Penzance Citizens Panel

As part of my work with Cornwall Independent Poverty Forum we have launched a new project: Penzance Citizens Panel on Housing

The question it seeks to address is:

“High housing costs, low paid insecure work, eviction and homelessness are all issues that blight local communities in Cornwall, including Penzance. How can we as a community come together to address these issues?”

Panel members will be randomly chosen from a pool of applicants. That’s the aim anyway but much depends on how many people  apply.

The project has three overall aims:

To enable people to ‘tell their story’

  • People who experience insecure housing and the threat of homelessness due to low pay, high rents and insecure work
  • People who are actually homeless or have been homelessness

To promote a more informed and balanced public conversation about homelessness issues and their causes

The citizens panel seeks to trigger a wider, better informed conversation among the local public through a local media campaign (see publicity and media section below)

To influence policy makers

While no decision-making body has commissioned the citizens panel, we hope to engage Penzance Town Council, the Community Network Panel as well as our local MP and Cornwall Council.

We also plan to submit a report with a record of the citizen panel proceedings   to other local political parties in the St. Ives constituency.

The project seeks to strengthen the relationship between elected representatives and citizens, not replace it. It is a platform to give citizens a stronger voice and we are inviting elected representatives to speak at the panel and take questions – at this stage, that’s ambitious enough. 

What has this to do with the progressive alliance?

Everything! The progressive alliance initiative  has always been about breaking out of narrow tribal party politics which is crucifying our democracy. People with differing viewpoints have stopped listening to each other and retreated into their party shell, or as likely, their particular social media following.

Citizens panels and citizens assemblies are  about slow, thoughtful deliberative democracy which addresses issues, not party agendas. It is about building relationships between people holding different views and arriving at informed public judgement,  in place of knee-jerk public reaction that is too often driven by anger and frustration – an anger, it must be said, stoked by both politicians and the media as well as social media. Done well, it is the antidote to extremism.

Whether this project succeeds is another question. It is a risk because none of us involved have ever done anything like this before. However we are trying to learn from others and there is now a lot of experimentation going on in other parts of the World, particularly in Europe, Canada and states like Oregon in the USA. England lags behind but has recently taken a giant step in setting up a citizens assembly on climate change commissioned by Parliament.  There are also other individual expert facilitators who have conducted citizens juries in partnership with a few local councils. We have been talking to them too.

Madrid now has its own ‘citizens observatory’ and there is a permanent Sortition Chamber in Ostbelgien (German-speaking region of Belgium). The Sortition Chamber is a random group of ordinary citizens who are chosen in a way that ensures age, gender balance, income and education to reflect the population profile of that area.  

We desperately need a new kind of politics that embraces real democracy rather than the token democracy of elections once every five years where parties are more interested in securing our vote than in listening to our opinions.  It needs to be more participative by allowing us a greater say in the decisions that affect us.  ‘Co-design’ needs to replace consultation and citizens juries, assemblies and panels are central to this process.  


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