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.

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

The cuts programme

Kerslake says: The Council’s cuts programme is wrongly based on the assumption of additional government funding.

16. The existing service review process appears to have been based on the assumption that that the additional funding from central government will be made available in 2016/17 and 2017/18 when that decisions is completely outside the council’s control. We have not been presented with evidence that the council yet has a credible Plan B if the additional funding does not materialise.

17. It would be more prudent to base service reviews on scenarios that did not assume the money will be made available. As it stands, there is a clear risk that they will need to reopen service priority decisions on which they have already started consulting. (p48)

BATC says: Kerslake is right. A Labour government would be committed to a similar programme of cuts in Council funding.

Kerslake says: The Council’s cuts programme needs to be more strategic and transformational.

12. Our view is that the reductions so far have been too reactive and tactical. (p26)

This is not sustainable. They need to be more strategic, transformational and underpinned by stronger analysis. A step change is needed. (p46)

BATC says: For Kerslake, cuts are not an end in themselves. They need to be strategic because their purpose is the fundamental neoliberal transformation of local government from a provider of services to a commissioner of services from the private and third sectors.

Workforce planning and performance management

Kerslake says: Workforce planning and performance management is poor.

39. As BCC’s headcount reduces it is imperative that the organisation is able to recruit, develop and retain staff, and ensure that those who are performing poorly leave or improve. (p29)

41. In addition, as of August 2014 only 6% have been assessed to be performing poorly. In contrast 77% of staff were assessed to be performing above average. (p29)

46. We have not been able to form an assessment of whether BCC’s planned headcount reductions will leave the council with the capacity it needs in the future because we have seen no evidence of proper workforce planning. (p41)

Our conclusion is that poor performance is not being addressed and the existing annual appraisal process and Performance Development Review is not operating as it should. (p51)

Kerslake says: Workforce planning and performance management needs stronger central control.

54. BCC should undertake a fundamental strengthening of their Human Resources (HR) function.

55. The strategic role of workforce planning and HR policy should be vested in an existing Cabinet member. The Cabinet should not delegate this vital role. Members’ roles in workforce issues, beyond the Cabinet, should be limited to scrutiny, appeals and the appointment of Chief Executive, Strategic Directors and Directors. The Cabinet should ensure strategic workforce planning supports the council’s priorities.

56. BCC should appoint a senior person to lead people change and workforce planning. This individual should be responsible for the development of the workforce plan the Leader has stated is needed, revising existing HR policies and, with the corporate leadership team, ensuring these are applied corporately. The workforce plan should be informed by the strategic plan for the future operation and size of the council. (p43)

BATC says: This means a tougher approach to selectively reducing the number of staff and tighter management control of the workforce that remains.

District Committees and Wards

Kerslake says:
• District Committees are inefficient at delivering services.
• Wards are too large.
• A new model of devolved local government is needed.

(NB The future roles of district and ward committees are under review by the council. The council’s ‘Community Governance Review’ is due to report in 2015.)

19. Our view is that the current arrangements in Birmingham are not sustainable for two reasons: first, because the management and delivery of services by District Committees is neither efficient nor effective; and second, because the city’s growing population will mean Birmingham’s wards become too large for effective and convenient local government.

24. The council clearly faces a tension between the desire for local control and its budget. It has argued that devolution could bring benefits of reducing service costs and improving responsiveness to local people. However, we have not seen any evidence of this and consider it to be a very high risk strategy. (p24)

33. The pressure on BCC’s budget means the existing devolution arrangements within the city are not sustainable within the constraints of their available resources and need to be reformed. We are therefore recommending a model the council can adopt. (p23)

BATC says: We too think that a new model of devolved local government is needed, but one based on the empowerment of citizens and communities, as we explain below, not the even more centralised model that Kerslake proposes.

District Committees

Kerslake says: District Committees are inefficient at managing and delivering services, making cuts, and representing citizens and communities.

