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Working on a programme called Citizen Power is, I have to admit, a bit of a challenge coming from a human rights background. Who is this citizen whose power we’re so interested in?

For all that Socrates may proclaim himself a citizen of the world, citizenship is, by its very nature, exclusive. The citizens of a community must satisfy some set of requirements in order to enjoy membership in that community. While these requirements may have changed drastically from the fall of the polis to the rise of the nation state, they serve a similar purpose: to draw a line between those who belong and those who do not. The citizen is inevitably defined in opposition to the non-citizen – the culturally, ethnically, linguistically or politically different ‘other’ who lies on or outside the boundaries of the ‘imagined community’ of the nation state.

This is so for several (interrelated) reasons. First, in the modern welfare state, citizenship confers various social and welfare rights on citizens. In order to ensure that the state remains economically viable, it seems wise to limit these rights to those who, in turn, do their bit by paying taxes, contributing to the labour market, and so on.

Second, the principles of democratic legitimacy require that that rights of political participation are extended to all those who are affected by the political decision-making process. By exercising their right to vote or stand for office, citizens grant politicians a mandate to create or amend public policy on their behalf. Again, it makes sense to limit these rights to the legitimate members of a political community – we can’t have every tourist and their dog turning up on polling day.

And third, citizenship – particularly in its civic republican form – is a reciprocal agreement that demands active participation from its members. Yes, citizens are entitled to certain rights – but, in return, they also have certain obligations to contribute to a common social good (by engaging in public deliberation, shaping public institutions, helping out elderly neighbours, etc). This is reflected in the idea of a “Human Rights Act Plus” (which looks at supplementing existing rights and liberties with citizens’ responsibilities), and documents like the NHS Constitution and the Department for Education’s Guidelines on parental responsibility, which set out both rights and corresponding obligations.

This is all very well in theory, but in practice it gets a bit messy. There are many groups that are affected by political decision-making but excluded from the sphere of citizenship, particularly where this is premised on active participation. This may be because they fail to meet the formal requirements of citizenship (including asylum seekers, refugees and migrants); they have forfeited their rights to political participation (including prisoners); or they lack the basic capacities required to participate (including those who are very elderly, severely mentally disabled, extremely poor, homeless, unable to speak English, or otherwise marginalised).

In Peterborough, where the Citizen Power programme is based, there are relatively high levels of poverty (in 2009, 18% of working age persons were claiming a key benefit, against the national average of 15%), homelessness (in 2008-2009, 2.41 households were recognised as homeless per 1,000 people, up from national average of 1.03) and ethnic diversity (8.99% of Peterborians were born outside the UK or Ireland, up from the national average of 8.32%) and, anecdotally, large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. Citizen Power aims to revitalise a sense of attachment to place in Peterborough by building connections between people and communities and encouraging active public participation. But, in doing so, how inclusive is it of those who lie at the margins of – or beyond – the framework of citizenship, and are arguably most vulnerable? And, perhaps more importantly, how inclusive should it be?

There are definitely steps in the direction of inclusiveness. The Recovery Capital project is working closely with injecting drug users and prolific and persistent offenders. Peterborough Curriculum draws on the resources offered by a culturally diverse local community to create a unique place-based curriculum. The Take Me To project took a diverse group of residents – including members of the local Polish and Muslim communities, elderly community members, and adults with learning disabilities from 49 Lincoln Road – on an exploration of place and belonging. And the Civic Health project will examine the capacities required for active participation – including, crucially, where these are most lacking in Peterborough – and provide tools for addressing these gaps in order to encourage as broad a sphere of participation as possible.

Citizen Power Peterborough seeks to resuscitate a shared sense of community identity premised on other-regarding behaviour. In doing so, how can we best look outwards towards those on the margins of citizenship who are most in need of empowerment?


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