Taking place in the beautiful venue of Trades Hall in Glasgow city centre, the Poverty Alliance Annual Conference was entitled “Poverty, Participation and Power: Democracy Matters”.
The Poverty Alliance is a membership organisation comprising different groups and organisations, as well as individuals who experience poverty. They are a national anti-poverty network in Scotland, working with voluntary organisations, policy makers and politicians.
The conference began with an introduction from the Chair, Fiona Garven, who explained the ongoing Local Governance Review by Scottish Government and COSLA, focusing on the opportunity for local people to have their say about issues that affect them. The conference theme of Democracy Matters shares a name with the strand of the governance review that is aimed at local communities having conversations about local democracy.
Aileen Campbell MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, spoke first about the local governance review. She emphasised the importance of communities making their own decisions, referencing the Community Empowerment Act 2015, as well as participatory budgeting (PB) as a way of people deciding how public budgets are spent.
The next session covered local democracy in action and there were two different speakers from separate community initiatives. The first was Fatima Uygun, the manager of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust, who told us all about the community campaign in 2001 to protect and restore the local swimming pool in Govanhill in Glasgow. The community came together to campaign and protest against the planned closure, resulting in the largest occupation of a civic building in British history. We also heard from Jimmy Wilson, CEO of FARE (Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse). In 1989 a group of residents, frustrated about the lack of amenities in the East End of Glasgow, got together to try and make the area a better place. It is run and owned by the community, and engages in community development, volunteering and youth work. There are employability and education programmes, school clubs and more. They also run local consultations to find out what people want to change in the area.
There was also an interactive session on local democracy. Each table took part in facilitated discussions that covered three questions, which were:
- Would you like your local community or community of interest to have more control and power over some decisions?
- What has been your experience of being involved in decision making?
- Are there existing forms of local level decision making which could play a part in exercising new local powers?
The discussion at my table was interesting. We talked about the pros and cons of community councils and how effective they could be if they had more powers, and one of my fellow delegates mentioned an example of PB in an area of Brazil, where 80% of public funding was decided through PB. Right now, Scottish Government’s goal for PB is 1% of local budgets to be subject to participatory budgeting by 2021, which seems small compared to 80%. The information taken from these discussions was reported back to the Democracy Matters consultation by Poverty Alliance staff.
The closing panel session focused on putting the ideas and concepts discussed into action. First to speak was Willie Sullivan, the Scottish director of the Electoral Reform Society, who made the point of “if democracy doesn’t work locally, it doesn’t work anywhere.” Very much a champion of decentralisation, he emphasised the importance of reforming local democracy and the importance of the governance review in doing this. Pam Duncan-Glancy, a Glasgow-based equalities and human rights activist, spoke about being disabled and the barriers she faces as a result of society being so inaccessible. Her speech was inspiring as she highlighted the need for real change to end the oppression of disabled people, both in regards to society as a whole and democratic participation. The final speaker was Pheona Matovu, Director of Radiant and Brighter, who spoke about being an immigrant and asylum seeker and how this hugely hinders your access to democratic processes. She made similar points to Pam – when you are in poverty, you can’t participate in democracy, because you are much more concerned about making ends meet and staying alive than anything else.
I learnt a lot at the conference and met a lot of interesting people involved in the public sector, as well as learning a lot more about the local governance review and local democracy in action.