Democratic paradox south of the tube line

The local Neighbourhood Development Forum (which is now on Twitter by the way), held its latest meeting last week. I just perused the minutes and was intrigued by a paradox of democracy.

Walk with me.

The NDF has to determine the precise boundaries for its local plan. Ward boundaries are not necessarily the solution, but at the moment they’re the easiest option and the NDF covers West Hampstead and Fortune Green wards. This means that, for example, Broadhurst Gardens is not covered because it’s in Swiss Cottage ward.

According to the minutes of September’s NDF meeting, WHGARA – the residents association for the streets between Lowfield Road, West End Lane, Hemstal and Sherriff Roads – has not yet decided whether to support the Forum, but would make its decision on October 9th. I have discussed before the psychological and physical divide felt by some, but not all, residents who live south of the tube line between them and the rest of West Hampstead.

NDF members said they thought it would be hard for WHGARA to express its views on the development of the area, particularly the Interchange, if they excluded themselves from the Forum; WHGARA’s representative said she “thought the Forum was pro-development and didn’t have much support in the south of the West Hampstead area.”

James Earl, the NDF chair, said that if WHGARA decided not to support the Forum, the southern boundary would probably move north to be the railway line.

This raises a couple of issues. First, I’d like to see the evidence of the support or lack of for the Forum in the WHGARA area. My unproven hunch is that most people have probably never heard of it, let alone have a view on it. Second, although I accept that residents assocations generally represent their area, they are not necessarily representative of an area, so to my mind it seems odd that if an RA chooses not to support an initiative, this automatically means that area is excluded.

But this is not the paradox.

Keep walking with me.

Later, the minutes explain that the October 22nd NDF meeting will be open to the public and run in conjunction with WHAT. “Members said it was important to invite and involve more people than ‘the usual suspects’. There was a desire for publicity to be at the new farmers’ market; in shops and local businesses; and at other public events. Suggestions for poster locations also included on trees; doctors’ surgeries; schools; nurseries; community centres; parks; and cafes.”

Excellent – I wholeheartedly approve, and you can be sure I’ll mention it on here too. Now we come to the paradox. You live in the WHGARA area, but have never heard of it- or it’s not your thing perhaps. You’re browing the cauliflowers at the farmers’ market when you notice a flyer for a public meeting about shaping the future of West Hampstead. This sounds more interesting. You toddle along, but then find all too quickly that it will have no bearing on your immediate streetscape because some people you don’t know have decided not to support it.

Moving beyond the usual suspects is surely the right thing to do – the process should be open to as many people as are interested. So why then, is something as important as the boundaries for the whole plan dependent on the powers that be at WHGARA? More bluntly: what sort of majority off what sort of turnout is needed at a WHGARA meeting to determine whether it’s a yay or a nay? Do leave a comment if you know the answer to this question.

I would urge the NDF to stick to its guns and use the two ward boundaries as the basis for the plan. Even though I don’t think it’s perfect, I remain unconvinved that the lack of support of a residents association (should that be the eventual outcome) is enough reason to shrink the size of the area.

And there’s the paradox. Democracy should be about opening up decision making to the people, but it’s also pragmatically about electing decision-makers and abiding by their rules. Yet at this hyperlocal scale, the two seem to have the potential to clash.

You can stop walking now.

  • Cllr Keith Moffitt

    Fascinating piece, which does indeed point out an intriguing paradox here. I've been invited to WHGARA's next meeting in October and look forward to hearing – and taking part in – the debate around this.

    One point of detail – Broadhurst Gardens between West End Lane and Priory Road is in fact in West Hampstead ward.

    • Broadwell Parade is in Swiss Cottage ward – it's all a bit confusing!

  • Candice Temple

    That’s a really great analysis – absolutely spot on. I’m sure many political decisions get made on such assumptions. When people come to their senses they find out that decisions have been made on their behalf on spurious assumptions and it’s too late to do anything about it! You have to be pretty well informed to have heard of the WHGARA (what a mouthful!). But they are working really hard coming up with their plans, good luck to them.

  • James Earl

    Well, as I’m mentioned in the article, I should attempt a reply. The main problem is that no two people seem able to agree on the line of a clear and easily understood boundary between West Hampstead and South Hampstead. The already existing boundaries of WH ward, WH town centre area and SH conservation area all follow different lines. The Forum will try to reach as wide a consensus on this issue as possible, but ultimately a decision will have to be made on a line. I’m sure this decision will not please everyone, and I apologise in advance for that. I would only add that if people living in this area feel strongly about this issue, they should make their views known to both the Forum and WHGARA.

    • Thanks for the reply James, and it's a good point that anyone who feels strongly about this should make their views known publicly. It's one thing not knowing about it, but another knowing about it but not acting if you disagree.

  • The WHGARA vote is tonight – I did receive a lengthy e-mail response to this post from WHGARA although they declined my offer to publish it here, and I haven't yet had an answer to my question of what constitutes a binding majority (ie what % majority of what % turnout).

  • Apparently, they decided not to vote last night but leave the matter to the public meeting on the 22nd (see more recent blogpost from me on the details of that). I understand that opinion in the room was divided.