Keighley Market – our neighbourhood, our regional democracy.

From the very beginning, Same Skies has been about building Regional Democracy up from the good stuff around us here. We are our own region and it’s up to us to take responsibility and make it even better. Instead of just resistance, cynicism or scepticism, we want to engage people in region building.

Our latest initiative takes us around the many markets of West Yorkshire where we have been asking people to draw maps of their own neighbourhoods, especially the good stuff, and talking about their hopes for the future of our region. Eventually we hope to put all of these maps together, building up that regional picture from below.

Today we had lots of fun at Keighley Market. You can see many of the maps in the pictures below. You can also see for yourself the things that the passers by who stopped to draw and chat thought were significant in their neighbourhood.

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Thanks to everyone for beginning our regional map with drawings of Keighley, Oakworth, Steeton, Silsden, Cowling Hill and Sutton in Craven. We’ve now got a big gap between Keighley, Huddersfield and Leeds on our wall – look out other markets in West Yorkshire, we’ll be seeing you soon…

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Article 50: A personal view on Yorkshire, the UK and the EU

This blog reflects the personal views of Same Skies campaigner Ian Martin from East Leeds.

The future of Yorkshire really matters to me. This is my home, whatever happens here, whether our future is positive or negative, it will directly affect me and my family. I believe it my duty, our duty, to stand up where we are and look out positively. This includes engaging positively and working collaboratively with people beyond whatever borders surround us. For the many issues we can’t address as Yorkshire alone, we need to look outwards and more often than not in our past the EU was a better outlet, a more appropriate scale and a more positive partner than the UK. The EU made possible the dream of Yorkshire’s citizens collaborating with those in Nordrhein-Westfalen and Lombardy without our ambitions being filtered through the very different perspective of London.

For that reason, I can totally understand why Scotland (that voted in referenda to remain in the UK and then subsequently in the EU) may have to make the choice to leave one international body (UK) in order to remain in an international body that has better served its needs (EU). Here in Yorkshire, we don’t have that same question. Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, although it has not had the chance to express its opinion on being bound to England and the UK. Given the referendum, the only international body we can be a part of in the near future is the UK (which remains part of the UN, NATO etc).

I became politically aware at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Bosnian refugees arrived in my suburb and their stories, as well as those of East Germans finally free to speak across borders, convinced me of the benefits of European unity. I was inspired to learn German and eventually benefited from the EU’s ERASMUS programme to study in Trier for a year. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, I voted Remain, I felt that was in the best interests of Yorkshire’s future. I accept I lost. I accept that most people who voted ‘leave’ in the referendum don’t see the EU as the appropriate level at which to make any decisions about our future. I accept that for now most people who voted in the referendum would prefer those decisions to be made in Westminster. The question that needs to be asked though is about whether people here in Yorkshire and elsewhere will be given the choice as to whether those decisions should be still be taken in Westminster in future.

I’m also aware that the defeat of the Remain campaign may be in the longer term best interests of the EU itself. For as long as I remember, the UK has been an awkward partner to fellow EU members, often acting as a brake on the positive ambitions of other members towards a more integrated continent of solidarity. And not just in governmental terms, the only part of EU-wide decision making that is directly accountable to its citizens (especially as it is under a proportional system) has been consistently ignored by those whose job should be to scrutinise its work – how much have we learned about the European Parliament from press and broadcast media in the UK?

After decades of being half in and half out, it could be something of a relief for the UK and the EU to start again. The boost to support for the EU in most member nations as a result of Brexit may allow it to create a genuine pan-European electorate giving assent or otherwise to the vision of a federal body with minimum standards of quality of life for all its citizens. The UK in future may decide it wants to negotiate access to some or all of that. Without being members of the EU, UK representatives will have had no role in designing, developing, consenting to or scrutinising any of it but we may decide that it is attractive enough to nevertheless accept EU terms. In fact over time, that lack of political impact on decisions made by our nearest neighbours that affect us may be a key argument for those campaigning for Yorkshire (and the rest of what this island becomes) to rejoin the EU.

IPPR North have been lobbying for the voice of the North to be heard in Brexit negotiations, including through a Northern Brexit Negotiating Committee, and I hope they will succeed in making this happen with a diverse range of voices and perspectives from throughout the North. For me, all of this should be focused on the future and in particular on the future of young people in areas of fewer opportunities (including parts of Yorkshire). The referendum took the UK out of the EU and put power in the hands of the UK government for now. If the UK government is going to take seriously our future here in Yorkshire, here are a few things I want it to do:

  • To ensure that people in Yorkshire have the widest possible opportunities to live, work, travel, study and play in the EU (and beyond) without any ‘right’ being effectively hindered by bureaucracy.

  • To be fair to other regions of Europe and to ensure that Yorkshire continues to benefit from the ideas and energy of people from elsewhere, the UK government needs to get out of the way of us actively making EU citizens welcome and ensure they benefit from the same rights here as do Yorkshire’s citizens within the EU.

  • To ensure the continued active promotion of ideas and perspectives sharing through exchange programmes, such as ERASMUS.

  • To maximise access to opportunities for organisations (including businesses) within Yorkshire and that these are based as a minimum on employment rights, environmental standards, public procurement transparency and consumer protection (developed by the UK government as part of the EU’s decision making processes) for as long as democratically elected bodies within Yorkshire consider them appropriate.