20. District Committees are not working as a model for delivering services or for community representation…

21. We do not think the theory of devolution, in effect creating 10 mini councils within Birmingham, is working in practice or will work:
a. District Committees have not been able to maintain financial control. There were significant overspends in District budgets on sport and leisure services for several years…
b. the discretionary spending that is actually controlled by District Committees has shrunk dramatically…

22. BCC expect to be required to identify savings of £360m by 2017/18. Nobody – members, officer, partners or community – was able to explain how devolution might work in consistent terms that align with the council’s budget, staff challenges and the role of members… (pp18-19)

BATC says: Kerslake is right to criticise the Council’s devolution policy for claiming to have devolved power to District Committees while in fact continuing to retain central control over most of their budgets. But his main objection to District Committees is that they are not effective at making cuts.

A new role for District Committees – or abolish them

Kerslake says:
• DCs should not deliver or manage services
• Their roles should be a) representing the community and b) scrutiny.

40. However, if the existing District Committees are to be retained they should no longer be responsible for delivering services or managing them through Service Level Agreements. Instead they should be refocused on shaping and leading their local area through influence, representation, and independent challenge and scrutiny of all public services located in the city within the District, including those run by the council.

41…District Committees will need to be able to manage their finances and meetings should take place in the community and be open to the public. Alternatively this could operate at a ward level.

42. If the decision is taken to retain the Districts exercising a powerful scrutiny function then the number of city-wide Scrutiny Committees should be reviewed and in light of this reduced to no more than 3. These scrutiny committees should focus on city-wide services and performance. (p25)

BATC says: This would represent a complete change in the role of District Committees. All power would be in the hands of the corporate centre, i.e. the Cabinet, with no pretence of devolution. Instead District Committees would have two roles.

One would be a ‘representation’ role, through meetings being in local areas (which we agree with) and ‘open to the public’, which they already are. But Kerslake doesn’t propose empowering citizens and communities by widening the membership of District Committees. He wants the role of District Committees to be to collect feedback on ‘customer satisfaction’ with services so they can report back to the corporate centre. It is a form of consumerist democracy not participatory democracy.

The second role of District Committees would be scrutiny. Again, the absence of citizen participation in District Committee decision-making would mean they had no power in the scrutiny [process, only the opportunity to express views if allowed.

BATC believes that District Committees need opening up to local public participation, with elected non-councillor representatives of Ward Committees and representatives of other relevant local organisations. There is no constitutional obstacle to having additional members. All the Constitution says is that ‘Ten District Committees have been established by the Council and the relevant Ward Members have been appointed to serve on them’ (10.1.).

Kerslake also proposes reducing the city’s scrutiny committees to just three (corresponding to the three directorates?), again with no citizen participation, and with far too wide a brief to effectively hold all the various service areas to account. The explanation is that in Kerslake’s model for the Council scrutiny becomes a relatively mechanical process of monitoring the contracts given to external providers in terms of costs and outcomes.

Replace election by thirds by all out elections to strengthen leadership

Kerslake says: A strong leadership role by Council requires stable long-term planning. Elections by thirds leads to short-termism and should be replaced by all out elections.

32. Part of the problem in Birmingham is the culture of short-termism. There is an inability to focus on longer term problems, including transforming services, that is holding the council back. It also encourages members to become too involved in operational issues.

33. We believe that, especially in conjunction with an electoral review, changing the electoral cycle to all out elections can have a significant impact on a council’s ability to change and adapt, provide stability in decision making and aid long term planning and vision.

34. The Secretary of State should move Birmingham City Council to all out elections replacing the current election by thirds. (p40)

BATC says: We oppose this proposal because its purpose is to strengthen central control by insulating the Council from electoral influence except a vote every four years.

Kerslake says: External partners (private and third sector) not only as providers of services but as partners in the governance of the city

Kerslake says: The Council needs partners because it hasn’t got the capacity on its own either to deliver services or to improve.

BATC says: It is true that the Council lacks capacity, but this is the deliberate consequence of the drastic and ongoing cuts in government funding. Unlike Kerslake, who accepts them, we call for them to be stopped and the Council properly resourced.

42. We are not confident that BCC has the capability or the capacity it needs to improve. BCC need to ensure that their senior leadership team is structured in such a way as to bring strategic leadership with the focus, capacity and energy to drive the improvement of service delivery, especially in schools and children’s social care. (p41)

Kerslake says: Current partnerships are dominated by the Council.

