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People power, and why we should embrace it

People power is on the up, argues Louise Brooke-Smith, and politics and planning should embrace it

Louise Brooke-SmithGiven the unusual, some might say hysterical times we are currently living through, I’m not sure if it’s brave or foolish to even begin to comment on democracy and the rise of people power.

But given the rhetoric that has emerged from the political gatherings in Bournemouth, Brighton and Manchester this autumn and the continuing debate as to the Top Trumps winning hand of legal and political systems, why not add 10 pennies to the mix?

As you read this, Brexit has been delayed yet again and we're heading towards a snap election – our third in four-and-a-but years. 

One of the interesting common threads to emerge in recent weeks has been the view that letting the people speak is vital. It can of course be either a curse or a comfort depending on the question asked and the message received. But whether it has been a case of asking big political questions and then having to deal with the difficult ensuing fallout or whether it has meant bringing in subtle legislative changes or tweaking the planning system, everyone has the ability to share their view through social media.

For planners, the edict in recent years has been one of ‘let the people speak’ and then respond accordingly. With community input, collaborative working, and co-creation, variations on the C- words seem to have no bounds. But perhaps what I am saying is that it’s actually all the L-word. Localism isn’t dead but is seeing a resurgence. This has little to do with Brexit and everything to do with community.

While big governance in the form of an executive agency, a combined authority or enterprise partnership can help to channel funds from whoever holds the purse strings this week, I think there is a far more relevant grassroots movement afoot. I’m not referring to the hit-and-miss success of neighbourhood plans; I am thinking of the community groups coming together with a common local goal or aspiration that isn’t waiting for a big governance system to get its act together or needing to get a pretty plan published. Groups that are not dependent on funding streams that might take time to galvanise. Passion and strength of feeling at a local level doesn’t need this.

“For planners, the edict in recent years has been one of ‘let the people speak’”

Take Extinction Rebellion. Few can fail to acknowledge that as a movement it has been effective in getting a common message out. Similarly, the Greta phenomenon has grown from one Swedish schoolgirl’s lone stand outside a government building in Stockholm to a worldwide movement that has captivated students to former US presidents. Why? Because at its heart the message has relevance. It can influence how people choose to live and the dialogue surrounding the movement can be shared easily through social media.

Perhaps that’s the key. Communities will support an initiative when it has direct relevance and can manifest itself in something local like changing what we buy, where we buy it and how we use resources.

So out go single-use plastic stuff, diesel cars and coal-fired power stations and in come zero-waste retailing, vegan cafés, and sustainable wooden cutlery. In this age of instant gratification, people power is seeing speedy results. How many bars now dare serve drinks with plastic straws without risking the wrath of the customer? How many diesel cars are on order? How many supermarkets are experimenting with a ‘bring your own container’ policy? I accept that I’m mainly talking about the middle classes, who have the luxury of choice, but increasingly more challenged and less affluent communities are clearly choosing specific social markets.

So, however the Brexit debacle runs its course, community empowerment and the ability to not only choose a way of life, but also shout about it, should lead our political mothers and fathers as opposed to the other way around. Localism and people power are on the up.   

Dr Louise Brooke-Smith is a development and strategic planning consultant and a built environment non-executive director


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