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.