12. The criticism from the council’s partners is that their concerns and priorities are not listened to. The council develops plans alone without input from their partners (see chapter 2) and then expects to discuss how others can contribute to what they feel are the council’s predetermined priorities. (p53)

BATC says: Of course the Council has to work with partners. It always has. But the strategic direction of policy has to be set by elected local government. Kerslake wants to undermine this.

2. Kerslake says: An ‘independent Birmingham leadership group’ is needed

30. We did not find any evidence that external partners have helped shape the Leader’s Policy Statement or the business plan. As the council reshapes how it works to get the best of very limited resources across the whole of public services in Birmingham it needs to work much harder to align its priorities with its partners. Part of the way to do so is to be clearer about the overall direction of travel, and then to bring partners and communities into the planning process (see chapter 4) P39

22. BCC should adopt a one city approach and support the development of a new long-term vision for the city of Birmingham, which we call the ‘City plan’. This should be approved by the new independent Birmingham leadership group (see chapter 4).

23. The vision should be for the long term. It should be shared by as many of the civic leaders in the city as possible, it should articulate the city’s values – not just the council’s – alongside the ambition and the outcomes they want to see. The vision then needs to be used to drive the strategic planning and performance management of the council (see below and chapter 3) and its partners. P37

22. The Trojan Horse Review Group recommended the creation of a civic leadership group both chaired and strongly represented by credible independent voices. This has not yet happened. But we agree with the Trojan Horse Review Group that a forum for ‘collective civic leadership’ is needed.

23. The council should facilitate the creation of a new independent Birmingham leadership group. The group should approve the new long-term City Plan and be used to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account.

24. It will be for the independent Birmingham leadership group to determine the appropriate chair, but our view is that it should not be someone from the council.

25. This group should be used to help guide and deliver both the vision for the council and the partnership approach across the city. The group should be independent of the council, representative of the city’s communities and should also take on work to engage with the city’s communities to provide two-way feedback. (p55)

BATC says: These are key elements of Kerslake’s agenda to increase private sector power over the Council. Birmingham needs to ‘align its priorities with those of its partners’? No, its partners need to align theirs with the Council’s. The ‘city’s values – not just the Council’s’? Kerslake means business values – the need to maximise profit. The ‘independent Birmingham leadership group’ would not be chaired by a councillor. And the most dangerous threat to local democracy: it would ‘approve the new long-term City Plan’ and ‘hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account’ – i.e. it would be able to exercise a veto over Council policies it didn’t like. And, as before, the community role would be only to provide feedback.

3. Kerslake says: Involvement by the community in this transformation: feedback but not empowerment in policy-making

34. Our proposal recognises the reality of very limited resources and the need for effective and efficient governance alongside more powerful community engagement. (p24)

21. By working together with local communities relatively modest steps can help pressure on resources by reducing the consumption of services and supporting local communities to help themselves and, where necessary, giving people the tools they need to do so. (p48)

Kerslake says: Communities don’t have adequate opportunities and the Council doesn’t listen.

3. By far BCC’s most important partnerships are with the residents it serves, and yet despite the recent progress the council has made we have found many communities feel unable to raise issues, nor have a route to engage or have their voices heard. (p52)

Rooting decisions in the community
44. The council needs to move away from the invitation-only gatekeeper model of engagement with communities. There is little evidence that an understanding and knowledge of the diverse communities in Birmingham is being used to drive decision making in the council… (p62)

49…There is a lack of space in formal district and ward meetings for more general conversations so the council is not able to hear what people want and to be able to react. (p63)

41… [District Committee] meetings should take place in the community and be open to the public. (p25)

39… Our view is the bottom-up engagement and partnership working the council are seeking will happen when councillors are an effective link between their communities and services. To do so councillors need to have regular and direct engagement with residents and the organisations represented in their wards (see chapter 4) not be sat in formal committee meetings in the council house. (p25)

BATC says: We have long argued for the democratisation of local government in the city, but unlike Kerslake we advocate empowerment of citizens and communities through reforming or creating structures to enable them to participate effectively in policy-making and decision-making.

More but smaller wards with one councillor each?

Kerslake says:
• Make wards smaller by increasing the number, and reduce the number of councillors to one per ward. This will save money and make community engagement better.
• Make ward meetings more participative.

