What opportunities are there for public participation in the process of Local Authority decision-making? Discuss, with particular reference to sport and recreation provision.

Nick Sherriff


 The notion of community is as Haywood (1994) posits ‘a notoriously slippery concept’ and as such is often rather difficult to pin down, perhaps in part due to its’ political appeal as a buzz word for political point scoring or vote catching.  Haywood suggests community as both a value and descriptive term. A descriptive term in the sense of referring to a particular group of people and value focusing on the work with such communities. (1994:13)


A plethora of community based approaches are offered by Haywood but due to the constraints of this essay particular focus will be given to the community in terms of its’ participation within the decision-making process. Haywood does suggest that rather than an ‘arms length’ approach, ‘Democratic/public influence [is] exercised via a mixture of representation and direct democracy – more extensive public/consumer invilvement in decision-making.’ (1994:12)


This essay will attempt to show what opportunities for participation if any are available to the public discussing their relative merits encompassing existing forms of participation such as surveys, questionnaires, voting and public meetings. Information will also be considered from recent governmental schemes in the form of Best Value.


“…public consultation remains invaluable in gauging local feeling and opinion. Not only is it politically desirable to consult the people the provision of leisure facilities is intended to serve, but more important, the planning process itself is incomplete unless people are consulted about there leisure needs and demands, their perception of existing facilities and services and their expectations of future provision.” (Torkildsen. 1999. p193.)


Torkildsen further suggests that unless the public is directly involved in the process then this presupposes that the planners know more about what the people want than  the people do themselves.


Such prudence has been attempted by the Labour government which unveiled its’ strategy of Best Value in 1999. Best Value aims to replace the existing Conservative notion of Compulsory Competitive Tendering (CCT). Although not due into operation until April 2000 and by the Governments’ own admission may take 10 years to fully implement, 40 initial pilot schemes have been in place. (DETR. 1999.) This piece of work will draw upon the information contained within the White Paper Modernising Local Government – ‘In Touch with the People,’ and examine the pilot schemes for sport and recreation of York City Council, Leeds City Council, Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council, Exeter City Council and Portsmouth City Council.


The underlying theme of Best Value can be considered as one of ‘inclusivity,’ further more the UK Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) in its White Paper on the subject (Modern Local Government – In Touch with the People.) suggests that  “This strategy is to build councils which are in touch with their local people and get the best from them.” (DETR.1999.) Sport and recreation is often not a stand-alone service in that is finds itself under the umbrella of leisure or culture within the Local Authority. Further, there is no statutory obligation to provide any leisure or cultural services although the Government clearly expects every local authority to have a local cultural strategy. (Warwickshire. 1999.) Best Value may be considered as an attempt to build a better framework in which the public may become involved in the decision-making, Although it must be noted that forms of participation did exist before Best Value under CCT and therefore this essay will examine such forms of participation open to the public.


Many councils identify opportunities for local people to become involved in the decision-making process and outlines them in their Performance Plans. Both Portsmouth City Council and York City Council asked the public for their views in the form of surveys for users and non-users of their leisure facilities. The latter named this ‘Talk About’, which comprises of randomly selected residents filling in a questionnaire. Although as Torkildsen suggests this can have a very poor response rate, often between 5-15% and does appear to be rather general in its approach especially if you where after specific users of a facility. Portsmouth City Council used this style for gathering information on its Parks and Recreation programmes but due to the randomness of the survey it could be suggested that the target audience may have been missed altogether.


Warwickshire County Council has carried out a number of resident surveys and other types of consultation such as the 1998 ‘Your Borough, Your Say’ questionnaire in their newsletter North Talk. This listed the Council’s proposed priorities and plans for 1999/2000 and sought the publics’ views.  It did however ask for the publics top three most important areas of concern and as such sport or recreation was not even in the frame when matched against public safety, environmental issues and pollution. (Warwickshire. 1999.)  York City Council and Portsmouth City Council also conducted a ‘Residents opinion survey,’ a face to face or door to door survey of the local populous, however, this requires trained and sensitive researchers to conduct the work, which as Torkildsen suggests whilst sound in its approach can also be costly in time and expense.


