Devolution within Birmingham: “empowering communities” means triple democratisation of “triple devolution”

 The Council is currently engaged in a discussion about restructuring at District and Ward levels, following the Kerslake recommendations and the new Council leader’s policy direction.

This discussion is mainly taking place in the Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee. At its meeting on 9 February it discussed three papers (attached), entitled (rather unhelpfully):

  • District and Ward Arrangements: Background paper for Committee (most of which comprises Appendix 1: Context),
  • Appendix 2: Scrutiny Discussion Paper. Devolution within Birmingham: experiences from 2015-16 and the challenges
  • District and Ward Arrangements: Note v3.

I will call them Appendix 1, Appendix 2 and Note respectively. The papers can be found at https://birmingham.cmis.uk.com/birmingham/Meetings/tabid/70/ctl/ViewMeetingPublic/mid/397/Meeting/9070/Committee/3/SelectedTab/Documents/Default.aspx

The following extracts from Appendix 1 summarise the current policy context of District and Wards in 2015/16:

2.3 The constitutional changes in May 2015 were designed to provide a framework for further developments over the period to 2018. New Terms of Reference were created for district committees, which changed their role from being responsible for budgets for a number of local services to a new role of identifying and communicating local priorities through Community Planning and Neighbourhood Challenge.

2.4 Ward Committees now have very few delegations and can be called “Forums” – recognising their role to engage citizens, communities and local stakeholders rather than to make formal decisions.

2.6 In summary, District Committees “will promote democratic accountability and support councillors in their community leadership role” […] via […]

  • Duties to ensure tenant engagement, […] promote and support active citizenship, community empowerment and a diverse and dynamic civil society, and to ensure effective ward level governance arrangements;

2.7 Ward Committees/Forums were constituted to encourage and facilitate dialogue, between the Council and local people within their Ward.

Appendix 2 states that

At the Corporate Resources O&S Committee on 19th January 2016, the Leader of the Council set out his key priorities for 2016. Within his report, he stated:

I will also be prioritising a radical new approach to devolution within the city. The focus will be on empowering people and giving them influence over local services, not on council structures and budgets. I want this to be a bottom up process, with new smaller wards (neighbourhoods) where councillors work with the community through open, inclusive meetings, neighbourhood management and an active civil society. There is the potential for a diversity of forms of governance in local areas, such as parish or neighbourhood councils. We may have to move on from the District model – wards across larger areas will collaborate and new forms of joined up, localised service delivery will emerge.

We need to situate this in the overall context of local government as it affects Birmingham. It is the ‘triple devolution’ that is presented in Appendix 1:

1 The Framework: Local Leadership

1.2 This set out the triple devolution framework for the future of city government in Birmingham and the city region:

  • The city region – with fiscal and policy-making powers devolved from central government and exercised collectively by the member councils. The initial focus of the West Midlands Combined Authority will be on economic development, transport, regeneration and skills. Support resources in the fields of economic intelligence, investment planning, skills and local regeneration will be pooled. The Combined Authority will also be part of future public service reforms, potentially including employment and skills, integration of health and social care around individual needs and further reducing elements of youth offending;

  • The city – with a more strategic role to oversee the integration of local services and provide leadership to the city itself. Partnerships will be developed with other public bodies a “whole place” budget for the city so that spending priorities can be aligned across the public sector. A core City Council resource will be needed to support strategic planning and leadership (policy, research, commissioning, performance management, financial planning) and the council’s regulatory functions (planning, licensing, consumer and environmental protection) and there will also be an integrated, efficient support services function (finance, human resources, legal advice, payment and revenue systems, contact centre);

  • The neighbourhood – where elected representatives will work with others in the community to provide community leadership and where most local services will be provided in new ways. New local service hubs will be developed to provide integrated neighbourhood services in a responsive, efficient way, focused on the needs of different local places in the city. There will be an integrated place management approach, which brings together housing, environmental and other services. Housing will be central to this vision because it is the bedrock of people’s lives and their communities.

There are two fundamental problems here for the Scrutiny Committee papers. First, they make no further mention of the new top tier of local government, the West Midlands Combined Authority. This is a crucial omission because the WMCA will be responsible for many of the service areas that the Scrutiny papers deal with. (See my paper on the Birmingham Against the Cuts website for a detailed analysis: https://birminghamagainstthecuts.wordpress.com/2016/02/14/what-is-wrong-with-the-west-midlands-combined-authority-and-what-we-can-do-about-it/ )

What the Scrutiny Committee papers don’t address is what this will mean for the existing level of autonomy of BCC. Is it the case that the policies of the WMCA will be nothing more than the aggregate of decisions taken by its constituent local councils? Or will strategic decisions about some, perhaps many, aspects of service provision in Birmingham be taken out of the hands of BCC and decided by the Cabinet and directly elected mayor of the Combined Authority, and therefore not necessarily conforming to what BCC alone might have decided? If the latter is the case – and the evidence (see my paper) points to it being so – what are the implications for Birmingham for the two subordinate levels of ‘triple devolution’ – the city and the neighbourhood? The papers have nothing to say about this.

