Jesmond councillor to lead discussion on local democracy

Local councillor David Hardman will today host a public discussion about the way democracy works in Jesmond.

The event, which will be held at Jesmond Library at 6pm, will focus on finding ways to develop a more effective democracy by better engaging residents in the democratic process. Hardman, an elected Labour representative, told JesmondLocal that the aim of the event is to come to an understanding about what democracy means in Jesmond. He said that the discussion would cover “what the problems with democracy are; what’s good about it; what’s working; how that manifests itself locally; and what we can do to improve it.”

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As well as considering these wider issues, the discussion is likely to bring up several problems specific to Jesmond. One particularly prominent issue is the consistently low election turnout across both wards in the area. South Jesmond has had the third-lowest electoral turnout of the 26 wards in Newcastle over the last five years. Hardman and others have attributed this to the transient population of Jesmond, pointing particularly to the impact of the student population.

“Jesmond, particularly South Jesmond, has a very high turnover of population,” he noted. “Only 7% of the population is considered long-term. In a 4-year cycle, 93% of the population moves off the register. When we talk to students they generally feel that they are here for less than a year and don’t feel that they have a right to vote.”

Turnout Map

Only Westgate (29.8%) and Ouseburn (30%) have had a lower average turnout than the Jesmond wards since 2007.

Notwithstanding this lack of electoral engagement, Hardman will argue that democracy should be viewed as more than the mere process of voting.

“The health of local democracy could be perceived as very poor in Jesmond, but actually if you look at democracy in the much wider sense as representation – whether that’s through people working in community groups or voluntary organisations or just being involved in their community – South Jesmond actually has a very healthy democracy.” He said that this also extends to the largely non-voting student population, who have community representatives and often get involved in local initiatives such as litter-picking events.

Budget cuts high on agenda

The discussion is also likely to include a consideration of the extensive budget cuts currently facing Newcastle City Council under the Government’s austerity measures. Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central, spoke in Parliament on Tuesday about local authority funding holdbacks. Citing the Department of Communities and Local Government, she said that Newcastle residents will see cuts of £126 per dwelling next year, compared to the national average of £76. Cuts to the city-level budget have led to reduced funding for ward-level councils, and the discussion may explore how this will affect local democracy.  Hardman said:

“The budget cuts are disastrous. They are going to damage the democracy we have because one of the key things in democracy is communication. The council must be in a position to communicate and engage people. We don’t have the staff to engage as much as we used to. People will feel even more isolated from the council.”

Council statistics show that since the 2010 General Election, voter turnout has consistently decreased across Newcastle. Turnout in both Jesmond wards last year was 21.1% – the lowest since the wards were created in 2004. Hardman hopes that by increasing awareness and involving the communtiy in local politics, that turnout will rise.

Jesmond Turnout 3

With the exception of the 2010 vote which coincided with the UK general election, Jesmond has had a significantly lower turnout than the city-wide average. The 2012 turnout was the lowest in the history of the wards in their current form.

The discussion on local democracy will take place tonight at 6pm at Jesmond Library.

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