Democratise Ward Committees, they aren’t fit for purpose…and don’t stop there!

 

The Council’s Districts and Public Engagement Scrutiny Committee has launched an Inquiry into ward Committees, asking the question ‘Are Ward Committees Fit for Purpose?’. The first evidence-gathering session took place on the 2nd of September. The Evidence Pack, including my written submission, can be found on the Democracy in Birmingham website at http://www.birmingham.gov.uk/democracy/Pages/AgendaDetail.aspx?AgendaID%3d81091.

The following speech was presented by Richard Hatcher to the meeting

The issue at stake here is not just better engagement with communities, it is the empowerment of communities. It’s about the distribution of power in local government. As the Leader’s Policy Statement of 1 July says, the aim is ‘To enable residents and communities to have a bigger say and take control…’. The Constitution of Ward Committees speaks of ‘maximising the influence of local people’. That means a new relationship between councillors and citizens, a new relationship between representative democracy and participatory democracy. This requires three changes:

1) Changing Ward Committee structures and procedures by three simple steps:
• Each Ward Committee should be headed by a Board consisting of the councillors and an equal number of local citizens elected by a Ward Committee eeting. They should set the agenda of meetings. (There are 40 Ward Committees in the city. At present the Ward Committee comprises only the3 (in one case 4) ward councillors, with no lay citizen involvement.)
• The Ward Committee meetings should be chaired by one of the elected citizens, not by a councillor.
• There should be clear procedures to enable local citizens to put items on the Ward Committee agendas, circulate papers, and introduce items at meetings.

2) But it also means changing the agendas of Ward Committees. At present they are dominated by issues such as parking, street lighting, litter, petty crime etc – as the reports in the Evidence pack demonstrate. These are largely parochial and operational issues. I don’t minimise their importance to residents. But they represent only a small part of the issues which shape the lives of citizens in Birmingham. Think of the issues that are largely absent from Ward Committee agendas: children’s social care, adult social care, the health service, the school system, early years and out-of-school provision, further education, unemployment… and the Trojan Horse affair. These are equally local issues but they are also citywide strategic policy issues. The focus of Ward Committees has to be widened to include them, and to enable people to feel that they can influence their policies and actions.

It has been argued that these issues don’t interest people and won’t attract them to Ward Committee meetings. I think the exact opposite is true. The reason people don’t raise these issues is because they don’t think Ward Committees deal with such issues. It’s a vicious circle. It certainly isn’t because people think potholes and parking are important and schools and employment aren’t. If Ward Committees embraced such concerns it would attract more people to their meetings.

3) This raises a fundamental issue for this Inquiry. What is the relationship between Ward Committees and the other structures of local government in the city – the District Committees and the Council House? (There are 10 District Committees, each comprising the councillors of 3 wards. They control a significant part of the Council’s spending on services).

The Ward Committee Constitution says ‘ensuring …issues are clearly expressed to, and considered by, the relevant Cabinet Member/Committees/Departments of the Council (or, where relevant, other public agencies)’. At present there is no means by which this can be guaranteed. Take District Committees for example. Ward Committees can have views and take votes, but the vote does not constitute a mandate on the councillors to, for example, present the proposal at the District Committee, which of course is almost entirely inaccessible to local citizens since there are no citizen representatives on it apart from the councillors, it takes place during the day in the Council House and citizens have no rights to speak.

Albert Bore speaks of the need ‘to redesign the machinery of local government’. I have three proposals:
1. Open up District Committees to public participation, in particular to elected lay representatives from Ward Committees.
2. Open up Scrutiny Committees to direct citizen input and participation.
3. Open up the Cabinet system by creating service committees, at least on an advisory basis, comprising both councillors and coopted lay members elected by Ward Committees and other bodies.