44. Each ward in Birmingham is currently represented by 3 councillors. By reducing the number of members per ward and amending the ward structure, it would be possible for members to represent a smaller number of residents, to be better supported by officers and to save the council money. (p25)

51. Formal ward committees should be changed to allow them to operate more like residents’ community forums, providing a space for residents to spontaneously raise issues and have general discussions. (p63)

BATC says: We agree that wards are too large. There are several alternative options – with elections continuing to be by thirds, which should be discussed, but we oppose reducing the number of councillors because it would reduce the ratio of councillors to electors, meaning less democratic engagement.

Ward meetings should be ‘community forums’, but with power to shape policy, not just talking shops for feedback to councillors. The solution to ‘community engagement’ is the creation of democratic structures and processes.

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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.

SUMMARY OF BATC’S RESPONSE

• The Inquiry report makes some positive suggestions for increasing the participation of citizens and communities in Ward Committee meetings, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

• Influence entails empowerment, the power to have influence over decisions. Ward Committees don’t empower citizens and communities, and the Inquiry proposals don’t transfer any power to them.

• Ward Committee meetings should be run jointly by councillors and lay citizens. The agenda and management of meetings shouldn’t be under the sole control of councillors.

• The democratisation of Ward Committees will only become effective if it is accompanied by the democratisation of District Committees. District Committees need opening up to local public participation and membership.

• The agendas of Ward Committees have to widen to address the full range of policy issues in the city that affect people’s lives.

• Topic-based city-wide meetings are also needed, to enable people from across the city to discuss common concerns.

• The report should be informed by theory and by relevant experiences of other local authorities, but it isn’t.

The empowerment of citizens and communities?

Influence entails empowerment, the power to have influence over decisions. The question is, to what extent do the structures and procedures of local government in Birmingham in practice enable this right to be exercised? The evidence in the report is clear: Ward Committees don’t. ‘Fewer than one in ten thought they were about decision making or holding either Councillors or officers to account.’ (p14). ‘At the Citizens UK roundtable it was stated: “It’s a democratic issue. You’re asking people to come along to a meeting where they have no power or decision-making. Councillors make the decisions.”’ (p19). ‘One person who joined in the web chat said: “At present all too often huge wadges of council stuff is delivered at us – read out- with stern warnings that we have to put up with it…. Leaving people feeling dumb struck and powerless – it can feel as though we are there to rubber stamp some process: ‘Tick box: Read out at Ward Meeting.’” (p20).

Empowerment is a key theme of Albert Bore, in his recent annual Leader’s statements and in his keynote address “Imagine a Better City” at the Council’s Democracy Convention on ‘The future governance of Birmingham’ on 28 October last year, launching its Community Governance Review. He said ‘I believe that true localism is not just about passing powers down to local levels of government, it is about empowering citizens, communities and businesses to make a stronger contribution to achieving the outcomes we seek together.’ Leaving aside the question of whether citizens and businesses always seek the same outcomes, the key phrase in Albert’s speech is ‘empowering citizens [and] communities’.

The notion of empowering citizens to participate in policy-making has featured in a number of national Labour Party policy documents over the past two decades, most recently in People-powered public services, produced by the Local Government Innovation Taskforce for Labour’s Policy review, and published in July 2014. It says ‘The Taskforce’s proposed approach to reform is based on three core principles.’ One of them is ‘People power: People should be more involved in the design and delivery of services, able to access information to inform decisions and empowered to hold local services to account.’ (p7).

At the national level the rhetoric of empowerment was not translated into practice by the Labour government. The question is, will this also be the case in Birmingham today? To what extent will the recommendations of the Ward Committee Inquiry report empower citizens and communities in practice, enabling them to play an effective role in decision-making?

