Comment

How ‘community hubs’ can help boost democracy

Francis Sealey from Enfield Climate Action Forum explains the idea behind the group’s community hub project and how such forums can help improve democratic participation

The community hub held at Palmers Green Mosque in November
The community hub held at Palmers Green Mosque in November

A ‘community hub’ was held in Palmers Green in November so that local people could express their concerns and ideas about their
locality. It exceeded our expectations, with over 120 people turning up to take part in lively discussions on a series of issues.

Held at the Palmers Green Mosque, there were people from different communities and generations at the event, giving it a vibrancy and togetherness that is desperately needed.

Community hubs are an important method of community engagement and vitally important at a time when our democracy is in danger and citizens have grown increasingly disillusioned with democracy itself and their representatives.

Our event in Palmers Green turned out to be a huge success. It aimed to provide a safe place for people to express their concerns and ideas about their locality and, over the next few months, to design action plans on a number of the issues discussed.

The issues covered a wide range of topics from wellbeing to employment, from the cost of living to climate change, and much more! It was much more democratic and engaging than, for example, a ward forum with local councillors.

We had an independent facilitator in each session and a person to lead the discussion and give a short introduction. There was no hierarchical structure and everyone there was treated as of equal importance. This led to a very open discussion that I know some local councillors might find difficult, because they have been raised in the adversarial party political structure where the party line is more important than open discussion.

Our format led to many new and vibrant ideas emerging that we will now turn into action plans. This will take time, but it will be important and could lead to a form of community collaboration that results in systemic change and a more inclusive democracy.

It will also provide an opportunity for councillors to become leaders in their community, working primarily for their community rather than the adversarial 19th Century invention of partisan political parties.

In a recent Ipsos poll, only just over a quarter of people in the UK (27%) said they were satisfied with the way democracy is working, with three in five (61%) saying it has worsened in the last five years. In all countries surveyed people thought radical change was needed to improve the current political system. 

Although people have more faith in local rather than national government, local democracy is still fraught with problems. Only 30%
to 40% of the electorate turn out to vote in local elections and, when they do, they largely vote to express what they think of political parties nationally instead of looking at local issues.

As the Ipsos poll indicates there does need to be a radical change to rescue our democracy, both nationally and locally, from further
decline, which can be dangerous for the stability of our society.

We have to find better ways to engage with politicians in a deliberative way and that is not happening now. Just 9% of the British public say they trust politicians to tell the truth, down from 12% in 2022. This makes them the least trusted profession in Britain!

How can we change this? Well, one way is to encourage our councillors and local members of parliament (MPs) to engage as equal partners with their communities. Rather than hide behind the closed doors of their party machines and whips, they should be free to engage with communities openly and transparently.

The community hubs that Enfield Climate Action Forum, Local Motion and the Co-op’s membership engagement team have been piloting in Enfield in the last two years are an example of what is possible. Five community hubs have been hosted so far and three more are planned for this coming year.

We hope we can begin to save our democracy, especially at the local level, from going into further decline and with trust restored
in our local politicians. That must surely be worth working towards with benefits to us all.