  • To ensure the replacement of EU Development funds (that have benefited Yorkshire even when UK government has ignored our needs) and make sure that decisions about them are taken by democratically elected bodies within Yorkshire itself

  • To ensure that Yorkshire can continue to play its role in contributing to continent wide peace and solidarity programmes, including welcoming refugees arriving at EU borders and making safe routes available for them to reach Yorkshire instead of risking the Mediterranean and other crossings.

But most important of all, now that the UK as a whole has answered the question of its role within the EU, surely it is the time for people here in Yorkshire to decide on how we want to be governed within the UK too? Surely this time of change for the UK is exactly the time when Regional Democracy should blossom?

I campaigned for the UK to remain in the European Union alongside others and we couldn’t convince enough people to get out and vote that way. The UK will no longer be a member of the EU and that means Yorkshire will not be part of the EU either. Nevertheless I will continue to think of myself as European and support the development of the European Union. I will continue to believe another Europe is possible. I will continue to buy the New European newspaper and encourage it to reflect the experiences of Europeans in all parts of this island. I will apply for individual EU membership if and when the time comes. And once the EU has had chance to move forward without the brakes placed on it by the UK’s elite, I may well be amongst those campaigning for Yorkshire to rejoin fellow regional democracies in the European Union.

Will West Yorkshire have the courage to make Devolution Democratic?

Thursday’s meeting of the West Yorkshire Combined Authority will have important implications for the future of more than 5 million people. Leaders from cities and towns around Yorkshire are meeting to discuss next steps in the long anticipated “deal” which would devolve certain powers and monies from Whitehall to Yorkshire in exchange for a directly-elected mayor. A deal for West Yorkshire has fallen behind other cities like Manchester because of disagreement on many issues, including geography. Should we have a mayor for West Yorkshire only? What about a mayor for all of Yorkshire, or part of it?

We don’t have a position on just how big the mayoralty should be. This post is not about the pros and cons of the current plan. The question we are raising is how many of the five million people affected by Thursday’s meeting even know that it is happening? How much do people know about the devolution deals being made?

Like most people in Yorkshire, we are in favour of having more voice. We certainly want a better Yorkshire. We want better communities, better schools, better transport. We want a better environment and a better economy, and know that regional democracy and greater independence from Whitehall are part of building a better future.

But building a better future is about Democracy, not Devolution. If devolution is about people, where are the people?

We urge the WYCA to have the courage to open up the politics. Let more people know what is happening. Let them engage effectively. Let civil society play a bigger role in developing a devolved regional democracy – not just the big charities and big businesses and big universities, but the small voices and the small places, the neighbourhoods and communities and civic actors who make this place great.

And don’t forget – no matter the result of Thursday’s decisions, Yorkshire and West Yorkshire will have to make their case to Whitehall. Broader public support can help make that case stronger.

We recognize that democracy is messy, and can seem inefficient. After months and even years of delay, delay caused by the complexity of Yorkshires already fragmented politics, who in their right mind wants to add more voices? Isn’t that a recipe for more stagnation? Shouldn’t the politicians just get on with it? Isn’t that why we elected them?

We aren’t protesting the decision today, nor are we saying that it should stop. Whatever the geography of the deal that comes together, leaders need to recognize that this is just the first step. The next steps are the ones that need to be more open, more democratic, that need the benefit of debate and engagement. The Combined Authority’s own plan recognizes the importance of ‘fostering a wider community conversation’.

Starting from today, we call on the leaders of Yorkshire and West Yorkshire to make this ‘wider conversation’ happen. Don’t set up a standard consultation. Instead, hold special surgeries to talk about regional democracy. Reach out specifically to civil society organizations, including those who represent underrepresented voices like young people, women, BME and working class communities, and work with them to build a dialogue. Provide funds for outreach and education. Work with local universities and colleges to engage students and develop creative ideas for engagement and activism.

This is an unprecedented opportunity to build a better politics for the region, to engage people in region-building and not just resistance, cynicism or scepticism. Devolution is technocratic, business-as-usual with leaders in a different place. Regional Democracy is a new way of engaging people, focused on building a strong and diverse civil society capable of working with political parties and with local and regional agencies to help keep and build the promise of more local and regional decision making. If Yorkshire’s leaders try to build a new administrative apparatus without strengthening civil society, it won’t result in the type of transformation people are yearning for.

We the people of Yorkshire and West Yorkshire can be strong allies of elected officials and government agencies in devolution, but only if we are building Regional Democracy, not just some new lines on a map.

Let the people of Yorkshire help you build a better regional democracy.

This blog was written by Leeds resident Alex Schafran with contributions from other members of the Same Skies network.