The Inquiry report makes a number of recommendations, for example regarding publicising meetings, using jargon-free language, and making procedures more hospitable to participation, with which we agree. And we recognise that Ward Committees aren’t the only way that councillors can engage with citizens and communities. (There isn’t space to comment on all this here.) We also agree with the support given by Cllr Waseem Zaffar, Chair of the Committee, in his Preface to the report, to the comments on Ward Committees in the Kerslake Review. He quotes Kerslake’s statement that “There is a lack of space in formal district and ward meetings for more general conversations so the council is not able to hear what people want and to be able to react” and Kerslake’s recommendation that “Formal ward committees should be changed to allow them to operate more like residents’ community forums, providing a space for residents to spontaneously raise issues and have general discussions.” Cllr Zaffar agrees: ‘We would be comfortable with this as a way forward as it is exactly what many of those giving evidence to us have also been stating.’ (Note that Kerslake’s statement applies to District as well as Ward Committees – a point we return to below.) However, BATC rejects the thrust of the Kerslake Review, which is to centralise power further and reduce the role of citizens to providing feedback without power. See the BATC response to Kerslake.

The Inquiry report’s recommendations are a small step in the right direction in establishing some basic procedures for participation which at present some Ward Committees do not operate. But they fall far short of actually transferring some power to citizens and communities, even in the terms which Albert Bore uses. Symptomatically, the words ‘empower’ or ‘empowerment’ do not appear at all in the report.

We say: Ward Committee meetings should be run jointly by councillors and lay citizens

The necessary precondition of empowerment is that citizens have the power to shape, together with councillors, the agenda and management of meetings. Here the Constitution is a bureaucratic obstacle. It stipulates that ‘The membership of Ward Committees shall consist of those Members elected to serve that Ward. … and there will be no co-opted members of the Ward Committee.’ The Constitution needs to be amended. (Of course if Kerslake’s proposal for one councillor per ward is accepted the Ward Committee would only consist of one person!)

The report notes that ‘A number of people proposed more radical changes to Ward Committees. One witness, for example, suggested that they be chaired by a citizen, not a councillor and that each committee has a board of equal numbers of Councillors and citizens which sets the agenda.’ (p27). (That witness was a supporter of BATC and the proposal was made originally in the BATC document1.) The report continues ‘On balance, however, our view is that Councillors have democratic legitimacy and should, therefore, remain as chairs’ (though it doesn’t actually reject the joint board idea).

We say: Democratise Ward Committees, democratise District Committees

In our original BATC response we argued that local government in the city needed to be democratised from bottom to top. The democratisation of Ward Committees only becomes effective if it is accompanied by the democratisation of District Committees and of the whole Cabinet and Scrutiny system (which we deal with later). Here we comment on the Inquiry’s implications for District Committees.

The report notes that District Committee items feature on the agendas of some Ward Committees but not on others and recommends that ‘Given that many decisions pertinent to a Ward are actually made at a District Committee there should be regular agenda items to enable issues to be fed into Districts and to feed back from them.’ (p31). That it is felt necessary to recommend this indicates how hopelessly ineffective as instruments of democracy some Ward Committees are.

The relation between Ward Committee meetings and District Committees is one of the fundamental obstacles to empowering citizens and communities because District Committees consist only of councillors with no lay citizen representation. The flow of power is only downwards but not upwards from Ward Committee meetings. The problem is actually implicit in the Council Constitution which says that one of the functions of Ward Committees is “Ensuring that the needs of the Ward and key issues affecting local people are identified and assessed; [and] Ensuring that such needs and issues are clearly expressed to, and considered by, the relevant Cabinet Member/Committees/Departments of the Council (or, where relevant, other public agencies)’ (Article 10). But the absence of citizens representing Ward Committee meetings on the District Committee meetings means that they are entirely reliant on their councillors ensuring that their concerns are expressed and considered at District Committee meetings, with of course no guarantee that they are, especially if their views don’t coincide with those of councillors.

In our BATC response to the Citizen Engagement Inquiry we said the following and we say it again now:

We believe that District Committees need opening up to local public participation:
1. District Committees should include elected non-councillor representatives of Ward Committees with speaking and voting rights, while still leaving councillors with the majority of votes.
2. District Committees should be able to include representatives of other relevant local organisations with speaking rights.
3. District Committees should meet at times and places convenient for local public participation.
4. There should be regular District-level open forums, at least twice a year.

Interestingly, Kerslake proposes, and is quoted by Cllr Zaffar in his Inquiry report preface, that District Committee meetings as well as Ward Committee meetings are opened up to public participation: “There is a lack of space in formal district and ward meetings for more general conversations so the council is not able to hear what people want and to be able to react”.

