09 December 2009

Voicing their choice

A pilot project in Cambridgeshire is putting community groups firmly in the driving seat when it comes to deciding who gets tens of thousands of pounds in funding, says Steve Vartoukian

Cambridgeshire CC’s ‘Voice your choice’ project gives local people the power to decide for themselves how to spend local authority cash – and has, so far, given 58 groups a share of £125,000.
The partnership project does away with the normal, dusty decision-making process which goes on in council chambers and policy groups in authorities across the country.
Instead, community groups ranging from allotment enthusiasts to youth theatre groups danced, sang and argued their case in front of the community, which then decided on a fair distribution of the money. Video and poetry were used by groups to get their point across.
Although ‘participatory budgeting’ is a very local government term, in practice, the Cambridgeshire experiences are of events which are full of community spirit, delivering tangible results.
Using TV’s Who wants to be a millionaire-type voting technology, local people decided who got what funding.
Groups not only received funding, ranging from £250 and £7,500, but were given coaching on presenting skills which they could use in future and in other public settings.
Many also made contact with other local groups, even to the extent that at the ‘decision days’, groups gave back some of their money so that others who hadn’t been successful could also benefit.
Although we are not the first local authority to do participatory budgeting, this was the first time we had ever done anything like this, and in a context where two councils and a housing association committed to funding and delivering the projects in partnership. 
And the process has worked well. The two pilots have been very well attended and the levels of enthusiasm during and since, particularly from councillors, has been inspiring.
Groups needed to be based in or clearly serving the area, and demonstrate how they would spend the money to benefit community priorities, tackling issues such as employment, education, skills and training, reducing crime and anti-social behaviour, improving transport and mobility, enhancing the environment, and community empowerment.
Two wards – Huntingdon North and Eynesbury – were chosen in the Huntingdonshire district of Cambridgeshire.
These were picked because they were among areas in the county which were more disadvantaged, and where feelings of involvement in decision-making were the lowest.  Residents’ working groups led the local processes.
Taking a targeted approach enabled the project to meet multiple objectives which go beyond the events themselves, enabling us to build community involvement and civic participation in these less-engaged and more pressured communities.
The pilot schemes were delivered by the county council, Huntingdonshire DC, and housing association Luminus Group, with Eynesbury Neighbourhood Management Advisory Group (ENMAG).
Huntingdon North neighbourhood manager, Diane Lane, was pleased with the responses at the event. She said: ‘It was a real success. A total of 94% of participants thought it gave them more influence over decisions in their area, and 88% thought we should do it again in the future.’
Cambridgeshire CC member Laine Kadic, representing Huntingdon, said: ‘There was an impressive turnout, and the groups showed real community spirit, making sure everyone walked away with something. It was great day for community politics.’
The successful projects included breakfast clubs, a community newsletter, outdoor gym equipment at the youth centre, a multi-use games area, street sports project, recruiting and training volunteers to work with young parents, a ‘Unity in the community’ cultural festival to bring different nationalities together, a new netball club run by parents, judo classes for victims of bullying, a boat for sea cadets, and a toy library for children with special needs. 
Huntingdonshire DC councillor, Andrew Hansard, himself a resident of Eynesbury, added: ‘All local authorities and housing organisations are looking for ways to better engage local residents in identifying local priorities.
‘Participatory budgeting is one way to involve local people and see if it is an approach we should adopt in future.
‘Residents played a major role in deciding local priorities. And I hope we can continue this next year, and introduce it out to other areas of the district.
The day was a success and the organisers should be thanked for the superb job they all did.’
Luminus Group chief executive, Chan Abraham, added: ‘We are unambiguous in our commitment to support local communities, and our leadership of the Eynesbury pilot is an important example of this.
‘We are delighted with the response from the local community and look forward to some excellent outcomes in this area.’
A video of the first pilot event in Huntingdon North  ‘Voice your choice – Huntingdon North ward cashes in’ can be seen on YouTube at
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3_tvb-V2wm4
Steve Vartoukian is head of community development for Cambridgeshire CC
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