 

 

Some reading for the end of 2016

At the end of last year, we collected together some of the pieces of writing that had got Same Skies members thinking that year. Many of these articles and blogs are still worth a look and given how much people seem to appreciate that list, we have decided to do the same again for the end of 2016.
As ideas of nations, regions and working together across borders became increasingly part of people’s conversations in 2016, we looked back at two very prescient articles. In 2011 John Baxendale looked specifically at the North.And in 2014, Debora McKenzie wrote in the New Scientist about the role of nation states across history and their future relationship with regions and international co-operation. These thoughts also reminded us of the Necessary Group, a creative attempt at a positive regional identity for our friends in the North West.
So often the Big Issue in the North has been a great source of news from and ideas about places in the North. Here Hannah Mitchell Foundation member William Bolton proposed we work from the bottom up to create a ‘Northern Umbrella‘.
Ultimately this is all about our #RegionalDemocracy, our future as a community of humans. Here Frances Bee had some interesting thoughts on what a successful human community could look like.
But what is #RegionalDemocracy for? What do we want to do differently with the responsibility we take for our own futures? Throughout the year, we have published great ideas from people around West Yorkshire. One of these proposed trialing a Citizens’ Income in West Yorkshire.  We watched with interest as devolution in Scotland enabled it to move beyond a sanctions based approach to tackling poverty and local authorities in Glasgow and Fife announced plans to trial forms of Basic Income.
Meanwhile former Same Skies blogger Penny Wangari-Jones made a powerful film with advice for people in West Yorkshire about how we could actively stand up against racism, including direct and immediate support for its victims.
We also found some thought provoking ideas for our future in other places:
– A partnership in the Borders suggested how we could harness the power of the wind for a greater social good.
– The model of local energy co-operatives in Germany made a lot of people consider if they could be part of our future here.
– The Lucas Plan suggested a possible model for addressing the needs of local economies in the West Yorkshire currently dependent on the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
– Blogger James Walsh proposed an alternative vision for the Northern Powerhouse… the Northern Greenhouse.
These ideas are all about #RegionalDemocracy, about us taking responsibility for actively making good things happen in our region. But that doesn’t mean we can or want to be completely oblivious to the wider social, political and economic context and how those who currently hold power over us are seeing the future.
David Marlow looked at this year’s referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU and considered how the “strength & requirements of London’s narrative distort top-down attempts” at positive change. Whilst Philip McCann gave a very clear summary of what he called the ‘UK’s regional economic problem’ and Craig Berry argued hopefully that it might be “possible to go with the grain of existing devolution deals while broadening out their scope”.
The perceived opportunities and dangers for local authorities in negotiating ‘deals’ with central government were given particularly useful background in this piece about the ‘Strange Death of Municipal England‘ whilst Alex Harrowell gave a detailed and fascinating overview of struggles for power in one of our cities that he knows very well, Bradford.
What about you? Is there anything you have read over the last year that has really got you thinking about #RegionalDemocracy and your hopes for our shared future?
Best wishes for 2017 from all at Same Skies.

Regional Democracy – a recent timeline from West Yorkshire

Regional Democracy comes from below, it’s about being positive and actively taking responsibility. Devolution by necessity comes from above, ceding responsibility from the top downwards. Maybe the two will meet on the way.

Here is a first attempt at a timeline of Regional Democracy as it relates to where we live, West Yorkshire. They are developments from within the region for the region, initiatives not dependent on those who already hold power nationally.

Autumn 2011 – Hannah Mitchell Foundation (HMF) is formed, ‘working for a fair and prosperous North of England within a federal Britain’

Spring 2012 – HMF launches publicly. Its’ website archives are a key record of many developments towards Regional Democracy.

Summer 2012 – HMF’s first AGM

2012 – Yorkshire Devolution Movement (YDM) is launched, ‘campaigning to secure a directly elected regional assembly for Yorkshire’.

June 2013 – Hannah Festival 01 takes place, including the launch of the first Hannah Directory. This is bottom up, asset based, unsubsidised, creative activity to build consciousness of what we would now call “regional democracy”. The Hannah Mitchell in Hannah Directory is from Hannah Mitchell in Hannah Mitchell Foundation, in 2013 they were directly connected. The kickstarter is a key document.

Summer/Autumn 2014 – Hannah Directory conversations took place at the Star and Shadow (Newcastle) and Leeds Summat.

April 2014 – Yorkshire Party formed to contest the European Parliament elections as ‘a progressive political party made up of autonomous local groups and individuals who are united by a shared belief that Yorkshire needs a voice at European, national and regional level’. It was originally called Yorkshire First.

October 2014 – Potentially the earliest documented use of the term “regional democracy” by a West Yorkshire activist in recent times, HMF founder Paul Salveson.

May 2015 – Following responses to the ‘Yorkshire free, fair and fun for all?’ video in October 2014 and this subsequent Culture Vulture article  in August 2015, a group starts to come together at the JUST West Yorkshire offices in Bradford through social media and personal contacts. The group were positive about democracy that could bring about real change closer to where they lived but also felt that debates about ‘devolution’ had been all about those who already held power, whether political or in business. The group wanted to engage a more diverse range of voices in the debate about the future of their region and was partially inspired by the way that new voices and ideas became a big part of the debate about the future of Scotland.

Spring 2015 – “*Doing devolution without permission from politicians.*”: Hannah Directory conversations at Notwestminster (Huddersfield) and Festival of Debate (Sheffield). “There is a new enthusiasm in England for devolution to local and even regional government, but ordinary people can’t yet see how they can get involved and help make it happen. In this workshop we will listen to each other, talk, and come up with ideas together to start doing devolution from the bottom up as soon as we walk out of the room.”

