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

  1. Pingback: ‘The Future of Community Governance in Birmingham’: A response by Birmingham Against the Cuts | Birmingham Against The Cuts

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