I’d also suggest that we need other forums for public participation in local government. One possibility would be local area meetings across ward boundaries when needed. Ward boundaries often artificially divide local areas with a real identity. For example, Handsworth is split into two wards with the boundary down the middle of the Soho road, yet there are many common interests.
Another suggestion would be for city-wide thematic forums on specific issues which are common to all wards. Take for example the current crisis in children’s social care. Wouldn’t it be valuable to organise a forum for everyone who is interested to explain the issues and the plans and get responses – or to go further in the direction of co-design and co-production of policy between the Council, the professionals, and the users of services? The same argument applies to the whole range of big issues that the city is grappling with: people should have the opportunity, and the right, to come together across the city to discuss them in forums with elected members and officers.

It has been queried whether participatory democracy is compatible with representative democracy. My answer is yes, for two reasons. First, because it is one means to strengthening popular involvement in political activity; second, because it can strengthen representative democracy by grounding it more firmly in what people want. And to those who want to limit public engagement to the Ward Committee level I would say: if it brings benefits to the democratic process in local government at that level, it would do so at every level, including the top.

In my view the more we are successful in increasing participation in WCs the more it will fuel the demand for increasing citizen participation in the other structures of local government, where the strategic power really lies. Democratising Ward Committees is a vital step, but it is only the first step and it has its own logic.

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Midlands Strike Rally – Victoria Square – 10th July 11:30am

10th july strike rallyThere will be a national strike day on Thursday 10th July with public sector workers protesting against the continued squeeze on their living standards brought about by pay freezes, pension cuts and below the rate of inflation pay rises under the Tory/Lib Dem coalition’s austerity agenda. TUC analysis shows that the average public sector worker is £2,245 worse off in real terms since this government took office. In local government, wherealmost two thirds of the workforce are paid below £21k a year and around half a million workers are paid less than the Living Wage, workers will have experienced a real terms pay cut of 18% by the end of 2014. The strike involves PCS, Unite, Unison, the NUT and the Fire Brigades Union.

Thursday 10th July

11:30am

Victoria Square, B1 1BB

Speakers: Christine Blower (General Secretary, NUT), Dave Prentis (General Secretary, Unison), Joe Morgan (GMB) and speakers from PCS, Unite and the FBU.

Accessibility: Birmingham City Centre is step free. The nearest train station is Snow Hill Station, followed by New Street and Moor Street. There is a single person accessible public toilet in Victoria Square, and accessible toilets are also available in Paradise Forum, around 100m from the rally site.

 

 

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DPAC lobby July 9th

 

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Disability and benefit campaigners have organised a vigil outside Birmingham Administrative Court to support a legal challenge to the PIP 20 metre descriptor. They would like anyone who can to attend to show how important this case is to disabled people.

This harsh tightening of the rules to claim the mobility component is yet another attack on the welfare state and disabled people. This government is making it harder for disabled people to claim vital financial support to keep them in work, at a time when the richest in society have had a 15% increase in their wealth.

Come and join the vigial outside Birmignham Administrative Court, Bull Street, from 1pm-2pm on July 9th

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by | July 7, 2014 · 12:06 pm

The Leader’s Policy Statement: local democratic empowerment, or just localised service delivery?

Albert Bore has just published his annual Leader’s Policy Statement, entitled ‘A Fair Prosperous and Democratic Birmingham’. How democratic is Birmingham, and how is the Council proposing to make it more democratic?

The answer to the first question is: not very. As the statement acknowledges, the proportion of residents who feel they can influence decision making is 33% (p24). In other words two out of three citizens feel that they have no influence over Council decision-making. So what is the Council going to do about it?

It claims to be increasing power locally.