June 2015 – Northern Citizens’ Convention organised by HMF and others in Huddersfield

November 2015 – The group meeting at JUST West Yorkshire made the conscious choice to talk about ‘regional democracy’ rather than devolution and organised the ‘What Kind of region do we want to live in?‘ event in Manningham. This included videos & photoboards of people around West Yorkshire talking about their responses, and an Open Space model ie. no hierarchy of speakers or fixed agenda where all could suggest themes/discussions. 40% of attendees at that event were female and virtually none of the attendees had attended a ‘devolution’ event before. Following the event, this group became a loose network of people in West Yorkshire called Same Skies. This network is positive about regional democracy, open to working with people from all parties and none and actively tries to engage diverse voices. The network also runs the ‘We Share The Same Skies’ collaborative blog of hopeful ideas and the related Twitter account.

January 2016 – University of Leeds hosts the ‘Power to the North’ event where Leila Taleb first starts to share Same Skies’ vision for Regional Democracy publicly.

April 2016 – Same Skies’ first explicit ‘Regional Democracy’ workshop takes place at Leeds Summat.

May 2016 – Same Skies members publish an article adding more detail to their vision for Regional Democracy.

June 2016 – HMF launch the Northern Network , ‘an open network of people in the North committed to social justice, tolerance and democratic reform for an inclusive, creative and decentralised North’.

This is a working document originally drafted by Andy Wilson. What are we missing? What else should we add? Please contact us with your ideas below or via Twitter.

Same Skies – an update

Same Skies is a loose network of people from West Yorkshire working together on the basis of the following principles:

– We’re positive about regional democracy

– We’re open to working with people from all parties and none

– We actively want to do something to engage a more diverse range of voices

We originally came together through social media and personal contacts in early 2015 to organise the ‘What Kind Of Region Do We Want To Live In?’ event in Manningham in November 2015. We were all positive about democracy that could bring about real change closer to where we live but we felt that debates about ‘devolution’ had been all about those who already held power, whether political or in business. We wanted to engage a more diverse range of voices in the debate about the future of our region. We weren’t sure what to do next, so we invited some people who had shown an interest in Same Skies to join us for a few hours in Leeds to talk about the place we all live and work; what kind of place we want it to be in the future; and what things we might do to help get there?

The mix of women and men at the small gathering came from Bradford, Keighley, Huddersfield, Halifax and Leeds with a range of different backgrounds, from community food growing and teaching to journalism and technology. We also had varied motivations for attending, including being inspired by people taking responsibility for the future of where they live; wanting to find new ways to bring people together to talk about the future; and a feeling that people’s voices here aren’t fairly heard in the national conversation.

We quickly settled on a key question: What do we want to do to help catalyse a wide ranging conversation about Regional Democracy in West Yorkshire?

This led to the following key themes:

  1. Focus on issues not structures

One of the key messages from the Manningham event was that people weren’t talking about structures, they were talking about issues, such as health inequalities. All at this gathering shared stories about and expressed concern that talented, energetic people in West Yorkshire often feel that they need to move to London. Some people reported that around where they live, people worried about jobs and poverty. Even within West Yorkshire, there was resentment that “all the money is in Leeds”. Many also reported a feeling that there’s only so much to go around and given that many people’s lives are difficult, “it’s the easiest thing to do to blame the immigrants”. At the same time, others felt immense frustration at the circumstances that led to this lack of solidarity, “If you don’t know what it’s like to leave everything, you can’t understand.”

2. Explain what we mean by Regional Democracy

We think Regional Democracy is people working together as equals for our common good and taking responsibility for making it happen. We don’t think the final constitutional and bureaucratic form of that is the most important thing at the moment, the most important thing is to recognise the need for cooperation and to get started on cooperating at all levels. We support other regions who want to do the same, but it’s not for us to say how they get started. We all live in West Yorkshire and so this is where we do our stuff.

Despite the appeal for many people of ‘taking control’, control is still 300 miles away and so if we want to get listened to in a national conversation, we need to meet the devolution coming down with something from the bottom coming up. The aim should be to “bring as many decisions back here as possible, but not just to give them to one person”

We also tested our commitment to democracy by considering whether more people participating was a good outcome in itself, even if those people had different views to ourselves. We decided that “Regional Democracy is about building solidarity”, journeying through the differences and not dismissing them but carrying them with us and building trust. It’s about creating a space in which people can have conversations, to find out what common interests they have. It was suggested that democracy is everything that you could wish for in the place where you live so the key was in identifying what that was by encouraging people to ask themselves what it means to be in West Yorkshire now, and what they want the future to be.

3. Ask positive questions to a wider range of voices

We all agreed that ‘if you live here, you are West Yorkshire’ but that many people feel like they weren’t part of any meaningful conversation about the future of their region. If we are to help address this, we need to think carefully about what we ask, who we ask, where we ask it and how. In particular we need to start from the level that people are at in terms of this conversation and go to the places where people already are (including working with others who are trying to help people be more politically engaged). Given that we want to build solidarity, we will ask a positive question that opens a dialogue, such as: What do you like about where you live? What would you like to happen in future? The responses to these questions could be collated into a celebration through the format of a video online or a fanzine distributed in the place where the conversations took place.

Summary

We have an idea of why we’re here and what we mean by Regional Democracy, we know we want to focus on issues not structures and we want to engage a wider range of voices through positive questions. Our next step will be to agree specific actions. We’ll meet again in Huddersfield in early December. If you’re interested in joining us, please get in touch here.

