Opinion: Democracy is not icing on the cake – democracy is the cake, or at least the ingredient that binds it together.
- Credit: Oliver Cooper
As we grapple with what the ‘new normal’ looks like after four long months of challenge and sacrifice, this week saw a milestone that I don’t blame you for barely noticing.
On Monday, Camden held its first full council meeting since March: giving those of us honoured to represent you a chance to help shape that new normal.
Eight residents who had faced and confronted challenges during the pandemic told the meeting about what they had done and what they wanted to see in future.
My gratitude goes to those who helped us all through the last few months.
Their words should give us pause for thought about the need to use the power of whole communities, including our hidden strengths.
Covid has reminded us simultaneously of our detachment in isolation, but also the great bonds that can bring us back together.
We’re often told that separation and estrangement are the price you pay for living in a large city, but we’ve also seen communities support each other and become closer than ever before.
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I can only speak from my experience of being involved in Hampstead Volunteer Corps, who have helped thousands of our neighbours.
I’ve met many of the 700 volunteers – many of them only by Zoom – who have worked tirelessly to ensure people didn’t feel the greatest privations in the depths of isolation.
They were an unmatched and untapped resource, and undoubtedly an invaluable one – when the council stepped back from some things to focus on the response, they stepped up.
That ‘village’ sense of community that defines our area is still with us today.
As we move towards a new normal, they remind us of a resource that councils disregard at their peril: their own residents. We need to ensure that whatever happens next happens with the support and input of the communities affected.
Democratic involvement isn’t just good because it’s fairer, but because our residents’ input helps us make better decisions and design better systems.
In Belsize Village, we as NW3’s councillors helped open a ‘streatery’, with Belsize Terrace turned into a piazza so restaurants have more space to serve food al fresco, and can survive necessary social distancing.
It’s not been led by Camden, but by residents and businesses, using their innovation and inspiration to resuscitate the village.
It’s not been funded by Camden, either, despite four times as many people backing it in Camden’s recent online ‘Commonplace’ survey as backed any of the 1,500 proposals elsewhere in the borough.
We need to incorporate local residents into our new way of thinking.
In some places, that has happened, but in others, that hasn’t: with deleterious results, especially regarding transport.
In Hampstead, Camden has pushed through changes on Well Walk that weren’t supported by a single Commonplace response, that the road’s residents overwhelmingly opposed, and that were supposedly justified on the basis of helping the Wells Tavern – despite the pub opposing them too!
In Highgate, Bisham Gardens residents are being blocked from turning onto their own road from Swain’s Lane – instead having to rat-run themselves through Highgate Village and drive out of Camden altogether to get home. Yet residents hadn’t been asked.
In Swiss Cottage, Camden has proposed erecting bollards blocking King Henry’s Road and Elsworthy Road from driving onto their road from the east, which would inundate already-congested Adelaide Road with yet more traffic. Camden didn’t consult residents, but when Camden Conservatives launched a survey, 80 per cent of the hundreds of local respondents oppose it.
Indeed, in Primrose Hill, the Labour councillors asked the council’s lawyers to stop the Conservatives surveying residents about changes on Regent’s Park Road, promising that residents would be consulted later – only for them to now say changes will be made without giving residents a say.
Residents are an asset, not a liability. They helped us through this crisis and they need to be listened to, to stop bad policies and to help us come up with better ones.
Done right, consultation, representation, and – yes – council meetings are not a ‘nice to have’, but a ‘need to have’.
Democracy is not icing on the cake – democracy is the cake, or at least the ingredient that binds it together.
So long as residents have needs unfulfilled, services undelivered, or normality unrestored, we have an important job to listen to them.
Our residents need the new normal to include their voices – in this pandemic, they have more than earned it.