potting shed

The potting shed is a familiar signifier of a place where grumpy old men escape for some time to themselves. More recently, the ‘shed’ idea has been picked up by organisations like Age UK and Mensheds Australia as places where men can find company and improve their health and wellbeing.

I’d like to suggest a different twist for London: the plotting shed. Not a place of escape, but one where citizens of all ages and backgrounds and irrespective of gender can meet to engage with the society around them and have their say on the issues of the moment.

Despite the wealth of resources and opportunities to express ourselves available through social media and online petitions, Londoners remain only peripherally involved in the decisions that affect them every day. Only 38% felt sufficiently motivated to vote in the 2012 mayoral election, with the vote topping half the electorate in only two wards in the entire capital, and dropping to just over 19% in the Parsloes ward in Barking and Dagenham.

In the city that is home to the mother of Parliaments, the real decisions are most often taken by unelected officers and business people and there are few opportunities for citizens to put forward their own suggestions. A parliamentary select committee recently highlighted the inadequacies of the current system of scrutiny, calling for more powers for the London Assembly.

The next Mayor needs to rectify the balance and provide visible and high-profile forums where ordinary citizens can put forward and develop ideas to improve the capital. This needs to be done where the people are, not in the formal surroundings of City Hall or town halls. Hence the idea of the plotting shed: informal spaces in our major high streets where people can drop in and find out what’s going on, have their say on new proposals and get together with others to develop ideas of their own.

The purpose of the plotting shed would be to bypass the gatekeepers who too often ensure that good ideas are smothered by bureaucracy or turned into political footballs. Each ‘shed’ would be a welcoming, informal and politically neutral space, created at minimal cost – for example, by using temporary leases on empty shops – and staffed by a community organiser whose role would be to facilitate conversations, develop ideas and inform local people of issues that might affect them.

The facilitator would be responsible for summarising ideas put forward by ‘plotters’, submitting them to the mayor, local authority or business owner as appropriate, and then informing local people of the response. The Mayor’s role would be to fund and support the network, protect its non-partisan ethos, and ensure that each suggestion received an appropriate and respectful reply – and to hold organisations to account if they fail to respond to suggestions.

A network of plotting sheds is needed because political parties and business networks remain stuck in industrial-era models of accountability in a digital age that is increasingly powered by the informal and ad-hoc. The ‘shed’ creates a space where the informality of social networking can meet the needs of locality and the creative energy of face-to-face contact.

There are plenty of experiments and learning we can draw from: initiatives like the Work Shop in Lambeth or Make:Shift in Wolverhampton, for example. The difference would be that instead of doing odd events and projects, such an approach to participation and scrutiny would become part of the everyday way of getting things done in London.

What’s more, there would be cake. And coffee. And comfy chairs. All the things, in fact, that might make citizenship engaging and interesting, rather than something dominated by grumpy old (and not so old) men.

Julian Dobson is Director of Urban Pollinators and was co-founder and Editorial Director of New Start Magazine. He lived in east London for 16 years and tweets at @juliandobson.

Image via steve p 2008