Report by Ian Martin, thanks to all who attended and to Diane Sims and Andy Wilson for the notes.

#RegionalDemocracy and the EU – a view from West Yorkshire

This blog reflects the personal views of Leila Taleb (Bradford), Andrew Wilson (Huddersfield) and Ian Martin (Leeds). All are members of the Same Skies network.

 

An unusual thing happened on Sunday morning. The newspapers were full of celebration for the benefits of freedom of movement within the EU. Well, the back pages anyway. A lad from Gloucestershire had grown up on the Algarve after his family moved there to work in 2004. Eric Dier eventually joined the junior system at Lisbon football club, CP Sporting, and scored the opening goal for the England team at Euro 2016.

Funny how things can look very different from another’s perspective. Funny how both the Leave and Remain campaigns during the EU referendum seem to be talking about a very narrow perspective on our future. It’s not one that we recognise. It’s not one that seems to be interested in the future of us here in West Yorkshire.

For example, there seems to be very little interest in hearing the voices of young people about their future prospects in the region and beyond. We know that many young people are struggling to find work and that many are therefore leaving to find work elsewhere. Even an optimistic view of the government’s current efforts in the North would suggest that young people may still need that option for years to come. Is there a danger that those who don’t need the opportunity to benefit from EU freedom of movement for work will vote to deny that opportunity to young people in the North? Is it really fair to suddenly limit our young people to jobs in the South East even though their parents could also work freely around the EU (such as on German building sites)?

If we are to provide those opportunities for our young people here in the North, history shows it is actually the EU that has been much more interested in and supportive of the regions than the UK’s own government.  The EU was there for the North, as part of investments made all over the continent, in the wake of deindustrialisation. Left in the hand of a centralised UK government viewing this island from a narrow Londoncentric perspective, things would have been even worse. Given our island’s history, it is mostly the EU’s commitment to solidarity between regions and its redistribution of funds raised from the UK and other member states that has enabled the North to invest in regeneration despite the best efforts of Whitehall. Investing in the North in the 1990’s helped us prevent the sort of decline that has befallen places like Detroit and a lot of that is due to investment from the EU. When that relationship between Yorkshire and the EU has been strained, it has been due to decisions made in Whitehall.

We believe that our region does best when it can have direct relationships with other parts of the world, rather than when our needs are mediated into nothing by the dominant interests of London and the South East. The EU currently enables that opportunity for regions within the EU and the fact we actually have much more in common with other regions of the EU, such as Nordrhein-Westfalen, than with the South East means we want to develop our region’s role within the EU, not throw it away. For example the developers of the impressive transport infrastructure serving the dispersed industrial cities within Nordrhein-Westfalen could tell us more about how to address the chronic transport problems in West Yorkshire than anyone in UK government.

In fact most of the good models for how to do better #RegionalDemocracy come from other EU members. For example, despite its problems France’s progress in decentralisation and regional reorganisation is much better than the UK. France’s second and third tier cities are much better off compared to Paris than cities like Leeds and Bradford are compared to London, despite similar histories of centralisation, monarchy, empire and war. This is not to mention the impressive efforts of Germany’s federal states in addressing regional inequalities despite the challenge of absorbing former East Germany and powerful Dutch cities that are currently using their freedoms to trial new ideas such as basic income. There is much to be learned from our EU partner regions and the EU itself provides great possibilities for funded exchanges and collaborations to make it happen.

Like many, we are concerned about a democratic deficit in the EU but not in the way that the Leave campaign like to present it. To us the questions about democracy in the EU are actually questions about democracy in the UK (and other member states). When people are unhappy about EU decision making (which is fair enough, especially when it comes to issues like policy towards Greece’s crisis), they are unhappy about decisions made by member state governments together or by the Commission using powers given by member state governments together.

When the UK government makes decisions that are Londoncentric or which fail to take into account the needs of the most vulnerable, we are especially affected in the regions. The UK government often takes this attitude into EU Council of Ministers’ meetings, for example in getting special treatment for banking in the City of London but not for steel in industrial Britain

For us therefore the failure of democracy in the UK leads to a failure of democracy in the EU. Sorting out UK democracy is the first step to sorting out the democratic deficit in the EU. Sorting out UK democracy means a big role for #RegionalDemocracy. This would be totally in keeping with the EU principle of ‘subsidiarity’ ie. decisions made at the lowest appropriate level.

If we want to sort out EU democracy, we need to base it first on reforming UK democracy towards #RegionalDemocracy and not by giving even more power to Westminster. Even if you distrust Brussels, do you really trust London?

Leila recently took part in EU referendum debates organised by JUST West Yorkshire and South Leeds Life as well as Made In Leeds TV’s Between The Lines Remain or Leave special.. She will also take part in a BBC Radio Leeds debate at Bradford College on June 15th.

What do new migrants think about our region?

In a guest blog, Pria Bhabra and Rosemary Brookes reflect on their experiences working on the Migrant Access Project in their part of our region.

Leeds is an amazing and diverse city that has so much to offer for all the citizens that live here, new and old. But if you are new to the city, how much do you actually know, and how do you learn to navigate your way through to services and society?

