A response from BATC to ‘Transforming Place – A Neighbourhood Strategy for Birmingham’

dec 5th draft B council house gradientIn May 2013 the city council published the consultation draft of ‘Transforming Place – A Neighbourhood Strategy for Birmingham’. (It can be found on the agenda of the Selly Oak District Committee (DC) for 30 May.) Here is BATC’s initial response. We look forward to taking part in the consultation process. You can download a PDF of the strategy document by clicking here.

The status of the report

According to the accompanying cover notes the origin of the report is ‘Service Director Localisation’ – ie not a Cabinet member or one of the Scrutiny Committees. Its circulation appears limited to the agendas of DCs.

The ‘Relevant Cabinet Member(s)’ are noted as Councillor Ian Ward – Deputy Leader of the Council, and Councillor John Cotton – Social Cohesion and Equalities. The ‘Relevant O&S Chairman’ is Councillor Lisa Trickett – Districts and Public Engagement Overview and Scrutiny Committee. The report is not marked as approved by her.

The covering notes state that DCs should ‘Provide any comments on the draft …by the deadline of 1st August.’

They state that ‘there will also be a wider consultation process to invite comments through the Social Inclusion Process (SIP) Steering Group and a Neighbourhood Summit to be held in July 2013’. Apparently this will be on 23 July.

They also state that ‘the final version of Transforming Place – A Neighbourhood Strategy for Birmingham will be presented to Cabinet in September.’

The Neighbourhood Strategy Background

The report refers to the claimed success of the previous neighbourhood programme:

Between 2009 and 2011 partners in Birmingham delivered a neighbourhood programme, focussing on 31 Priority Neighbourhoods, which was widely seen as having made great strides in engaging and empowering local communities and in bringing together service providers and communities to make in-roads into some of the key issues identified by local people. Examples include reducing crime and antisocial behaviour and improving the quality and cleanliness of open and green spaces. (These issues are often referred to as the Clean, Green and Safe agenda.)

(p3)

The aims of the new Neighbourhood Strategy

The vision is that ‘We want to see a city where most residents feel they can influence decisions about the area they live in’ (p8).

The commitment is to ‘Empower people to shape their neighbourhood’ and to ‘greater participation’. (p2).

The commitment to empowerment applies both directly at the neighbourhood level and at the city-wide level, because many local services are decided at the city level. The report ‘outlines an overall enabling framework that will facilitate joint working between stakeholders to deliver neighbourhood improvement’ in ‘Local mainstream public services’ and in ‘Initiatives planned and coordinated at a city-wide level which have a direct impact on lives in neighbourhoods’ (p2).

There are two fundamental objections to the new Neighbourhood Strategy:
1. It accepts the cuts and the framework of austerity
2. It does not actually empower local communities

1. It accepts the cuts and the framework of austerity

The report describes the present context:

However, national funding for neighbourhood programmes ended in March 2011, with no significant replacement in sight. In addition, the context for neighbourhood working has changed dramatically since then: economic stagnation; huge reductions in public spending, especially for local authorities; fundamental restructuring of many public services; the Welfare Reforms; and legislation on ‘Localism’ which, amongst other matters, gives local communities powers to challenge public service provision.

Yet the issues that face people in their neighbourhoods remain much the same. The picture of deprivation in the city as painted by the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) hardly changed between 2004 and 2010 and there is a high risk that deprivation will grow over the coming years. Indeed, more recent, partial updates of the 2010 IMD data suggest that deprivation has been rising fastest in the most deprived neighbourhoods since the current financial crisis began.

(p3)

The response of the report is to accept the austerity framework. Empowerment of local communities is defined as accepting austerity, participating in choosing what to cut and what not to, and ‘do more for themselves’. There is no notion that empowerment might mean campaigning to protect and save local services.

Public services will need to be more targeted on identified priorities of local communities.

(p4)

Communities will need to be less reliant on public services and do more for themselves if they are to protect and improve the quality of their lives. They will need to be even more enterprising, developing their capacity to deliver local services and thinking of new ways to attract resources into their neighbourhoods. Above all, they will need to be resilient with citizens supporting each other to overcome challenges, hardship and divisions.

(p4)

2. It does not actually empower local communities

Local power lies with the District Committee not the community.

This is what the report says are ‘the key features of the localisation and devolution arrangements’:

• Responsibility for the delivery of many Council services devolved to the ten District Committees which cover each of the city’s ten parliamentary constituencies.

• These Committees will consist of the Councillors elected for the Wards in that District, plus up to five cooptees including a representative from the District Housing Liaison Panel, the Police and the Fire Service.

• District Committees will hold an annual District Convention to agree District priorities with input from local communities and other stakeholders.

• Ward Committees will continue delivering their function of maintaining contact with local residents and community groups through regular public meetings. They will decide which projects to support with Community Chest funds based on District Plan priorities, and approve grants to support Neighbourhood Forums. (p10)

In other words:
• The key service delivery decisions will be made by the District councillors.
• The DC has no representatives elected by the Ward Committees (WC).
• There is only one community representative entitled to be on the DC – the tenants’ representative.
• Only a maximum of two other community representatives could be co-opted, and only if the DC chooses to.
• There will only be one opportunity a year for all community members to make a direct input (which may be ignored, of course) to the DC.
• The WC’s function is cautiously described as ‘maintaining contact with local residents and community groups’, rather than proactively enabling their participation in the formation of policy and relaying it to the DC.
• They will have no say in how the DC allocates its budget, only the choice of how to use whatever funds the DC decides to allocate to the Ward.
• The WC can decide its views on issues but it has no right to mandate its councillors to argue for those views on the DC – or even to raise them there. The WC is entirely dependent on councillors choosing to do so if they feel like it – and of course they may well not if they are views which they disagree with.

