From the late 1990s the New Labour government implemented changes to local government and, within the context of a discourse of 'democratic renewal', also introduced neighbourhood-based participatory Forums. In this paper, a framework is set out for analysing the democratic effectiveness of Area Forums. This framework sees Area Forums as novel social practice entailing interaction and assesses them against normative characteristics for an effective democratic public sphere; the analysis is applied to a case study of Area Forums in a small English city and finds them lacking in this respect. Aspects of Area Forums may even present barriers to effective participation. © 2009 Taylor & Francis.