‘To enable residents and communities to have a bigger say and take control we will seek to build the support necessary to make this happen for real.’ (p23)

‘…we will commit to devolving more power within the city, to support greater community leadership, democracy and flexibility in our local neighbourhoods.’ (p24)

But this is just window-dressing. In practice the statement defines local democracy as something quite different: integrated service delivery with input by local providers, as the following quote makes clear:

‘The Neighbourhood – building the role of our devolved district arrangements; bringing together Neighbourhood Services and creating service hubs; developing new providers including voluntary and community organisations and social enterprises and promoting wider roles for existing providers such as housing associations and schools. Key service areas will be environmental services, housing, neighbourhood advice, libraries, sport and physical activity provision.’ (p25)

And again, when the statement speaks of ‘The Triple Devolution model of city government’ (the city region, the city, the neighbourhood), it refers to the neighbourhood level as follows:

‘Districts provide integrated neighbourhood management and link into local hubs and city-wide services. Local hubs such as one-stop shops, health centres, schools, housing associations or community organisations providing services and supporting community action.’ (p26)

This is about localised service delivery, which may be a good thing but it isn’t at all the same as local people collectively having ‘control’ and power’ over policy: what services are delivered, how, by whom and to whom? Where power lies in this model isn’t at the neighbourhood level at all, which would mean the Ward Committee meetings – in fact, astonishingly, the word ‘ward’ only appears once in the entire 28 page document. Power continues to lie with the District Committees, which are notoriously undemocratic, since they only comprises councillors with no representatives on them of wards or local neighbourhoods at all. Each DC covers about 100,000 people so they are completely out of scale with neighbourhoods. They meet in the Council House during the day so are largely inaccessible, and even if you can get there you have no right to speak.

Bore’s statement makes one reference to the Council’s ‘Transforming Place: Working together for better neighbourhoods’ report published in March this year (p27). This too contains promises to ‘Adopt a flexible and bottom up approach that responds to the distinctiveness of the area by giving local people power and influence to decide on the priorities and design responsive solutions.’ (p14). But it says nothing about how the key neighbourhood structure, the Ward Committee meetings, need to be radically democratised to put power into the hands of local citizens.

This was the recommendation of the ‘Citizen Engagement’ report by the Districts and Public Engagement Overview and Scrutiny Committee, published on 4 February. The report states that Ward Committees should be ‘the primary means of engagement between the Council and citizens’ (7.3.13), but the verdict of the report is damning: they ‘are not currently fit for purpose’ (7.3.10.). The report’s recommendation is radical: ‘Some strong pioneering effort should be promoted across the city for radical experimentation with new and different formats.’ (7.3.13). But neither this recommendation nor the report itself are mentioned in Bore’s statement. In fact the report seems to have been swept under the carpet, and the chair of the scrutiny committee, Cllr Lisa Trickett, has been moved to Cabinet member for Green issues – perhaps thought less contentious.

There is one glimmer of hope in the statement, right at the end, in the section on ‘Our plans for 2014-15’. It says the Council will

‘Conduct a radical and comprehensive Local Governance Review to set out and consult on proposals for further reforms to our devolved governance arrangements, covering the role of district and ward committees and the potential for neighbourhood councils and other forms of local governance.’ (p27).

We say: not a moment too soon. And we’d add that reform also has to include the democratisation of the central policy bodies of the Council – the Cabinet and Scrutiny system, opening it up to popular participation in strategic city-wide decision-making.

But again the question of democracy is posed. Who will be involved in this Review? Will it be opened up to citizens and Ward Committee meetings – and not just to be ‘consulted’ but to actually be part of the Review team alongside councillors? Or will this Review to improve participation in local democratic policy-making itself exclude ordinary citizens from full participation?

Richard Hatcher

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The 2014 elections in Birmingham

Godfrey Webster discusses the implications for anti-cuts work
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The local and European elections were marked by the breakthrough of UKIP into an important electoral force, but also by a substantial vote for anti-austerity candidates in some areas of Birmingham. It is important that we discuss the implications for future anti-cuts work, and especially how we cam make an alternative to austerity a real presence in the general election next year.
At first sight it might appear that a party which failed to win a single seat in the six biggest cities in England could not be considered as significant. (London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, and Newcastle). However outside of the multicultural big cities UKIP did much better, and even in most predominantly white working class wards in Manchester and Birmingham they got between 20 and 30 % of the votes. In Shard End, one of the poorest wards in England they got 38%.

The percentage vote for each party in Birmingham is shown in the table below for the 2014 and 2012 council elections and the 2014 Euro election.

