A recent report on the prospects for effective local co-regulation by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning http://www.info4local.gov.uk/documents/publications/1987644 set me thinking about the way that the debate on regulation in the UK has become so binary and negative in nature.
For some, regulation is pretty much always a bad thing; for others it is an essential tool of control. The main proponents in this discussion are often business on the one hand and public authorities on the other. Individuals tends to see themselves as consumers wanting quite properly to have recourse where things go wrong and to have their health and other interests safeguarded. Local communities tend to become involved in controls over nuisance and anti-social behaviour in their area.
The debate is very rarely couched in terms of wider citizen interests and even more rarely in terms of promoting positive outcomes from regulatory activity.
This Cambridge report has some reasonably detailed discussion about the experience with various forms of particpatory techniques much of which will be familiar to those who immerse themselves in these questions and does not come up with any specific prescriptions for the future. But three things emerged from it for me:
- it helps to delineate the role for citizens as opposed to consumers (although to be fair the report discusses at some length whether this is always a helpful distinction to make) and between citizens and professionals. As the report says 'citizens should not be treated as experts. Their role is .. to express their aspirations, values and concerns ...' . That seems absolutely right; providing an input on the general manner in which regulatory activity is conducted; not usurping the role of professionals in its detailed translation and not becoming a set of essentially individual consumer demands
- co-regulation goes beyond self-regulation in that whilst it may draw on a broader range of interests it is undertaken in the expectation that it will be enforced
- well designed and thought through processes to develop co-regulation could provides a basis on which to have a positive dialogue rather than one focused either on removing almost all constraint on economic activity or on demanding ever tighter and more draconian control over some actions or people deemed undesirable.
If a greater degree of co-regulation can start a discussion about the way that regulatory activity can be used to promote good things and to secure outcomes - reflecting views on sustainability, justice and the like - which are ones that are good for the area and the people that live in it, that would be a huge step forward from the sterile discussion that generally takes place. As the report suggests, couching a conversation and a process around safer streets is far preferable to the kind of inherently negative discussions about restricting alcohol sales, banning people from certain activities and so on.
If approaches of this kind can help to put the discussion about regulation back into the context of making places better, that can only be a good thing.