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Roll up, roll up, ladies and gentlemen, for the show of the century! The Great Illusionist is about to perform! With one wave of a white paper, the perspicacious prestidigitator will scatter the stardust of empowerment among the awed masses…

And boy, do they need it. A mere 38% of people feel they can influence local decisions, according to the latest citizenship survey – down from 44% in 2001. What’s more, only 57% of the local area agreements approved this week have set targets for more people to feel they can influence local decisions.

So more than one third of local strategic partnerships thought there were better things to spend their time on.

You would have thought local authorities might have got the message from Empowerment Towers by now. But as we reported last week, the dismantling of community empowerment networks continues apace, much of it at the hands of those who have been selected to champion the agenda of participation.

It makes you wonder whether the forthcoming white paper will be much more than a sleight-of-hand that will leave us all feeling cheated when the circus trundles out of town.

Yes, we’ll have community kitties, the right to a response to petitions and help to transfer assets to local management.

But will they have any more influence than those Facebook groups headed ‘I bet I can find a million people who think meat is murder’?

Influence hangs on relationships. If Hazel Blears is genuine in wanting citizens to have more say, she’ll know that it demands more than an opportunity to choose who gets the crumbs from the council leader’s table. We need to start with trust.

It’s trust that is disappearing from democracy – national and local, representative and participatory. One good way to build that trust is to support networks that provide a forum for debate and a chance to hear voices that are often lost in the political hubbub.

There’s nothing magic about a network. They can be as good or bad as the individuals involved.

They can be hijacked or ineffective. But when they work, they provide a powerful voice for local people without the distortions of party allegiances.

If you want to know how serious your local strategic partnership is about participation, see how it treats your local networks.

If you want to know how serious the communities secretary is about empowerment, see how much support she provides for relationships of respect.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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