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.
The position of Birmingham Against the Cuts is that the main problem with District Committees is that they consist only of councillors. They should be opened up to participation by community representatives so that they are genuinely democratic bodies. (See most recently ‘A response by BATC to the Kerslake Review’ at https://birminghamagainstthecuts.wordpress.com/.) The exclusion of involvement by citizens is exemplified by the Scrutiny Inquiry itself: no evidence has been invited or submitted from citizens – it is a closed Inquiry restricted only to councillors (in contrast to other recent scrutiny inquiries).
Kerslake recommends Leeds city council, but for its business partnership, not its democracy
For Kerslake Leeds is a model that Birmingham should emulate. The Review makes favourable reference four times to Leeds. And Eric Pickles has just announced the Improvement Panel put in place to ensure BCC implements the Kerslake Review. It comprises four people: an accountant, an ex-chair of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, the Chief Exec of Cheshire West and Chester Council, and…Keith Wakefield, leader of Leeds city council. But Kerslake makes no reference to the structure of devolved local government in Leeds. His interest is in the role of the private sector in the governance of the city, not in empowering citizens and communities.
Leeds’ Community Committees
Leeds is a city of about 750,000, smaller than Birmingham but comparable. It has a Labour council with a large majority. It has 8 constituencies but 10 Community Committees – similar to our District Committees except they are based on the 33 wards, not on the constituency boundaries. The question is: to what extent do they represent a more participatory democratic model than Birmingham’s District Committees?
The constitution is similar in many respects, but there are several positive differences. The Community Committees have a short Open Forum item on the agenda where members of the public can speak (with the Chair’s permission); deputations can present concerns. The Community Committees can also have agenda items where there is wider citizen participation. Here is one example from 9 October 2014:
At the October meeting a workshop session was held on employment in the Queenshill and Brackenwood estates. The workshops discussed recommendations made in a report presented to the Committee based on research and engagement with local partners. The purpose of this workshop was to prioritise which recommendations should be taken forward first. The workshop gave residents, partners and local third sector organisations the opportunity to influence and shape work taken forward by the committee. (http://democracy.leeds.gov.uk/documents/g6867/public%20reports%20pack%2019th-jan-2015%2018.30%20inner%20north%20east%20community%20committee.pdf?t=10)
Leeds’ Community Committees have co-opted members from the community
In addition, there is one major difference from Birmingham’s DCs. The Community Committees allow, and have, co-opted members elected from Leeds’ equivalent of Ward Committee meetings. This is a significant step towards what BATC has argued for DCs. The co-opted members come as elected representatives of a lower-tier body: Community Leadership Teams (CLTs), which (the name is misleading) are ward-based local open forum meetings. (Leeds does not have Ward Committees.) CLTs do not feature in the documents from Leeds in the Inquiry Evidence Pack. Here is one example. (Area Committee is the previous name of Community Committees.)
Community Leadership Team (CLT) – This is a meeting whereby key local residents attend to discuss issues which are important to them and to develop solutions to address neighbourhood problems. Local residents who are members of the CLT are those who have civic roles in their local community, for example, school governors, chairs of local tenants and residents groups, etc. The CLT is currently chaired by Councillor Ron Grahame and takes place on a six weekly basis in a local community venue. A co-optee is to be elected from the CLT to sit on the Inner East Area Committee in order to feed through local views and influence strategic decision making on Area Committee policy. The meeting is open to the community to attend, with the first part of the meeting focussed on a specific discussion topic, followed by a Have Your Say section, where attendees can raise any issues or questions they may have. The CLT is a key tool in communicating improvements being made locally to the community and increasing public awareness of activity taking place in the neighbourhood. (http://www.leeds.gov.uk/docs/NIP.BurmantoftsandRichmondHill.pdf)
Leeds does not have Ward Committees, but the CLTs appear to have similar functions to Birmingham’s Ward Committees. CLT meetings are open to all local citizens to take part, and they seem to allow far more opportunity for citizen participation than the rather top-down management of Ward Committee meetings.
But there is one fundamental difference between CLTs and Birmingham’s Ward Committees. CLTs elect citizen representatives to the Community Committees, whereas there are no citizen representatives from Ward Committees on District Committees. The Scrutiny Inquiry should strongly recommend this reform for Birmingham.