Working with some of the new migrant communities through MAP is fantastic as we learn so much about their culture, how things were back home and how different things are here. Different individuals say there are both good and bad things both here and back at home, but feeling safe is why many are here. There is a lot to learn as new migrants start to integrate, for example the specific way we define ‘safeguarding’ is something new, something not discussed within communities because it’s not a definition that really existed back home, but they are learning in their own way to understand the bigger picture.

Do we all understand Leeds in the same way? How does it look through different eyes? Yes, there are some pictures and views of Leeds that are put out at a corporate level, but for each individual who lives in Leeds and are part of its existence these ideas and images may not be exactly the same.

In April, MAP was invited to attend a workshop for Leeds 2023 European Capital of Culture bid bid. We had the opportunity to hear people’s thoughts and visions of Leeds, but also a chance to share our own views. Two volunteers came along with us, Michaela came to the event representing the Roma community, and Bei came representing the Chinese community. For Michaela, Leeds was about different communities and cultures. It was good to see that people of Leeds are starting to learn about different communities and work with them, and she wants this to grow. Also, Leeds is a friendly city with opportunities. It’s about looking at some of the things that are negative such as deprivation, but also seeing the good. For Bei, she similarly saw the options that Leeds could offer, whilst highlighting some of the city’s contrasts in terms of prosperity, history, architecture and culture.

Every time MAP meets someone from a new migrant community, both staff and new migrants learn more about what Leeds is now, and what it should ideally be. These ideas may vary from person to person, but overall MAP, and the majority of people we meet, want Leeds to be a safe place to live and raise children, just like everyone else.

The Migrant Access Project (MAP) is developed by Leeds City Council, Touchstone and Feel Good Factor, aiming to reduce pressures on services where migration has impacted the most whilst helping new arrivals to put down roots in Leeds. It works with different migrant communities, often training volunteers up to become members of Migrant Community Networks through leadership training. For more information about MAP, or anything else in this blog, please contact Pria Bhabra pria.bhabra@leeds.gov.uk

Saving devolution from itself: Building #RegionalDemocracy in the North of England

Devolution. City Deals. Northern Powerhouse. What does this even mean to the average person on the street? Devolution probably reminds most people of Charles Darwin. If not, then it’s something to do with Scotland. City Deals just sound like business as usual. The Northern Powerhouse may be a funk band. If somehow all these big words are about the future of Northern England’s society and economy, about its transport and education and health system, about power and control vis-à-vis Whitehall bureaucracy and the whims of national government, about jobs and infrastructure and other areas where we are spending and raise tax money, then we should be talking about something else. We should be talking about regional democracy – a mechanism to build better systems to support our lives, communities and industries through more democratic governance.

From the beginning, it seems that both the term ‘devolution’ and the processes behind it – in contrast to the more bottom up approach in Scotland – have been conceived by and for Oxbridge politicians, local authorities and suited-and-booted business representatives. This has served to exclude and disengage the public, as the agenda is often seen and perceived as something remote from our daily lives. Indeed, it is fair to say that a lot of citizens have never even heard about the Northern Powerhouse, City Deals or devolution.

Like too many things in this country, these are policies conjured up in the corridors of Westminster, in local authorities’ offices, behind closed doors, or at exclusive events attended by the few. Imagine: attending the ‘Northern Powerhouse Conference’ held in February 2016, costing only £450: a real bargain for a programme which focussed only on business, with no inputs from civil society and third sector organisations, minority groups, or young voices.

Beyond this, the way in which City Deals have been put on the agenda seems only to reinforce the idea that devolution in the North has little to do with democracy, and more with the needs and wills of politicians. Indeed, none of the Deals that have been signed so far in Northern city regions such as Greater Manchester and Sheffield have been involved in any real process of consultation with the public from the outset. Of the elites, by the elites, for the elites, one would be tempted to dare say.

So who constructs the discourse of devolution in the North? How can citizens have a voice or exercise their power to decide what future they want for their localities and regions when decisions are made in the corridors of power?

It is hard not to feel disillusioned when comparing England’s experiences of devolution to Scotland’s democratic resurgence. Regardless of how one feels about the subject of the Indyref vote, it was a huge victory for democracy. People on both sides got engaged, got involved, and the politics, process and ideas were better for it. So rather than wallow in yet another critique of devolution, our question is how do we turn the devolution agenda into an opportunity to develop a real system of regional democracy? How can it be moulded into something positive, inclusive and hopeful? How can this moment be used to mobilise people of all backgrounds to be part of a movement to change England’s North for the better?

Step 1: Stop talking devolution, start talking about the issues

The first step in this direction is to change the ‘power-and-economy-obsessed’ discourse of devolution in the North, and focus instead on everyday lives. Devolution should not be just an empty word used by politicians in speeches or manifestos. It should not be framed simply as a way to achieve economic development. It should not be only about passing responsibilities (short of matching funding) down from the central government to the local or regional level. It should be about how to turn all these narratives into action, and figure out how the emerging new systems of governance could be used to improve people’s lives.

Thus, devolution must be reframed into something that is interesting and important to people on the ground and relates to their daily struggles, hopes, frustrations and dreams. We need devolution only if it is actually and directly connected to issues that matter to citizens. We need a system of regional democracy that brings better transport, education, housing, jobs, health care and strengthens communities rather than depriving them of their voices.

