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?