Local communities have no direct input into city-wide policy-making

The report states:

Many services that impact upon neighbourhood life can be organised to respond to specific neighbourhood needs and priorities. But many others, such as economic development, transport infrastructure, housing investments and public health, have to have a city-wide dimension to succeed. Yet in the past, the benefits of investments in these spheres have not ‘trickled down’ to residents of the most deprived neighbourhoods.

Two huge challenges for the Council and its partners are to ensure that neighbourhoods can influence such services and initiatives and to find ways for all residents to access the benefits these initiatives offer.

(p12)

This is true, but the structures and processes advocated by the report actually prevent neighbourhoods influencing city-wide policy-making.

This is how the report says the needs of neighbourhoods will be linked to city-wide initiatives:

District Committee Chairs, also known as Executive Members for Local Services now attend Cabinet meetings, strengthening communication between the Council’s central Executive and its Districts. (p13)

So this is how it is supposed to work:
• Local citizens raise an issue at their WC and it is agreed.
• They are then dependent on the goodwill of a local councillor raising it at DC.
• If the DC agrees, and if the District Committee Chair feels like it, she or he can raise it at a Cabinet meeting.

It is a completely undemocratic system which excludes local citizens from any direct participation in city-wide policy-making, which remains the monopoly of a handful of top-level councillors.

Our alternative: Transforming Place, Transforming Birmingham, through real Participatory Democracy

The principle we start from is this: People have the right to participate in the decisions which affect their lives – where there is power there must be effective public participation.

The exact nature of the structures and processes to make this possible can’t be spelled out in advance; they themselves should be the outcome of collective public deliberation – and there are many examples internationally to draw on. But we can briefly outline five radical reforms which are needed to make participative as well as representative local democracy
a reality in Birmingham:

1. Democratised Ward Committees
2. Public participation in District Committees
3. Strategic city-wide service committees with public participation
4. Public participation in Scrutiny Committees
5. Needs-based Community Budgeting

1. Democratised Ward Committees

a) The internal procedures of WC meetings – the way they are run – need to be redesigned to encourage the maximum of public discussion, including opening up the agendas and reducing the dominance of councillors. Too often WCs are about managing the community rather than enabling it to speak and have its voices heard.
b) WCs need to be able to put proposals onto the agendas of DCs and speak to their proposals.

2. Public participation in District Committees

a) DCs should include elected non-councillor representatives of WCs with speaking and voting rights, though while still leaving councillors with the majority of votes.
b) DCs should meet at times and places convenient for local public participation.
c) There should be regular District-level open forums, at least twice a year.

3. Strategic city-wide service committees with public participation

The Cabinet system was introduced into local government by Blair in 1997 in order to centralise power and enable faster decision-making. The result has been a profound democratic deficit as power is monopolised by a small minority of councillors.

The previous Committee system – which is still legal and which some councils still use – had two major advantages.

First, it meant that far more councillors were involved in policy-making. At present Cabinet members responsible for service areas have no committee of colleagues to work with, leaving them isolated and too dependent on officers.

Second, and crucial from the point of view of participatory democracy, council committees could co-opt lay members onto the committee and sub-committees. This was common practice among especially the more radical Labour Councils in the 1970s and 80s, where the co-opted members were often elected by various groups as their representatives, with voice but without vote. It was an important factor in the effectiveness of these Councils in tackling issues of gender and ethnic equality. This is exactly what is needed today to tackle the key issues that Birmingham council faces.

For example, take youth unemployment. What is desperately needed is a strategic advisory committee at the top level of the local authority bringing together elected representatives of the key interests, including of course the trade unions and young people themselves.

These committees could be set up now, even with the Cabinet in place. There is nothing to stop a Cabinet member from setting up an advisory committee in her or his area of responsibility with other councillors on it and with invitations to relevant interest groups, or districts and wards, to elect representatives onto it.

4. Public participation in Scrutiny Committees

Scrutiny Committees also need to be opened up to public participation, in a number of ways, for example:

a) Participation in public inquiries – a model that BCC has already adopted but needs to be expanded, for example by setting up working sub-committees on specific issues with public participants.
b) Procedures to enable relevant public bodies, including Ward committees, to put items on Scrutiny agendas and speak to them.

5. Needs-based Community Budgeting

The ‘Transforming Place’ report refers to:

Neighbourhood Community Budgeting – in Shard End, Castle Vale and Balsall Heath – where research and mapping of resources, consultation on priorities, and partnership planning of actions have been taking place over the past 12 months leading to Pilot Operational Plans being submitted recently to The Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

(p21)

There may be lessons to be drawn from this experience but genuine Needs-based Community Budgeting means a different starting point: not the needs of government but the needs of local communities and the city as a whole. It starts not from what government allocates to the council in its latest austerity handout but what the people of Birmingham need to provide the services they are entitled to. The process of creating it is not one of people and communities deciding what services to cut and what to try and save, but one of deciding what is needed and is worth fighting for as a community and as a city.

The council should launch a needs-based budget process as follows:
a) local communities come together to discuss and decide what their key needs are, and then develop, with technical experts, what projects are needed to meet those needs and what their costs are.
b) a similar process should be available to city-wide issue- based groups – eg around disability, or transport, or youth unemployment.
c) The various projects then need to be brought together on a city-wide basis and a costed overall City Needs-Based Development Plan drawn up, taking into account the priority for the more socially-deprived areas of the city and groups most in need.
d) The Plan, created and owned by the people of Birmingham, then needs to be the basis both of what service provision is possible and of a massive popular campaign aimed at government demanding the increased resources needed to meet the needs of the one million people of the city.

Birmingham Against the Cuts
July 2013

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