The forthcoming West Midlands Combined Authority: a threat to local democracy

The policy of both the Tories and Labour is for the spread of Combined Authorities (CAs). One is planned for Birmingham and the Black Country. The spread of devolution to CAs marks a fundamental change in the model of local government in England, and a further threat to local democracy. Here are some briefing notes on the developments and dangers that lie ahead for workers and their unions, for service users, and for citizens.
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‘The Future of Community Governance in Birmingham’: A response by Birmingham Against the Cuts

The Council has produced a consultation paper on ‘The Future of Community Governance in Birmingham’. It and two related papers are at http://birmingham.gov.uk/community-governance-review. Quotes below are from the paper. BATC’s comments are in boxes.

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If you want to see what Kerslake wants for Birmingham, look at Leeds

Neoliberalism imposes a policy framework on local councils which has two components:
‘roll-back’ and ‘roll-out’. Roll-back neoliberalism comprises reductions in the role and powers of local councils, most obviously through massive cuts in grants to urban authorities, but also through legislative restrictions (e.g. Gove’s requirement that all new schools had to be academies or free schools, not LA schools). Roll-out neoliberalism is the putting in place of a new transformed model of local government. Driving this is the function of the Kerslake Review, because for government the transformation in Birmingham is not going far enough or fast enough.
kerslake
For Kerslake a model that Birmingham should emulate is Leeds. The Review makes favourable reference four times to Leeds. This is one:

‘Other local authorities, such as Leeds (see ‘Example Strategic Planning Framework’ box p.35), have used their civic leadership role to develop a shared narrative and priorities for their city’s future. They have used this to help agree shared strategic objectives across the city and to form the partnerships that are needed to deliver them.’ (p36. Also pp16, 39, 48.)

Eric Pickles has just announced the Improvement Panel put in place to ensure BCC implements the Kerslake Review. It comprises four people, one of whom is Keith Wakefield, leader of Leeds city council.

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Birmingham’s District Committees exclude co-opted members elected by Ward Committees: Leeds welcomes them

We think that Birmingham has something to learn from Leeds in terms of citizen participation. Leeds is a long way from the sort of participatory democracy that we want, but for Birmingham it would represent a step in the right direction, because Leeds’ equivalent of District Committees does not comprise only councillors. It also includes co-opted members who are elected representatives of its equivalent of Ward Committees. This is what BATC has been arguing for for Birmingham.

Birmingham’s Scrutiny Inquiry into ‘The Role of Councillors on District Committees’

As part of the ongoing debate about the future shape of local government in Birmingham the Districts and Public Engagement O&S Committee has been holding a Scrutiny Inquiry into ‘The Role of Councillors on District Committees’. It has held Evidence Gathering Sessions into Housing (18 November) and Community Libraries and Youth Service (9 December), and a visit to the Erdington District (2 December). In January 2015 it published an Evidence pack.

The Inquiry contains two models of what are obviously regarded by the Committee as models for the way forward. One is the active role of the Erdington District Committee. The other is the model of devolved local government in Leeds. Its significance is indicated by the fact that documents from Leeds City Council take up 23 pages of the 94 page report.

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A response by BATC to the Kerslake Review

(Quotes from the Review are in boxed italics)

Sir Bob Kerslake is Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government. But he is no neutral civil servant. In April 2013 he wrote in the Daily Telegraph in praise of Margaret Thatcher and her pioneering privatisation programme. Now he has been sent into Birmingham as Eric Pickles’ hatchet-man to force Birmingham Council’s privatisation programme to go further and faster.

The purpose of the Kerslake Review is to make the Council a more efficient model of neo-liberal transformation from a provider of services to a commissioner of services by external providers in the driving context of drastic reductions in its budget.

23. BCC needs as a matter of urgency to develop a robust plan for how they are going to manage their finances up to 2018/19 without recourse to further additional funding from central Government. This should: … involve residents and partners. (pp48-9)

This transformation requires three major and interrelated changes to local government in Birmingham:

1. Efficient strong central corporate leadership and management by the Council – devolution of power to Districts is inefficient.

2. External partners (private and third sector) not only as providers of services but as partners in the governance of the city, i.e. in the formation as well as the implementation of policy.

3. Involvement by the community in this transformation, but not empowerment. Any transfer of power to communities would weaken central control and risk challenging both the cuts programme and partnerships with the private sector. Community involvement is necessary for two reasons: to induce community acceptance of the austerity programme, and to substitute community provision for some aspects of reduced provision. The latter is as much for ideological reasons, symbolising legitimising the cuts in democratic terms, as for actually saving money, which is likely to be minimal.

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Ward Committees still won’t be fit for purpose! A response by BATC to the Council report ‘Are Ward Committees Fit for Purpose?’

The District and Public Engagement Overview and Scrutiny Committee Inquiry report ‘Are Ward Committees Fit for Purpose?’ was approved by Council on 6 January 2015. It followed a report on “Citizen Engagement” published by the Committee in February 2014 which concluded that “Ward Committees are not currently fit for the purpose set out in the Leader’s Policy Statement (2012) as the major means for citizens to engage on issues affecting their area.” (BATC published a response to it.1)

The Council then set up another inquiry, specifically into Ward Committees, by the same Scrutiny Committee (now chaired by Cllr Zaffar in place of Cllr Trickett), which has come to exactly the same conclusion: they are not fit for purpose. Referring to the purpose of Ward Committees as spelled out in the Council Constitution, the Inquiry report concludes: ‘we cannot say that they maximise the influence of local people over the way in which the functions of the Council (or other public agencies) are discharged within the Ward.’ (2.1.3).

This is BATC’s response to the Inquiry report. Our comments on the Kerslake Review’s proposals for Wards can be found in ‘A response by BATC to the Kerslake Review’ on our website.

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Comments on 2014 Green Paper “Responding to the challenge – looking to the future”

Comments on 2014 Green Paper

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