We go further than Kerslake: we advocate empowering citizens by having elected lay representatives of Ward Committee meetings as members of District Committees alongside councillors. There is no constitutional obstacle to having additional members. All the Constitution says is that ‘Ten District Committees have been established by the Council and the relevant Ward Members have been appointed to serve on them’ (10.1.).

We say: Widen the issues on Ward Committee meeting agendas

According to the Inquiry report the purpose of Ward Committee meetings is to enable citizens to influence policy and provision of services in their area. However they typically have a much narrower agenda. The report states that ‘Agendas and minutes from the Ward Committee meetings indicate that the attention is on street level liveability issues in the ward.’ (2.1.2). However, action on ‘street level liveability issues’ often requires action at District or Cabinet level, including funding far beyond what a Ward Community Chest budget can afford.

But a focus on such issues tends to marginalise or exclude two types of issues. First, agendas tend to focus on some services such as waste disposal and policing (the views of the police are also given undue prominence in the report itself) and to exclude others which are equally if not more important such as schools, early years provision, health services, the housing shortage, and unemployment. Secondly, agendas often tend to give less attention than they deserve to city-wide strategic issues even though they affect local lives and often shape local provision. A current example is children’s social care: a crisis issue for the council, a crucial issue for the children concerned and their parents and carers, but seldom if at all on Ward Committee agendas.

The explanation for the narrow agendas of Ward Committee meetings is largely a matter of path dependency – of the expectations built up over the years that this is what they discuss because this is what they can influence, coupled with the preference of some councillors to keep it like that. That has to change if they are to be genuine instruments of local democracy addressing the full range of policy issues that affect people’s lives.

We call for additional topic-based city-wide meetings

The Inquiry report states that the Council’s recent support services service review ‘concluded that specific topic based theme groups be abolished so citizens could engage with the institution of the council as a whole person, rather than as a resident of a neighbourhood, an older or disabled person and a user of specific services.’ (p26). We understand the principle here but the decision throws out the baby with the bathwater. The problem with Ward Committee meetings is that they geographically fragment issues and concerns. Many issues and concerns apply right across the city and there need to be, in addition to Ward Committee meetings, city-wide topic-based forums where they can be discussed. (Children’s social care is just one current case in point.) Without such forums each issue is fragmented into up to 40 separate discussions, and perhaps not properly discussed at all of them. Furthermore, even if they are, they are then reliant on being fed upwards through 10 District Committees to reach the top of this hierarchical structure, Cabinet, as an aggregation of disparate views rather than a coherent and more unified viewpoint arising from deliberative discussion among those most interested across the city.

Open up Scrutiny to citizen participation – set up a Local Public Accounts Committee

In our original BATC response we argued that local government in the city needed to be democratised from bottom to top. Here we argue that to be effective the empowerment of citizens and communities through the democratisation of Ward Committees needs to be accompanied by the democratisation of the city-wide scrutiny function. The current national Labour Party policy document People-powered public services, published last July, which we have already referred to, makes a proposal which we support.

It proposes that Councils should establish new powerful independent Local Public Accounts Committees (LPACS), ‘building on existing scrutiny functions and potentially complementing and extending existing audit committee functions.’ They would have ‘three core powers…:

• The power to have access to any papers, accounts or information and to require senior officials or accountable executives to give formal evidence to inquiries.
• An ‘enter and view’ power, with a right to access real time information and to directly access and talk to staff and service users.
• A power to use this evidence to make recommendations to improve impact, effectiveness and efficiency of public expenditure to any local public service commissioner or provider, to which they would be obliged to respond within a set timescale. (p30)

What is particularly important from the point of view of empowerment of citizens and communities is that LPACs would not comprise just councillors, they would have citizens as members:

‘LPACs would be designed to strengthen local democratic accountability by having a majority councillor membership drawn from backbenchers to maintain the separation from executive functions. Active involvement of local people and public visibility of LPACs would be essential to them providing effective and responsive challenge. People can be involved directly with provision for lay representation on the committee itself. Any review of a service must have representation from service users or relevant user-led representative organisations on the panel. All meetings and evidence sessions would be held in public, with forward agendas and reports publicly available and easily accessible.’ (pp30-31)