Percentage vote …………2014……….. 2012…………. Euro2014
Labour……………………..43……………… 51……………….40
Conservative. ……………24 ………………24……………… 18
Lib dem…………………… 14……………… 14……………….. 8
Green……………………….. 3.3…………….. 4.5…………….. 5
UKIP……………………….. 12………………..2.3…………….23
Anti-cuts…………………….0.9……………. 0.4………………0.4

BNP……………………………0.1……………..1.5……………… 1.3
Other rt wing…………………………………………………….. 4

The drop of 8% in Labour support clearly reflects frustration with the implementation of cuts by the Council. Although only a minor cut financially the green waste charge was particularly resented and the eventual decision to collect the waste even more unpopular with those who had paid the charge. The cuts in libraries and other services in Northfield undoubtedly led to the defeat of cabinet member Steve Bedser. But the scandal of underfunding children’s services and the press enflamed “Islamist takeover plot” in schools certainly contributed to Labour’s decline.

The challenge to Albert Bore by John Clancy on the basis of diverting some money from Capita to reverse some cuts was an important development and the 28 votes shows unease with the electoral consequences of the cuts policy is spreading. It appears Albert will respond by incorporating some of the most prominent oppositionists into cabinet or committee chair positions.

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The leap by UKIP from 2.3 to 12% in two years is actually an underestimate of their strength because they still only stood in about two thirds of wards. The 23% in the Euro election is nearer their real strength though perhaps a slight overestimate where local issues dominate over European. From talking to UKIP voters I get the impression that their support comes from three main areas. Firstly a real concern about the availability of jobs, housing, and NHS services. Secondly a frustration that the main parties don’t take these concerns seriously and that the Westminster clique are a privileged elite who don’t understand or care about their problems. And thirdly an inner readiness to blame “the other” ,an easily identifiable group, rather than the shadowy figures of merchant bankers and industrialists that they cannot see.

In other words the success of UKIP is a reflection of our failure to promote and persuade people of the real cause of their problems, the deliberate actions of this and previous British governments in producing a housing shortage, destroying manufacturing, prolonging the recession, and starving local government and the NHS of funds.

Our failure to win the argument for a socialist alternative is certainly attributable in part to the mass media who want protest to go in the UKIP direction where it is no threat to the rich and powerful. However it is also due to our own factionalism, the cowardice of the Labour left and trade union leadership, and our lack of consistent political work in many areas of the city.

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The left stood anti-austerity candidates in 16 out of the 40 wards in Birmingham, more than in any recent election. What is particularly evident from the results is the importance of previous political work. In the seven wards in which substantial anti-cuts work had been done the vote varied from 9.3% in Tyburn to 4% in Kings Norton, Bournville, and Acocks Green with an average of 6%. In the nine remaining wards where little or no work had been done the average vote was 1%. Generally the left candidates did not have the resources to do door to door canvassing which past experience in Respect and Labour shows is essential to build a firm basis of support.

The 12 from TUSC and 1 from SLP agreed a joint statement for Birmingham which was issued to the press. The Chamberlain Files reported that the statement was imbued through and through with hatred for the Labour Party. I would say sadness rather than hatred. Most of those signing the statement were ex-Labour Party members who left in frustration. Of course BATC does not stand candidates because it welcome anti cuts activists from any party. It has tried repeatedly to open a dialogue with the Labour councillors but always been rebuffed.

For me the lesson is that we clearly do get our message across by consistent anti-cuts work which brings political questions to a head in the struggle to defend our facilities. The vote for anti cuts candidates proves this. To counter UKIP we need to step up the intensity and geographical spread of this work, not invent new anti UKIP campaigns.

The privatisation of children’s and adult care is only the start of the council’s withdrawal from service provision, and sell-off of assets. It seems some sections of council workers are going to resist with strike action. The strikes over pay will also get approval from most other workers. We need to reinforce the bond between the council workers providing services and the users in the community which is the foundation of the anti-cuts movement and an effective fight back.

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