''I have just been slagging off the government," was how Richard Leese greeted the Home Office minister Hazel Blears when she strode in for the second in a series of round-table discussions on community justice. The Labour leader of Manchester City Council made his remark more in jest than hostility. However, he and the other two Labour council leaders present were letting out genuine frustration at how local authorities are required to meet "inflexible", nationally set targets in public services.
"There are just too many government targets. And they are applied blanket fashion, whether they apply to local needs or not," said Leese. National targets "don't fit local circumstances", agreed Ian Barker, leader of Lancaster City Council. John Merry, the leader of Salford City Council, gave an example: "As a local authority, we have to reduce traffic deaths by a certain amount. Yet most deaths are due to the number of deaths on the M60. We are not responsible for the motorway, and it's perverse that we have a target based on something over which we have no influence."
Road safety concerns did not, on the face of it, relate directly to the core subjects of debate - community justice and civil renewal. But given that the government is serious about devolving power, the grievance felt regarding ill-thought-out local targets is one hurdle it will have to face.
It was last year that the government's definition of civil renewal was outlined by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, in his Edith Kahn Memorial Lecture. The lecture presented a side of Blunkett to which we had not been privy - the intellectual political historian. He started by praising a "golden age of ancient Athens" where "citizens participated directly in collective self-government". Ancient Athens has much to teach 21st-century democracies, Blunkett argued, highlighting that each Athenian male citizen over 20 was a member of the Assembly, a town-hall meeting of all citizens that took place regularly throughout the year. "In this understanding of politics and community, we are in a profound sense only truly free when we participate in shaping public affairs," he said.
In weaving his argument, Blunkett critically assessed generations of philosophers, sociologists and political thinkers, including Marx, Rousseau and Machiavelli. The Home Secretary concluded that he wanted to redefine the relationship between the state and citizens by devolving decision-making powers to the people; he wanted to use "popular engagement" and "active citizenship" for social and economic regeneration; and he wanted to divert financial control from Whitehall to community and voluntary groups. To every British citizen, his message was that "with freedom comes civil duty and obligation". While the Active Citizenship Centre will drive forward Blunkett's vision, the Adventure Capital Fund, a partnership between government and the voluntary sector, will hold the purse strings.
How appropriate, then, that this round table was held at a hotel on the banks of the River Irwell, which divides Salford from Manchester, both cities with vast experience of inner-city renewal, although on different timescales. Manchester has enjoyed a boom in prosperity over the past 15 years or so. Ghostly crumbling cotton mills are now opulent loft apartments for high-earning professionals. Salford has run-down Victorian terraced estates and their associated poverty, but it also has its share of loft apartments just a stone's throw away. Mirroring Manchester, regeneration cash is now flooding into poorer Salford, the city where Blears cut her political teeth as a councillor. And so, has she, now that she is minister for crime reduction, policing and community safety, understood Blunkett's vision? Most certainly, it seems.
"In our first term of government, there was a desperate need to get some control of public services," she said. "Now it is a question of 'how do we let go?'. And, hopefully, in a third term, it will be about community involvement."
As Manchester and Salford exemplify, when people are encouraged to become active citizens, one demand that is made by estate communities in particular is to crack down on those who not only refuse to participate in community life, but destroy it. You want civic renewal? First stop the thugs, vandals and burglars from making our lives hell.
Since Blunkett's antisocial behaviour orders (Asbos) were introduced five years ago, Manchester has issued more than 300. This is almost twice as many as any other city in Britain. But Leese and Merry are unrepentant. What's more, they wanted to set the record straight on their councils' support for Asbos - which, above all, they said, protect victims of crime.
"Manchester is known as the Asbo capital of the country," said Leese. "And Asbos are seen as being very tough on perpetrators. But an Asbo is just one measure of many, such as working with the family. Asbos do largely succeed."
Bernard Hogan-Howe, the new chief constable of Merseyside Police, agreed, while Merry added: "If we believe in helping our communities, there have to be some sanctions. We get letters denouncing us for Asbos, but they are usually from people living in nice leafy suburbs who do not experience what we are experiencing."
Whether the round-table participants would be as comfortable as Blunkett in articulating ancient Greek politics was something we had no chance to assess. However, they were all eager to share their difficulties in implementing active citizenship. What do you do, for example, if your citizens seem more inactive than active? In June, Manchester City Council ditched its public question time during council meetings: just 25 people had submitted 39 questions since it had been launched in October 1999. The initiative was a "complete flop", said Leese.
Yet according to a recent Home Office citizenship survey, almost 40 per cent of people are engaged in civic participation, however small-scale. "That's almost 16 million people," enthused Blunkett at the time. And, going by all these round-table participants, partnerships with community groups are being built successfully in other ways. Leese praised community involvement in the regeneration of east Manchester; Hogan-Howe highlighted a St Helens crime prevention project; Barker lauded locals who, given budgetary control, had helped draw up plans to provide a run-down part of Morecambe with a facelift; Khan Moghal, chief executive of the Manchester Council for Community Relations, related how, with renewed trust-building, local people were now more likely to report racial harassment to the police.
These were rosy stories indeed. Perhaps representatives of local pressure groups, had they been present, would have given a different view. In fact, the closest the two hours of debate came to a heated exchange was when the facilitator, Jenni Murray, curtly demanded that Blears answer one of her questions.
However, an essential question that the round table took steps to answer was: if the active citizenship agenda is to be brought forward, what general requirements must be met? Budgetary control makes a "real difference", asserted Barker; to win trust and respect for the police, we must find a way to prevent community police officers transferring elsewhere after two years, said Leese; concentrate less on public meetings when consulting the electorate and more on workshops, polls and citizens' panels, was a shared opinion. "A spectrum of public participation", was how Blears put it. And what about accountability in a new era of devolved people power? Give local strategic partnerships the teeth to do the job, urged Leese.
Given the political persuasion of most participants, the round table had the characteristics of a new Labour(ish) brainstorming session. But we certainly got a good idea of how their brains are ticking.
Jenni Murray (Facilitator) TV and radio broadcaster
Ian BarkerLeader, Lancaster City Council
Hazel BlearsMP for Salford; minister for crime reduction, policing and community safety
Mike FelseFounder, Proud City
Bernard Hogan-HoweChief constable, Merseyside Police
Sarah LeesCo-operative strategy manager
Richard LeeseLeader, Manchester City Council
David MeadenManaging director, public services, Northgate Information Solutions
John MerryLeader, Salford City Council
Khan MoghalChief executive, Manchester Council for Community Relations
Simon SmithDirector, community justice division, Department for Constitutional Affairs