Part of the problem with devolution is that each of these systems is different. Instead of focusing on whether power should be given to Yorkshire or West Yorkshire or this council or that, we need to focus on the things that matter. Transport is not housing, health care is not education. There is no perfect geography for all of these systems, and they don’t need to be the same geography for everything. We recognise this already – Transport for the North has been set up because transport needs large-scale thinking, but this is often left outside the devolution conversation, even though it is ‘devolution’. Certain things are better done at the council level, and in some cases – as  with aspects of housing, or local economic development, or care – we need to be thinking about pushing power down to districts and neighbourhoods.

Regional democracy is about bringing together all of the actors – government, third sector, private industry, regular citizens – that are capable of contributing to a more sustainable, economically efficient and socially just systems that can provide these key services, regardless of scale. We need to keep our eyes on the prize, in this case better governance for better lives.

Step 2: Stop talking to each other, start talking with everyone else

If we are truly devolving power to local people, where are the people? Charities and the third sector have been almost entirely excluded. Grassroots groups have been ignored. Minority groups, communities of colour, young people – not at the table. From the beginning, there has been a politics of division and neglect – dividing rural voters from urban ones or squabbling between northern local authorities, or everyone from the political elite doing their best to either ignore outside voices or proclaim their own powerlessness in the face of Whitehall and Osborne. This is not to say that local authorities in the North are to be ‘blamed and shamed’. They have been between a rock and hard place, with the government snapping at their heels, all the way through the process that led to City Deals, and in the end they did what they had to do: accept what was on offer, so as to avoid their cities and economies  falling further behind the rest of the country. However, at the end of the day, in order to work the new structures that will emerge from the Deals (including elected City Region mayors) will have to take root in the local communities, and have the people behind them—at the polls in local and city region elections; but also on a daily basis. Local politics could, and should, play a key part in this, as an agent of change—but to achieve such a goal local authorities need to turn their attention not only to what the government wants, but also to their citizens’ voices. In many ways, last week’s local elections were a warning, shining light on how a continuing disconnect at local level could undermine the whole devolution agenda from within.

So we need more people involved, not because it is more just, or out of fairness, but because it is the only way to make sure the new processes actually function in the long term, and regional democracy – and the systems and communities it is supposed to improve – becomes a reality rather than a dream. Changing the North can’t be done without the people who live and work there getting involved and participating in such a process. We need organizations and institutions to come together and imagine a new style of politics, one which is pluralist and inclusive, and trusts and empowers communities. We need to engage young people, working people and communities of colour in new and exciting ways. The real ‘revolution’ of devolution as a means to achieve regional democracy ultimately rests in this, and not in the politics of catchphrases heralded by the Chancellor.

Step 3: Have the courage to believe in regional democracy

It is too easy to be cynical, but all cynicism does is turn the fear of the elite not delivering on promises into an inevitable reality. Instead, we need to take progressive steps to ensure that we are the start of a community-wide movement. Public pressure is one of the most effective ways to change policy, yet this is feeble at the moment. The key here is to spark the interest of citizens, and use that genuine interest as a catalyst for bottom-up regional democracy, bringing people closer to politics.

This is the biggest challenge ahead – especially because, in times of austerity, citizens tend to disengage from, turn against and blame politics. We must instead insist on and develop a new style of engagement that is not couched in easy anti-politics motifs, but builds from the grassroots upwards and seeks to challenge dominant assumptions – speaking to and connecting with the diverse and rich communities of the North, and insisting that a regional democracy which develops new forms of governance for better regional and local systems is possible.

All of us, as people living and working in the North of England, have to take responsibility for making this happen. We have to act together in any and all capacities that we can, whether as grassroots groups, community organizations, charities, unions, activists, universities and, most of all, as citizens, without asking for permission or waiting for public funding. This is not an easy task. But it’s not impossible either – just think about the work of the Scottish Constitutional Convention back in the 1980-90s, the democratic thrust generated by the referendum, all the impossible that became the possible. Our demands and needs and communities are different, but looking north of the border should be a source of inspiration to build on, rather than just of wishful thinking. Regional democracy has to start somewhere.

This is a collaborative piece jointly authored by Yorkshire residents Leila Taleb, Arianna Giovannini, Andrew WilsonAlex Schafran and Ian Martin.

A version of this article also appears on the Open Democracy and Oxpol websites.

 

Could we put ‘Ubuntu’ at the heart of better mental health for all in West Yorkshire?

Guest blog by Penny Wangari-Jones from Liversedge

Before David ‘Rocky’ Bennett’s death in an East Anglian psychiatric unit 18 years ago, he sent a letter to the nurse director, pointing out there were no black staff members. He wrote: “There are over half a dozen black boys in this clinic. I don’t know if you have realised that there are no Africans on your staff at the moment”. Bennett died while being held down by four staff members at a psychiatric unit after a violent altercation with another patient and a nurse. Looking at the circumstances around his untimely death, it’s clear his blackness was threatening to staff members. He had been using mental health services for at least a decade, yet his needs as a black Rastafarian were not being met.

Bennett’s death was a catalyst for what became ‘delivering race equality’ in health, however the cuts since 2010 mean little is currently being done. He is just one example of the mental health system failing people of colour – Sarah Reed, who died in a prison cell earlier this year after having been sexually assaulted, is a more recent case, but the list is far, far longer.

