By-election frenzy shouldn’t be the only time citizens are engaged

As I write this I’m working from Selby. Selby is my hometown; my mum still lives here. I’m writing this on by-election day, and, as you may have heard, Selby is ground zero for political action. Whilst it would seem that every Labour and Conservative MP and councillor have visited over the past few weeks to persuade Selby-folk that their candidate is the person for the job, I want to consider how to ensure citizens’ voices are heard outside of this frenzy of election activity.

I’ve been mulling over this sudden celebrity status of Selby, a town that most haven’t heard of and couldn’t point to on a map. The town pootles along and little has changed since I lived here as a teenager. What I’ve noticed is everyone is both keen to know what Selby-folk think they need, think they want, think will benefit their lives and their town. A journalist stopped us last week to ask us. Selby is constantly on the news and my mum has an abundance of leaflets and letters telling her what the new candidates will do, if elected.

What this frenzy of activity highlights to me is the lack of it outside of election periods. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog about Selby, exploring how it has struggled with the decline of many of its traditional industries and how it could take a lead from places like Camden to start working closely with its citizens to engage in their wants and needs and to activate this energy.

Now, Selby sits at a unique moment. With the newly formed North Yorkshire devolved administration and a soon-to-be elected new MP, these new power holders could change how they engage with citizens. A recurring statement from people in Selby when they’ve been asked about this election has been: they’re all the same; this ennui isn’t unique to this town and won’t go away with more election campaigning.

For citizens to feel better about our elected officials they must start engaging with us in a different way. In Jon Alexander’s excellent book, Citizens, he talks about the difference it can make when elected officials start to engage with citizens of a place, not as consumers of services, but as citizens with ideas, agency and a say in how things can and should be done.

Some may say this already happens, but it often feels now that the relationship of customer and service provider has led to citizens disengaging. This is compounded by common ways of engaging that often squash reasonable debate: those who shout loudly or have particular areas of focus are heard and those who look for more evidence, information and reasoned conversation miss out. Traditional methods of consultation are arduous for me. Extensive documents with binary question and answer sections don’t give citizens the opportunity to ask questions, request more evidence or develop nuanced responses. And that doesn’t even take into account the amount of time you would have to give over to fill in every consultation document local and national government produce every week. Groups of citizens like We’re Right Here are campaigning for a Community Power act which would push for not only greater engagement, but giving citizens greater control over what happens in their local place.

You may think this is pie in the sky thinking, but it is quietly happening around the world – so why not in Selby? All it needs is some political will and bravery. Imagine if that happened, if Selby became the starting point for a snowball of change across the North; with elected officials, citizens and other stakeholders working together to make things better for that place. With citizens fully engaged and as active partners, imagine the difference it would make to a place.

I don’t live in Selby anymore, and don’t know if this change will happen, but I hope it does – and i’d challenge elected officials to explain why it shouldn’t. It would be amazing if Selby was on the map for leading the way in how things are done in the North.

So I’ll leave you with something amazing that used to happen in Selby: epic ship launches, as I remember from my childhood. 

Ruth Hannan is Director of People’s Powerhouse, a community interest company which works to enable the people of the North to have a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

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