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Westminster Hall debate on citizens’ assemblies and local democracy

Local government is committed to innovative community engagement with residents to identify key issues in their communities and co-produce solutions. Many councils have adopted methodologies such as citizens’ assemblies, juries and panels to help engage with voices and communities who might otherwise not be heard.

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Key messages

  • Effective community engagement is best delivered within the framework of representative democracy, with councils being well-connected with their communities and one of the most trusted actors locally.
  • The shaping and delivery of devolution deals can represent an effective moment for the use of methods such as citizens’ assemblies, demonstrating a genuine commitment to power being shifted towards local communities.

Citizens’ assemblies

When citizens’ assemblies sit within and inform the framework of representative democracy (at local or national level), they can be a good tool to talk about challenging local topics, and to reach audiences and communities that are sometimes not included in more traditional forms of consultation and engagement. The format allows for deliberation, open discussion and focussed questioning, which in turn enables an informed recommendation (or series of recommendations) to be made by citizens. A number of local councils have used citizens’ assemblies or similar methodologies, such as citizens’ juries, to consider and help develop options for some of the increasingly complex decisions local authorities have to make, including budget prioritisation and service provision in difficult financial circumstances, local regeneration and housing proposals, or how to effectively address issues, such as the cost of living crisis, on a local level. A number of recent examples can be found in the following section, but this is not a new departure for local councils – for example, Camden Council undertook community assemblies in 2017 to engage with residents on the main challenges in the borough’s future and to co-produce solutions to the issues identified. 

Citizens' assemblies can also be used before devolution deals are agreed - to shape the content of a deal and inform plans for implementation. Their representative sampling, the use of expert witnesses, and the amount of time given for deliberation means that citizens' assemblies have tended to discuss big issues which effect large numbers of people; making them well suited to engagement in devolution areas.

The use of stratified random sampling increases credibility because it leads to a representative assembly with diverse membership and has the benefit of involving people who may not usually engage in political processes. The deliberative element – through which citizens are given time and resources to learn about, reflect on, and discuss a topic in-depth – also marks it out from other consultative methods which may require participants to give their opinions before they have had a chance to take a balanced look at the arguments.

However, citizens’ assemblies can require sufficient time and investment. For example, Ontario in Canada ran an assembly involving around 40 people over a period of three months for $75,000 (£43,000). These are substantial costs to be borne by local councils that have faced a decade of tight financial settlements. Further, the effective use of such methodologies, if run at a council level, requires a dedicated and specialised engagement function within the council, which has been deprioritised as part of cost saving programmes in many cases. Encouraging wider take-up and usage of assemblies and similar methods would require a renewed recognition from central government of the value of community engagement functions within councils, and corresponding resourcing to that end.

Innovative community engagement

Councils are committed to engaging with their communities in innovative ways, with a particular focus on hearing from communities that have not traditionally engaged with standard forms of engagement. It has never been more important for councils to engage effectively with residents and communities. The experience of highly challenging local government finances, the COVID-19 pandemic and the increased cost of living has shown how vital it is that councils maintain open channels of communication, and opportunities for engagement.

Councils are increasingly aware of a degree of ‘consultation fatigue’ in many communities. This challenge, in addition to the challenge of engaging with hard-to-reach groups, has encouraged councils to seek innovation in how they 'do' community engagement.

Some local authorities have begun to fundamentally re-examine how they undertake community engagement. Below are examples of co-designed participatory processes and a People’s Panel, which share many similarities with citizens’ assemblies.

Torbay Council needed to construct new sea defences at two beaches. The original design was met with substantial public opposition, demonstrating significant community ‘buy-in’ to the appearance of the seafront. The council decided to pause the project and commission new designs, created using co-design and consultation principles. The new design programme was used not only as an opportunity to create defences that had community buy-in and were aesthetically improved, but also as a learning opportunity across the council on better ways to undertake community engagement and achieve buy-in.

This shows the good practice of councils using an innovative style of engagement to co-design services and solutions to issues such as cost of living, while sitting within and not replacing the democratic legitimacy of the council.

Local democracy

We continue to support the ambition that every area in England can secure a devolution deal that works for them and their residents, without the need for a lengthy process of negotiation or local governance reform. 

Announcements on devolution deals in the 2024 Spring Budget support our calls for devolution deals to go further for all council areas. Different councils have been seeking different arrangements and we therefore welcome progress on the different types of deals. 

The trailblazer deal in the North East supports our long-held calls for an end to the fragmentation of government funding and the bringing together of single place-based budgets aligned to local priorities. It is positive to see further devolution unlocked for more places, including to those parts of the country outside cities. 

Further detail on the single settlements for Greater Manchester and the West Midlands Combined Authorities is an encouraging sign and echoes our call for a radical re-investment in local devolution, drawing on the lessons of Total Place, Whole Place Community Budgets and similar programmes to reform public services and better align scarce resources with the needs and aspirations of local communities.


Hannah Sadik

Public Affairs & Communications Improvement Graduate

020 3838 4844/07867 461578

[email protected]