One or more city-wide LPACS in Birmingham would be a real step forward in democratising the Council through citizen and community participation. Furthermore, it does not depend on Labour winning the general election – the Labour Council could agree to set one up now. It’s just a matter of political will.
The report is informed neither by theory nor by relevant experiences of other local authorities
Finally, it is absolutely extraordinary that a report addressing such fundamental issues of local government should do so in complete isolation from the debates now taking place nationally (and indeed internationally) about changes in the role and structures of local government and the relationship between representative democracy and participatory democracy. There is a large body of very relevant literature available but the report contains not one single reference to it. The report is informed neither by theory nor by relevant experiences of other local authorities.
This debate will continue, and BATC will continue to argue for the policies in this initial response, in the contexts of the Kerslake Review and the Council’s ongoing Review of ‘The future governance of Birmingham’.
Footnote
1. ‘If you want ‘Citizen Engagement’, democratise the Council from top to bottom! A response to the Scrutiny report on ‘Citizen Engagement’ from Birmingham Against The Cuts’. https://birminghamagainstthecuts.wordpress.com/?s=Citizen+Engagement%E2%80%99 February 2014.

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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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Public meeting: No to Privatization – the future of children’s services in Birmingham

untitled (2 of 13)

Helga Pile, UNISON National Officer for Social Care, speaking on the Con-Dem Government’s reforms of children’s social care

Prof Sue White, Professor Sue White, Professor of Social Work (Children and Families),

@CelticKnotTweets speaking about the Doncaster Children’s social care trust company model

Doncaster’s Childrens services trust company structure explained

On Thursday 23rd October, West Midlands SWAN in conjuction with UNISON and Birmingham Against the Cuts, will host a meeting entitled ‘No to Privatization: the future of children’s services in Birmingham and the national implications’. The meeting’s main speakers will be Professor Sue White and Helga Pile (Social Care Lead, Unison). This will be held from 7pm in Committee Rooms 3-4, Birmingham Council House.

The Problem
Birmingham’s beleaguered children’s service have come under repeated assault from Ofsted and senior politicians and is seemingly unable to lift itself out of a crisis. Some say this has been in its own making.

The Government and appointed experts have suggested that Birmingham is ‘too big’, it has been poorly led and it needs a clean break from the past. Julian Le Grand and his review team said that constant re-organisations had been demoralising and that there was a ‘lack of external challenge’.

Birmingham does not take as many children into care as other authorities, but in doing do may be placing more children at risk? If families are to be supported how do making massive cuts in preventive services help?

There has been a historic under-spend in children’s services compared to other cities with comparable problems. The council say they have put back £9m, but are coy about the fact that this has only been found at the expense of cuts elsewhere in children’s services.

Social work vacancy levels are running at 25% with many experienced staff leaving to work in neighbouring authorities.

The Solution
The Con-Dem coalition is pushing for all children’s services to be outsourced and wants Birmingham to lead the way. In April the Government proposed that council’s could delegate almost all of their social services functions relating to children. There was a massive outcry to the idea that G4S and Serco might be in charge of child protection. 70,000 people signed a petition and 37 leading experts wrote to a national newspaper in protest. In June the Government announced an apparent U-turn but the redrafted regulations allowed profit-making companies to set up a ‘non-profit making’ subsidiary.

What Next?
How do we oppose privatization in all its disguises? Should we entertain non-profit making organisations or are they the thin edge of the wedge? Is Birmingham’s Labour Group giving up on children’s services every remaining a directly run service and why?

This meeting will give a platform for the opposition to and the arguments against privatisation to continue to be heard. All welcome.

About the Speakers
Sue White is a professor at the Institute for Applied Social Studies, at the University of Birmingham and was one of a number of leading academics who signed the petitioning letter published in the Guardian in May (http://bit.ly/1nZDR04) that made front page news. Sue’s latest book with Brig Featherstone and Kate Morris, ‘Re-imagining Child Protection: Towards humane social work with families’, is published by Policy Press.
Helga Pile is UNISON’s National Officer for social care and social work. Helga is a frequent media commentator and represented UNISON on a wide range of social work issues including the Social Work Reform Board.

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Defend our Youth Services

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by | October 22, 2014 · 8:18 pm