The Hearings: helping Brum find its voice

by Frank Lawton –

I moved to London two years ago, just after I left University. Born and raised in Birmingham, I’d spent the best part of twenty years living in Birmingham, but as soon as I arrived in London, it was impressed upon me that this is where decisions are made, stories spun. It was not simply that the national newspapers and television were suddenly reporting about where I lived. There you can’t help but fall over a debate on Brexit, a think-tank panel discussion, a public lecture with Q&A, a state-of-the-nation play.

Two things struck me: one was the obvious centralisation of power, the other was that here was a functioning public sphere. The two are clearly linked. The sense that this is where power lies had a galvanising effect, it seemed, on the desire to be involved in public debates. And to a certain extent this was reciprocated in the various corridors of power (media, finance, government etc), which responded to an active interest on their doorstep. This is of course not to say that such debates or interest do not exist outside of London, but what was remarkable was the scale. People might have been fed-up with politics, but it didn’t stop them voicing their opinions publically. Apathy had been abstained.  And I started to reflect on my home city.

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London is the seat of government, finance, the media, and many of our great cultural institutions. Being the capital, a degree of this centralisation is inevitable, but we all know that that this centralisation has been increasing ever since the 1980s. With the seedlings of devolution, this may be about to change, but it is far too early to tell for sure. As it is, power so densely concentrated has a responsibility to reach out and include voices from other parts of the country.  Yet there are many places more often spoken for than spoken with, as the Brexit referendum and 2017 Election show.  Birmingham, the second city, is one of those places.

You might say ‘well, it doesn’t really matter, they’ll do their thing and we’ll do ours’, but this masks an underlying question: in whose interests are decisions being made? For when you aren’t heard, over time you can lose your voice and the will to act, to try and make a difference because, after all, ‘no one listens to us, what can we do?’

That’s why I left my job and set up The Hearings, a non-partisan, charitably-funded not-for-profit that explores the state of UK democracy by hosting debates outside the Capital. And where better to begin than Birmingham, my home city?

‘Hearing Birmingham: A Debate on the City’s Future’ (May 24th)  has been built from a series of conversations and roundtable discussions we’ve had with people from across the city, in order to find out what Birmingham wants to talk about. People disagreed about the successes and issues faced, but there was near-unanimity on two points: ‘Birmingham isn’t heard nationally’, and,  as Phil, 57, put it, ‘it’s been the same the whole time I’ve lived here; I’ve given up hope of being heard’.

Our free debate aims  to address this disillusionment with something productive, participatory and hopeful. Our unique format will combine entertainment with engagement, theatre with thought: we have fantastic local speakers who will each address an issue the city faces and how to fix it – they will then be quizzed by our in-house barrister and by the audience, who also have the chance to put forward your own experience, stories, successes and concerns. We also have a free drinks reception post-event with invited charities and civic groups (including BVSC!), so the audience can act on what they’ve heard, and take the first step to greater civic engagement. Because we want Birmingham’s views to be heard beyond the confines of our debate, the event will be filmed, broadcast as part of a documentary, and later taken into local schools.

This is about trying to re-energise the public sphere, and overcome the despondency that has been the result of a combination of centralised power, local mismanagement, and a mistrust that has grown between our public institutions and the public they serve, something I have experienced first-hand during this process. It is about showing that there are ways to get your voice heard, to shape your society, and through filming, get those views heard beyond the city. I look forward to seeing you there!