61% of refugees are likely to experience a mental health crisis or breakdown. Most will have experienced trauma before their arrival in UK, forced to deal with a complicated, bureaucratic immigration system. Refugees face the challenges of restarting a new life in a new country, often without family members, dealing with culture shock and language issues. Understanding the culturally specific, underlying reasons for their mental ill health could lead to far better treatment.

Minority communities who have been in the UK for several generations are also known to feel alienated from the health system. This means that often they do not feel comfortable in environments that are supposed to improve their mental health well being. Support is not always timely: reports show that black people are 40 times more likely than white Britons to come into contact with mental health services through the criminal justice system, rather than the general practice referral system.

There is also evidence that ethnic minority communities are less likely to seek help at an early stage of illness, due to a combination of lack of knowledge and stigma around mental health. But this is not helped by inappropriate or racist models of diagnosis which often lead to poor experiences of mental health services, for example being medicated, restrained and going off radar upon release.

It currently costs the NHS about £105 billion a year to deliver work on mental health. The NHS also has a specific plan for ‘equality and diversity’, following a catalogue of failures. But the continuing cut backs mean this plan is no longer being regarded as a priority. When it comes to mental health, providers still have little understanding of the nuances in the different cultures of minority ethnic groups. This means treatment that is offered by practitioners is ineffective and at a cost to the taxpayers.

The methods used to diagnose mental health illnesses are western-centric, often rooted in a tradition of Freudianism. This means they do not work universally. Globalisation means we no longer have monocultures in our towns, but mental health systems don’t reflect this.

Could devolution be an opportunity to do things differently? If we had responsibility in West Yorkshire for mental health, could we decolonise our system to fit with the communities that live here?

The Race Equality Foundation found that black people are three times more likely to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital for schizophrenia. This, in turn, has been attributed to institutional racism or to a racialized definition of traits associated with schizophrenia. Gesticulating or talking loudly is often seen as threatening in western cultures but might be seen as normal, acceptable behaviour in non-western cultures. People have lost lives because of such misconceptions.

For example, witchdoctors and prophets have been known to claim having powers to heal, transmit messages from gods or the dead to family or congregation. In some communities such people are held in high regard, but in others they are seen as delusional and therefore in need of medical intervention.

Decolonising mental health would allow practitioners to have a better understanding of different communities. This can be achieved through cultural diversity awareness, as well as having a more diverse staff team as people learn about others informally. This would make the services more accessible because a lot of service users are put off by going into places where no one looks like them. It would also place less expectation on the NHS to be the only solution for mental health problems. Communities can look after their own and each other allowing them to practice, for example, the African concept of ‘ubuntu’.

Ubuntu holds that humans feel human through affirmation from other humans and that is achieved through belonging, participating and sharing with others. The concept of lack of belonging and being ‘othered’ is one that most minorities say they struggle with. It has been argued for example that individualism in western societies can adversely affect someone who has migrated. Reinstating their qualities of Ubuntu instead of prescribing medication can improve someone’s mental health. An individual’s ability to have a choice of treatments that suit their cultural need would empower someone to feel like an agent and not a problem or victim.

Looking into the underlying reasons for poor mental health within certain communities and working with the communities to address it would be far better and more cost effective than sectioning someone under the Mental Health Act for a period or several times. Medication should not be the only solution. Instead, working with individuals and families will allow for better understanding of conditions to allow people to make their own choices on what works best.

Mental health has been and still is underfunded. Continuing cuts mean the situation is likely to get worse for those experiencing mental ill health. One positive thing brought about by cuts is it has fostered relationships and synergy between the statutory and the third sector. This has perhaps facilitated the gradual growth of social prescribing within the health service and would therefore mean health services are now looking at other alternatives.

It could be said that this ties with the spirit of devolution where the government announced it will empower local communities by handing decisions down to local people. A devolved health system is already part of the powers held in Greater Manchester and despite the size of the budget, there have already been calls to use this as an opportunity to challenge failings in national policy. If we get the chance through regional democracy to do things differently in West Yorkshire, stopping the situation deteriorating any further would mean refusing to replicate what has been the case so far: alienating those who are on the margins of our society. Having an understanding about communities who face multiple oppressions and equity would harness and create opportunities for involving everyone in West Yorkshire. The ability to involve all members in our communities in looking after their own will not only inform and empower them to demand what is best, it will also fill in the gaping hole being left open by cuts in services.

Intersectionality has in recent years highlighted how multiple barriers can make certain individuals or communities more vulnerable than others. W.E.B Dubois spoke about double consciousness and the effect of internal conflict on an individual living as a minority in an alienating environment. To improve mental health treatment for ethnic minorities would require understanding racial disparities in treatment. This is an example of ‘equity’.

Assuming everyone has similar health status and health care needs is a false starting point. People experiencing disadvantages mean equality in service is not enough. Equity in this case means patients not getting the same thing, but treating people differently having taken into account their different circumstances. Equity would mean that all sectors would work together to ensure individuals are not slipping through the net. If we have the opportunity to do things differently in West Yorkshire, that should be our starting point.

Penny coordinates the West Yorkshire Racial Justice Network and also works on developing and advocating for inclusive mental health support systems for BME communities. She can be found on Twitter here.

 A version of this article first appeared on Open Democracy here.