The second problem is that the Scrutiny discussion is solely about restructuring at District and Ward levels. It does not deal with the possibility of restructuring at City level, or even of the possible implications of the issues it discusses at District and Ward levels for the core central bodies of the city council – the Cabinet and the Scrutiny Committees.

Together these two problems constitute a fatal flaw at the heart of the Council’s conception of local democracy. Councillor Clancy says that “The focus will be on empowering people and giving them influence over local services, not on council structures and budgets”. But the empowerment is restricted to “giving them influence over local services”. These are defined narrowly, at least by implication, as street cleaning, litter prevention and local community safety. These are important issues, but at least as important at the local level are services such as children’s and adults’ social care, youth services, library and leisure services and employment support.

The flaw is that the strategic decisions about all these locally vital services are taken at the level of “council structures and budgets”, and soon many will be taken at an even more remote level from the citizens of Birmingham – the Cabinet and Mayor of the WMCA. Neither Councillor Clancy nor the Scrutiny Committee papers have anything to say about “empowering people and giving them influence” at these levels.

There will be of course no directly elected West Midlands Assembly (unlike London) to hold the WMCA to account, so the only way Birmingham citizens can have any influence over it, apart from a vote every four years for the mayor – which means no influence at all over specific policies – is through the indirect influence of their Birmingham councillors, who themselves are likely to have little or no influence on what the Cabinet of the 7 council leaders and the Mayor decide.

But what about “empowering people” at the Birmingham level? How can they influence the strategic decisions of the Council that shape the policies and services that they experience at the level of the neighbourhood, the local community and the family? The Note paper speaks of “Good practice in wards” (3.10) but “Nonetheless, the challenge was issued as to whether we were still doing enough to get citizen engagement and involvement to bring about a fundamental transformation.” (3.11).

But what needs to be recognised is that the problem here is a structural one. However participatory the meetings of the new ward Forums might be, they have no decision-making powers. They are about “dialogue” (Appendix 1: 2.7), which is fine, but only if it leads to action. And for action local people are dependent on their proposals being taken up and argued for by their local councillors – soon to be reduced to just one in each of most of the 77 proposed new wards (Appendix 1: 2.10). The local councillor(s) may of course not be in favour of what is proposed, and in any case may well have little or no access to those who make the decisions.

Can the reformed District Committees be a vehicle for “community empowerment”? If they are composed solely of councillors then the same arguments apply: “active citizens” have no direct access to them. However, the Note paper makes a reference to “co-optees”:

3.3 However, there were still some restrictions that members felt were unhelpful. For example, limiting co-optees to five was preventing some from taking a more strategic partnership/planning approach to District Committees. [numbers of co-optees to be added]

Is it the case that District Committees can co-opt members? The meaning isn’t clear. But if so, this is a change, and one that BATC has been arguing for for several years. They should of course be elected by the ward bodies, not selected by the District Committee. But it still leaves the problem of what power District Committees have over policy, and the answer is very little, in fact less than they used to have over service delivery since their role is now primarily scrutiny. The Note paper itself draws a very negative balance-sheet:

Empowering Citizens

3.9          Nonetheless, there were concerns that the current structures did not go far enough in empowering local residents to become active citizens: “We need a better deal for our communities”. In particular, District Committees were becoming more distant from communities and moving them back into the local area would go some way to reconnecting with residents. Currently there was no real opportunity for community engagement or interaction at these meetings.

In short, Councillor Clancy speaks of “a bottom up process”, but as long as it is confined within these top-down structures it will stay at the bottom. The only solution is to reform and democratise the strategic decision-making structures at the top as well.

In terms of the WMCA there are opportunities to open up its currently closed structures through co-options to its Scrutiny committees and even to the Cabinet itself – the WMCA constitution explicitly permits it. Furthermore, the recent House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee report Devolution: the next five years and beyond recommends that current Combined Authority overview and scrutiny requirements “should be developed to suit the characteristics of the local areas as a result of deliberate efforts to hold active discussions at local level, with residents involved in designing new and more open methods of scrutiny.” (p34). (See my BATC paper referred to above for details.) If this is right for the WMCA why isn’t it also right for Birmingham City Council? Let the citizens of Birmingham redesign the Council’s scrutiny committees to allow representatives of local communities to take part, with voice but without vote, perhaps elected from the Wards through the District Committees.

The other top-level Council structure that needs similarly democratising is the Cabinet system itself. When Councillor Clancy was standing for leader of the Council he promised to lead a debate about whether the cabinet and leader system should be replaced by the former committee system. It’s time to open that debate and bring it into the current discussion. A committee system can be far more democratic not only because it directly involves many more councillors in strategic decision-making and therefore gives citizens more direct access but also because the committees can be opened up to co-opted elected lay representatives from local communities and organisations, with voice but without vote.

Richard Hatcher

Contact: Richard.Hatcher@bcu.ac.uk

 

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