The Council has produced a consultation paper on ‘The Future of Community Governance in Birmingham’. It and two related papers are at http://birmingham.gov.uk/community-governance-review. Quotes below are from the paper. BATC’s comments are in boxes.
Strategic city leadership
‘We will conduct an appraisal of our Overview and Scrutiny arrangements (committees in which councillors assess the delivery of services) with the potential of reducing the number of central scrutiny committees either immediately and/or over time. The role of assessing the delivery of services will shift progressively to the local level (see below) with a focus on the performance and development of all services in the local area (from all public agencies).’ (p6)
This proposal should be opposed for two reasons:
1. Reducing the scrutiny committees from 9, perhaps to only 3 as Kerslake suggests, would mean that their agendas would be far too full and even less would receive proper critical scrutiny than now. In fact the number of scrutiny committees needs increasing – it is extraordinary that there is not one for housing, and the remit of the Education and Vulnerable Children committee is far too large and should be split into two: education and children’s social care.
2. We are in favour of districts having a scrutiny function but not at the expense of a reduction in scrutiny capacity at the city-wide strategic level.
We are also opposed to any reduction in the number of councillors, and Birmingham may even need an increased number, depending on the decision of the Boundary Review on the number of wards.
‘We are also working on the development of new strategic partnership arrangements for the city as a whole. These will bring together a wide range of interests, including the business community, public agencies and local communities to produce a new long-term strategic vision for the city and its public services.’ (p6)
‘We want community organisations and social enterprises to be able to engage with that process. One option is the idea of a Community Board – made up of councillors and representatives from community organisations, as adopted by Leeds (see Appendix 1). The Board would oversee the implementation of the local level changes in this paper and make proposals for further change in the future.’ (p7)
We welcome the principle underlying this proposal. A city-wide forum – call it a Community Board if you want – comprising elected representatives from a variety of bodies, including councillors, citizens from the wards, community organisations, trade unions and business, with the role of producing a new long-term strategic vision for the city and its public services, including democracy in the city and the development of the Birmingham economy.
We would also call for similar issue-based city-wide forums so there can be fully inclusive discussions between community and council of key cross-city issues such as housing, social care, education and employment.
The district level
‘…the remit of districts will shift from the current limited control of localised services and budgets (a role that was always problematic and can no longer be supported due to spending cuts) to a wider and more influential role of community leadership, partnership building and assessing local need and delivery of all public services in their area as part of a “Whole Place” approach…
… officers in the strategic centre of the council will need to work closely with districts and wards to ensure strategic leadership takes account of local issues and needs.
A renewed focus on councillors’ community leadership role (see box on page 13) will help shape an approach to “co-production” of services, engaging citizens, the voluntary and community sector, partner agencies and businesses to contribute to quality of life in the local place.’ (p7)
‘We want to give each area the freedom to develop their district level arrangements in different ways, to reflect this new role. This would include the option of creating partnerships instead of committees. One approach would be to change the composition of District Committees to include more non-decision-making members or reducing the number of formal decision-making meetings in favour of community engagement sessions where non-councillors can play a bigger role.
Whatever they decide, districts may wish to develop Local Strategic Partnerships and will want to ensure that these link effectively to the citywide partnership arrangements being created over the next year – engaging local businesses and community organisations in planning for the needs of the area.’ (p8)
The key issue here is democratic participation – who is able to participate in the decision-making of the district committee, and how will the district committee participate in the central decision-making of the council? The problem is the document doesn’t have an answer. We say two steps are needed:
1. Democratising Ward Committees (see below) and opening up District Committees to elected citizen representatives from the wards. The fashionable term ‘co-production’ has to mean not just councillors’ leadership of the community but leadership by the community itself – i.e. the empowerment of the community at the district level – in conjunction of course with councillors.
Birmingham should learn from the Leeds model where ‘Community Committees are encouraged to include non-voting representatives and support them to become involved and contribute to
local decision-making.’ (p21). For a more detailed report on Leeds see Birmingham’s District Committees exclude co-opted members elected by Ward Committees: Leeds welcomes them on the BATC website.
2. Opening up policy-making at the city-wide level to citizen participation. The document says ‘officers in the strategic centre of the council will need to work closely with districts and wards to ensure strategic leadership takes account of local issues and needs.’ No, it is the Cabinet that is responsible for strategic leadership, not the officers, and we want ‘co-production’ at the city-wide strategic level as well as the district level. This can be enabled in several ways: regular city-wide forums, as suggested above, where elected ward and district representatives in addition to councillors can participate in policy debate with Cabinet members; the opening up of scrutiny meetings to elected citizens (another reason not to reduce the number, meaning even less opportunity for debate); and – an option not mentioned in the document but one we strongly advocate – the abandonment of the undemocratic Cabinet system and the return to a Committee system, but with the committees opened up to elected non-councillor citizen and community participation.
The ward and neighbourhood level
‘We want to see local people choosing a diversity of arrangements for local decision-making, community action and services in each local area of the city. Our aim is to create a flexible framework so that different areas can innovate according to their needs and the wishes of local people.’
‘An option put forward in the Kerslake report was to establish residents’ “Community Forums”, providing a space for residents to raise issues and have general discussions, alongside councillors.’ (p12)
The present ward committee system is, it is widely agreed, profoundly undemocratic and unfit for purpose, because the so-called ‘committee’ only comprises the three councillors. We call as a minimum for ward committees to be constituted with the councillors and an equal number of elected non-councillor members, one of whom should be chair, and for the democratisation of procedures. See Ward Committees still won’t be fit for purpose! A response by BATC to the Council report ‘Are Ward Committees Fit for Purpose?’ on the BATC website.