. O. P. E. Helping Our Peninsula’s Environment), they said public participation is the opposite of a tyranny, where the public interest realises the right to a fair process and the right to a fair decision. Within the context of the question I see public participation as a term often regarded as interchangeable with the term Community Involvement and is most often used in policy to mean the involvement of people from a given locality or a given section of the local population in public decision making.

There are a variety of legal requirements for local authorities to consult with the public, most of which are the responsibility of individual service areas. In a survey and paper conducted and written by Demelza Birch, for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, titled ‘Public Participation in Local Government’, different forms of public participation are divided into four main categories such as Traditional forms like public meetings, consultation documents, co-option to committees and question and answer sessions that have been used by local authorities for some time.

Customer-Oriented forms of participation include service satisfaction surveys, complaints/suggestions schemes, mostly used in relation to service delivery. Innovative methods are interactive websites, citizens’ panels, focus groups and referendums; they tend to represent the newer research techniques. Finally, innovative approaches which encourage citizens to Deliberate over issues such as citizens’ juries, community plans/needs analysis, visioning exercises and issue forums.

The reason that there are so many types or methods of participation being used today is due to the very nature of public participation, in that different communities are bound to establish different solutions for their specific issues, instead of a centralised policy network that provides everyone with the same answer to differing scenarios. Methods of participation can and have changed with advances in technology, the methods chosen for implementation in a given situation is dependent upon so many factors, some unfortunately are immeasurable.

Some methods may involve costs that are too high for some communities, that is why referendums are so rare, they simply cost too much to conduct and they are not always a suitable, instead they are reserved for when a local authority needs the public’s view on a key issue or decision. Before an effective method of participation can be chosen, it must first be determined whether the community concerned has the capacity to participate together i. e. are members of the community already acquainted, if not are they willing to work together and overcome any preconceptions, stereotypes and prejudices they may have.

In high crime areas it may be hard for people to trust one another, or there may be a general lack of motivation to participate, possibly as a result of a collective feeling of hopelessness and futility. Poor education in an area is likely to lead to a lack of interest, expertise or social skills required for someone to publicly participate. For public participation to be truly effective it should include and involve the whole population of a given area, but since this is rarely possible the participating group must be at the very least a representative collective.

The Home Office Active Citizenship Survey shows that there is less volunteering and less dense communities in deprived areas in comparison to well off areas, public participation and involvement is not a characteristic of disadvantage but another social good that the disadvantaged areas lack. In affluent areas it may prove difficult to find a good mix of people, the working classes, if politically motivated in an area of concern, may constitute a majority and then be able to tailor the future of urban policy in that area, for their benefit.

It is also possible that the middle and upper classes could turn the process of urban policy making into an old boys club, creating policies for their convenience and monetary gain. Therefore, urban policy making must be co-operative in order to be effective. The Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) is a government scheme that supports activities, which aims to make a real and sustainable difference in deprived areas. The SRB is a flexible programme, and supports schemes with a mix of objectives, including employment prospects, education and skills, sustainable regeneration and support/promote local economies and businesses.

Its aim is to enhance the quality of life of local people in areas of need by reducing the gap between deprived and other areas, and between different groups. Out of 373 SRB schemes only eight were led by community groups and 14 by voluntary sector organisations, however in comparison to other methods of leadership such as local authority or private sector, they display lower than average expenditure and are of a shorter duration. Over a third of these schemes where in London, probably due to the more developed capacity of community groups in certain areas, as discussed earlier.

Also it is difficult to establish community groups as equal stakeholders next to the local authorities and the private sector. Most of the time it is the Local authorities that are held accountable for the overall development and delivery of schemes or urban policy. This scenario is no good for encouraging public participation, the local authorities will not delegate to community groups if they are held accountable for the outcomes, they will not be inclined to risk their jobs.

Public participation was much lower than expected soon after its introduction, but momentum began to gather and now the SRB scheme is becoming more and more participative. This seems to be the general way of things for public participative schemes of the past and present, people are dismissive of the real influence of these groups but once the ball starts rolling the people keeping an eye on developments eventually no longer want to be the outsider looking in.

One SRB scheme is the Hangleton and Knoll Partnership, a good example of intensive public participation in which the community plays a significant role in the regeneration and policy making process. Financial management is delegated to the local authority and plays a secondary supporting role to the community bodies that work in partnership with other bodies experienced in economic, environmental and social policy and regeneration. In order to answer whether or not public participation is effective in urban policy making I feel that it is necessary to establish what the word effective means within the context of the question.

For instance is public participation considered effective if it has been successful in creating ‘good’ urban policy, or is the effectiveness of public participation determined by positive outcomes of the executed policy? In other words is public participation a success if it effectively churns out urban policy, or is it only effective if the results of that policy are of a positive impact, and who is the judge in deciding what has been positive, the public participants, the local authority or the government?

Is a group disciplined in any way if mistakes are made, and if so how and by whom? If public participants make a hash of things, is their involvement in policy making taken out of their hands and given back to the government or do they get to rectify the circumstances they created? If public participation is successful in certain areas of policy making, such as urban policy, should it then be extended to other areas of policy making?

Where is the step too far, if there is one? If it should happen that we discover in the long term that the majority or a large minority of policy conceived from public participation has been unsuccessful in achieving its agenda, do we then scrap public participation allow minimal input from the people? Thankfully this is an unlikely scenario as we can see that the more participation increases the better results we see, economically, socially and eventually environmentally.

But we can also see from cases such as the SRB that local authorities are not very good at promoting public participation which is vital for it to be viewed as effective. Out of ten case studies carried out on SRB schemes, only one case displayed high and effective community involvement, four showed some and the other five were token community involvement only, clearly unacceptable for a scheme that’s meant to encourage public participation.

Public participation doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it needs in order to become effective, public participation is a requirement of nearly every policy concerned with local governance, but it is more often than not outlined in a vague or ambiguous fashion, and therefore lacking in clear focus and direction. For public participation to become more predominant and visible in urban policy it would be necessary to have distinct components dedicated to it, and measures for its effectiveness.

One of the most important factors for the future of urban sustainability will be more functional local and regional democracy, which should be the cause of other positive changes. There is no one way in which to ensure this but a collective of policies with the purpose of opening up local political processes, protecting them from the evils of money and manipulative person’s individual interests, aiming to produce an educated and informed electorate can definitely help.

Public participation in local planning and policy making is imperative. Officials at local, state and national levels of government must show us that it is possible to make decisions with global, regional and local sustainability in mind. Most cases show that the effectiveness of public participation grows with time as communities become more accustomed to each other and the new systems in place.

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