At this juncture it is important to understand that councils should not be considered experts in the field of market research and as such it would seem more accurate to engage the services of a professional organisation who it could be argued are more likely to get the correct information, answers which the local council may not always like or agree with. Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council and Birmingham City Council chose to employ the services of the outside agency MORI (Market and Opinion Research International) who conducted face-to-face interviews with selected members of the public. This form of consultation as mentioned earlier, can often be expensive and time consuming which was probably why it was handed over to a professional company but again the downside may be the extra tax burden to the public for finding out such information.


Arguably better forms of participation are ‘focus groups’, ‘regular user group meetings’ or ‘citizens juries’ which are more akin to a ‘work party approach’ discussed by Torkildsen who suggests that this is ‘…democracy at work…’ Although it may lead to the traditional council-meeting style bureaucracy to be merely transformed from the chamber to the public domain.  Leeds City Council implemented a ‘Youth Forum’, which actively sought the views of young people in terms of focus groups with an annual ‘Youth Conference’ who reported to the Young Persons Steering Strategy Group. In this model many departments including Leisure had to produce annual action plans taking into account the views of the Youth Forums. Whilst this appears to be a major plus in terms of participation this can fall into merely the realms of a talking shop if the ideas of the group are not implemented. On the other hand this system often fails, Torkildsen suggests, because of unrealistic expectations of the group in terms of finance and space. This type of participation can be less leading in that a questionnaire has set questions to be answered and the focus group although having a set agenda facilitates the input of other topics or questions.


Voting at elections is another form of public participation which can be the ultimate form of decision-making in that individuals and parties can be voted in and out of office depending on their suggested policies or their track record. However this system is available only every three or four years and does rely on the candidate being true to their words once they are in office. Referendums are another form of voting suggested by the DETR to be introduced at local level for major decisions allowing the public to directly choose providing the choices are not limited of course. It may be suggested however that the public is suffering from voting lethargy considering that electoral turnout is so poor with only 29% of people actually voting during the local elections of 1999 (Electronic Telegraph. 1999.) and as such makes any framework or facilitation to encompass the public in the decision-making process more than challenging to say the least.  The Government via Best Value recognises this and has investigated the broadening of the electoral procedure. This would take the form of electronic voting (internet), mobile polling stations, voting over a number of days and entire elections by postal vote. (DETR. 1999.)  Easing the ability to vote does not necessarily generate more interest, if it is difficult to be inclusive when electing the Prime Minister, in that approximately only a third of the electorate actually votes leaving the majority two thirds who have no input, then how can any existing system call itself inclusive? Equally, it could be argued, why pander to the lethargic two thirds who some may say have rescinded their rights to be involved in the decision-making process of democracy.


Public involvement in the decision-making process is arguably one of the mainstays of Best Value although how this is facilitated is not clear. On the one hand councils under Best Value have a statutory duty to provide ‘…consultation and engage with their local community…’(DETR. 1998.) and on the other it suggests ‘…Government does not propose to specify the form such consultation should take.’  Add to this the assessment, which takes in to account how the public is consulted as criteria for meeting Best Value or Beacon council status and the Local Authorities could be forgiven for being at least confused, at best apprehensive. Best Value does appear to be an attempt to increase the publics’ participation in the decision-making process furthermore making the decisions makers accountable in terms of the consultation process assessment (DETR. 1998.) should force councils to offer participation more readily to the public. Although how this is done is open to question and will not be successful if paid lip service too or facilitated via gimmickry such as the Plymouth City Councils ‘tea with the leader of the council.’ (Plymouth People. 2000. p15.) This form of participation offers tea and biscuits with Tudor Evans (Council leader) for randomly selected members of the public, which does appear to serve little other purpose than to catch the headlines in the local press.


