The Devon United conference at Newton Abbot Racecourse on Tuesday evening was a very positive meeting of minds seeking a change in the way our county politics is done. As was expressed by Paul Hilder, a visiting speaker from London with many years experience in online campaigning forums including Avaaz and Change.org, “we have far more in common than what divides us”. That was really the theme of the night which guided all of us present through various workshop-style discussions.
Pam Barrett, resident, town councillor and the Mayor of Buckfastleigh, laid out in her speech clearly and concisely the reasons behind the new Devon United – NOT a political party by the way! This is her speech in full.
DEVON UNITED – DOING DEMOCRACY DIFFERENTLY
4 OCTOBER 2016
Good evening and thank you all for coming to our first meeting as Devon United. I’d especially like to welcome those people who’ve come quite some distance to be here – from North Devon and from Somerset, London and even Scotland. I am Pam Barrett, resident, town councillor, mayor of Buckfastleigh and one of the founders of Devon United.
I’m not going to speak for very long – today is about us ALL discussing and exchanging ideas together – but I think it’s worthwhile telling you a bit of background about Devon United and what we are trying to do.
Devon United came about because of the realisation that the current system of democracy at a County level just isn’t working. Quite a few of us here are involved in local issues – trying to save and protect local facilities – parks – hospitals – youth provision. We’ve been watching unfair and unsupported planning decisions being railroaded through. Seeing the impact on our communities as local services are cut further and further back until they vanish all together.
And worse, when we try to get involved, get elected, engage with our communities and tell them what’s happening, when we have the support of the majority of people around us, even then, our voices aren’t heard. The system just isn’t designed to listen to us, to those we represent or those who are campaigning with us.
Trying to find out exactly what is happening is incredibly difficult. Then, if you’re lucky and you manage to navigate your way through the system, inevitably you’ll find out you’re too late, the decision had already been made, the “consultation” process is, at best inadequate, rushed and obscure, and really not designed to challenge the decision, but appears more to “tick the box” than change direction.
And where are our County Councillors in all of this? … with a few notable exceptions, more often than not, nowhere to be seen.
So what is Devon United? As of right now, THIS (gesturing at people gathered) is Devon United. It’s an attempt to find a way to get County Councillors who will represent the views of their communities, make decisions and support policies based on what those communities need. We want County Councillors who will act as interpreters and messengers, who will take the time and effort to make sure their constituents know what is happening and have a chance to input to the decisions that affect them.
We don’t want our Councillors playing party politics at a County level and we don’t want all the decisions and appointments to external bodies such as Dartmoor National Park, Police and Crime panel, Fire Service… being made by the same small group of party appointees.
Devon United IS NOT A NEW POLITICAL PARTY. It has no ambition to set itself us as another bunch of people seeking election. We’ve enough of those already! But we would like to see co-operation between all those who do intend to stand for election in the County Council elections in May 2017.
Looking at the election results from the last County Council elections it seems obvious that in many places, the votes were so split between competing candidates, only the major party – and in most cases that was the Tories – benefitted.
Like in most elections, the voter turnout was low. People didn’t believe that their vote would make any difference – and, on the whole, they were right – their vote wouldn’t change the result. I’m generalising, but the turnout was something like 35% with most candidates winning on about 30% of that. Hardly overwhelming!
It seems obvious to me that if we approach next year’s County Council elections in the same way, we’ll get a very similar result. We need do something different.
But we’re not looking at simply changing the seats at County Hall. We want people to stand and be elected because they will champion a new way of working. To be more than open, honest and transparent about the decisions they take and the reasons for them. To be holding regular and constructive discussions with their constituents, involving them in the process from the start – not when the decisions are already made – and to challenge the way things work.
Devon United aims to be an umbrella organisation to help parties and candidates work with their communities to find an approach that works for them, to identify and select candidates, to support them through the election process and to get communities and voters involved in electing their choice of County Councillor.
Devon United is an idea that things could be better and a belief that things SHOULD be better. We don’t claim to have all the answers – but we hope that some of you do!
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