cities power

The five questions of power

Tony Benn famously said there were five questions to be asked about power. What power do you have? Where did you get it? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?

If you can’t answer the last of those questions, he told MPs, you don’t live in a democratic system.

The questions are relatively straightforward when it comes to those whose power arises from an electoral process, although waiting for an answer to the last question – four years in the case of Donald Trump and his coterie – may be frustrating.

When you’re dealing with the power held by virtue of wealth and property ownership, or as a result of the work and responsibilities of institutions, things get foggier – and potentially more troubling.

How do you get rid of a private company that has done a 25-year deal with a local council to maintain the roads when it turns out that the deal involves the systematic destruction of thousands of trees? And how do you get rid of the vehicles that through the pollution they create have the power to shorten the life expectancy of thousands of people in our cities? Where’s the accountability there?

Power, in short, arises not only from politics and hierarchies but from practices and relationships. And changing those relationships and practices is hard because often those involved do not even recognise the power they wield and the effects it has. Indeed it’s in their interests to deny that their relationships and practices exert power, because that suggests a need for responsibility and accountability.

One way to identify where power is at work is to ask about openness. What spaces, places, opportunities and resources are open and to whom? If they aren’t, why is that and is it acceptable?

Last week I was at two events focusing on the state of the city I live in. The first was the launch of this year’s State of Sheffield report, an annual examination of the city’s economic and social wellbeing. The second was a gathering of creative and tech folk that goes under the banner of Platform. I was one of four people asked to set out a ‘manifesto’ for a better Sheffield.

At the first event, there was much talk of fairness and social justice, as well as the usual focus on investment and economic opportunity. There was also a welcome mention of the city’s natural environment, described in the accompanying report as ‘a key part of [Sheffield’s] economic sustainability’. And to the extent that a thriving natural environment creates a place where people want to live and work, that’s what it is.

But there’s an unhealthy reductionism about this kind of thinking too, one that boils care for the world around us down to a calculation of the resources we can extract without doing permanent damage. Sadly, you only know resource extraction has gone too far when you’ve lost what you claimed to value.

At the Platform event I suggested we should think about opening up access to our city’s resources in ways that share their value and invite citizens to generate more of it. It involves applying the yardstick of openness not just to individuals and institutions but to places and spaces – thinking of them, as far as possible, as commons or shared amenities.

I suggested five forms of access we could encourage. Access to places; to opportunities; to the natural environment; to democratic engagement; and to a shared future.

I’ve written about access to places in my book on town centres, and access to the natural environment in my work for Groundwork and my recent submission to MPs on the future of our parks. Access to opportunity is not just about jobs, but about the opportunity to be creative, to build communities, and to learn not as a route to getting a job but for its own interest and delight. Access to democratic engagement comes from thinking differently about decision-making, swapping increasingly distant delegation for participation and conversation.

As for a shared future, we need to take into account those who do not yet have a voice – the generations as yet unborn – and those whose voices we have drowned out, the other species and forms of life we share our planet with and whose wellbeing we have routinely ignored and downgraded, even though ours is inextricably entwined with theirs.

That too is a question of power. The idea of environmental justice recognises that when we cease to respect the voiceless the world is a poorer place. Not just incrementally poorer, but paradigmatically poorer. That applies to humans, but also beyond the human species. Human beings are impoverished and become less fully human by neglecting the natural world and the wellbeing of future generations. The rapacity of Trumpery is a case in point.

So Tony Benn’s five questions find a new target: ourselves. What power do we exercise over the voiceless in our city and beyond? Where did we get it from? In whose interests do we exercise it, and to whom are we accountable? And if we can’t exercise it well and intelligently, who or what will stop us?


By Julian Dobson

@juliandobson on Twitter, writer and editor on anything to do with place and society. Researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. Occasional academic and creative writing too.

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