In summary the majority of opportunities available to the public rely on them being offered by the Local Authority, even the general elections only allow democracy once every four years. All forms of participation are slightly lead by the local authority in terms of the questions or the kinds of people asked as well as the conclusions drawn from such information and therefore participation is controlled or limited. This does seem rather reminiscent of old forms of rational recreation in that only certain forms of recreation are deemed affordable or acceptable but now this has changed to include the type of consultation information deemed acceptable. However the altruistic alternative, which could only be an open questionnaire or forum with an agenda set by the floor would take an enormous time to analyse, a solution that may not sit well on the shoulders of many in what could be suggested a ‘quick fix’ era.


After examining the pilot schemes it may be suggested that sport and recreation (leisure) is still suffering from its discretionary label. Will councils have the time, extra resources or want to provide a discretionary leisure service that has a statutory duty to adhere to the complex system of Best Value? Other mandatory services such as housing, employment, fighting crime, and public safety will obviously draw greater attention and therefore take precedence over sport or recreation. Due to such natural prioritising and, the infancy and complexity of Best Value, leisure could probably be one of the last services to change totally to Best Value if at all. The knock-on effect will be that the ‘inclusivity’ afforded by the new Best Value strategy in the form of participation in decision-making process could well be put on hold for possibly up to ten years. This could suggest that society as a unit has not ascended far enough up Maslows Hierarchy Pyramid in that basics needs of Best Value physiology and safety are not yet fulfilled and therefore thoughts of leisure are still far from the minds of many. 


 Such vociferous information gathering may well cause less interest in voting among the electorate in that they may feel that their input is going to be asked for anyway via surveys and opinion polls about their local area and rather than trek down to the polling station they could wait at home for the council to come to them.


Participation by its very nature relies on the avid interest and input from the local populous. Interest has been generated over the years for the Poll Tax, Duty on fuel, Animal and Gay rights but no real protests for sport and recreation. There could be the suggestion that the public appreciates and understands the minor significance that sport and recreation has within the grand scheme of things. How often this input is called upon and when, is not clear but the over-ridding aspect of opportunity is there to be taken up, if rather limited and controlled. The evidence however, in terms of public voting at least, is contrary to this and the notion of inclusive participation seems unattainable leaving the way clear for groups with the loudest voice ruling the decision-making process as has been seen in recent times with the fuel protestors.





Exeter City Council. BV Performance Plan Summary. [online.] Available from: http://www.exeter.gov.uk [Accessed 31 October 2000]


DETR – Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. 1999. In Touch with the People. HMSO; London.


DETR. Exeter - BV Performance Plan. [online.] Available from: http://www.local.detr.gov.uk/research/bvsummar/exeter1.htm  [Accessed 31 October 2000]


DETR. Portsmouth - BV Performance Plan. [online.] Available from: http://www.local.detr.gov.uk/research/bvsummar/portsmouth1.htm  [Accessed 31 October 2000]


Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council. Results of BV pilot area community survey. [online.] Available from: http://www.oldham.gov.uk/best_value/results/ [Accessed 01 November 2000]


Portsmouth City Council. BV Performance Plan – Leisure . [online.] Available from: http://www.portsmouthcc.gov.uk/BVPerf  [Accessed 31 October 2000]


Plymouth People. 2000. Plymouth City Councils Performance Plan Summary. Media relations unit; Westcountry Publications.


Torkildsen, G. 1999. Leisure and Recreation Management – Public consultation. E&FN Spon; London.


The Telegraph. Issue 1509. Straw backs weekend voting in poll reform. [online.] Available from: www.telegraph.co.uk [Accessed 22 October 2000]


Warwickshire County Council - Performance Plan. [online.] Available from: http://www.warwickshire.gov.uk  [Accessed 31 October 2000]


City of York. 2000. Best Value Performance Plan 2000/2001. HMSO; London.


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