Nesta Democracy Pioneers

Democracy Pioneers is an award for innovations that are experimenting with ways to re-energise civic participation and everyday democracy in the UK. This series shares the experience and work of 19 Pioneers and what they hope to see change for their impact to go mainstream.

The People’s Powerhouse wants to bring new and different voices into discussions about the future of the North. The future of the North, encompassing the North West, Yorkshire and Humber, and North East, is currently high on the political agenda whether that be because of the COVID crisis, devolution or the recent shift in the political landscape. However, we believe there is a complete disconnect between Westminster leadership, The Northern Powerhouse, and people living and working in Northern communities.

The People’s Powerhouse is made up of over 1,000 organisations and people from across the North who believe that there is not enough diversity in the conversations about the future of the North. Our work helps to join up and celebrate good participatory work, as well as getting out into communities to talk to real people about their priorities and how we can support them to make a change on a local, regional or national level.

When we applied to become a Democracy Pioneer it was our intention to co-create and co-design a People’s Priorities for the North manifesto, through a road-trip gathering opinion, ideas, dreams and worries. The COVID pandemic caused us to pivot our work, focusing instead on community resilience and recovery through the People’s Powerhouse #RecoveryCoalition.

A meeting of citizens

Diversifying the voices in democratic decision-making

We strongly believe that there needs to be an amplification of civil society and people’s voices, through participatory democracy, in order to redress the balance of power and unrepresentative priorities being considered in plans around investment and infrastructure in the North. This issue is even more important now, as we see our concerns about unrepresentative decision making mirrored in the handling of the COVID crisis. A centralised, closed room structure has left no space for communities and citizens to influence at any level.

Our work with over 150 organisations through the #RecoveryCoalition aims to provide the space for a widening of this discussion, both in terms of who is in the conversation and what is being discussed. In particular, we believe that hearing from towns, rural communities, people with disabilities, young people, people from low-income households and BAME communities will strengthen recovery planning with more equitable and diverse solutions. To do this we’ll use insights we’ve gained to co-create a set of principles for a people-led recovery for the North of England.

As well as increasing the diversity of voices at decision making tables, we also need to see more people with lived experience and from more diverse backgrounds filling influential positions, at both local and national levels. A good start would be to see a woman elected as the West Yorkshire metro mayor as the North is currently served by five white men in metro mayor positions.

Devolution of power to local communities

We would like to see a national re-focus on local communities, with a meaningful devolution of power to a local level. Local governments must use that power and money to re-connect with citizens and provide more ways, using innovative solutions, for people to contribute to neighbourhood democracy.

The over-centralised nature of our democratic structures is the fundamental barrier to achieving change. This is amplified by the under-funding and neglect of local government. Without a strong and valued local government, it is difficult for people living in neglected communities to thrive, it is also difficult for local authorities to make the changes needed with the resource and funding challenges that they face.

We believe that full and meaningful devolution to the North of England with a people-led constitution for the North is what is needed. Given the necessary resources and power, the North is well-positioned to lead in the innovation and re-imagining of our democratic structures. So much of the current welfare state and historic progressive policy was born in the North of England and so there is no doubt in my mind that we could do this once more and breathe new life into our democracy.


Stephanie Riches

Stephanie is Coordinator of People’s Powerhouse.