Birmingham Labour Party’s draft manifesto for the May elections, ‘The Road to the All-Out Election 2018’, has seven ‘Priorities’. Priority 7 is ‘Every Citizen Part of a Strong, Active Community with the Power to Shape Our City’s Future’.
The evidence from the low turn-out in the last local elections, and the views of citizens when you ask them, is that the large majority of people in Birmingham feel they have little or no power to shape the city’s future, which is why they don’t bother to vote for councillors or attend ward committee meetings.
The leadership of Birmingham Labour Party must recognise this because they ask in the draft manifesto ‘What do you think our council can do to involve more of the city’s residents in the decisions that are taken on their behalf?’
Our answer is that we need a new combination of representative democracy and participatory democracy. There are three key reforms that together would transform local democracy in the city.
- Democratise the Ward Meetings
It is widely agreed that the present Ward Meeting or Forum system, open to all local residents, is profoundly undemocratic and unfit for purpose. In general they are run by councillors, not by ward residents. They are often just Q&A sessions dominated by the councillors, not a real dialogue. They tend to focus on a very limited range of local problems: parking, rubbish, anti-social behaviour, houses in multiple occupation etc. These are important issues, of course, but often meetings discuss little else. What is often left out of Ward Meetings are other equally important issues such as health, education, social care, transport, libraries, and jobs and training. The result is that there is little or no citizen input into Council policy-making on these vital strategic issues.
The first step is for Ward Meetings to be run not by councillors but by a majority of non-councillor members elected to that position, one of whom should be elected by the members as chair. That would enable more participatory procedures and discussions on a wider range of issues. But on its own this is not enough. Ward Meeting discussions and decisions have to be able to feed into and influence higher-tier city-wide bodies of the Council where the strategic decisions are made.
At present this is entirely dependent on two things: the inclinations of the Ward councillors to raise issues with higher-level Council bodies and Cabinet members, and their ability to do so effectively. That’s not empowering citizens, it’s disempowering them. The solution is to open up city-wide bodies to direct participation by citizens from the wards, in an advisory capacity, complementing the role of the councillors. The key bodies that should be opened up in this way are the Scrutiny Committees.
- Reform Scrutiny Committees
In December 2017 the Parliamentary Communities and Local Government Committee published a report reviewing council scrutiny arrangements, titled Effectiveness of Local Authority Overview and Scrutiny Committees. It says that scrutiny is often held in low esteem with little influence on council policy, and “Local government needs a cultural change to allow the scrutiny process to work properly”. That certainly applies to Birmingham. At present there is no communication either way between citizens in the wards and the discussions and decisions of the five Scrutiny Committees. What they do is rarely if ever discussed in Ward Meetings, and Ward Meetings have no formal means of making any input to them. The answer is to open up scrutiny panels to participation by lay members – ordinary citizens, elected to the role, with an advisory role. The principle is not new: the Schools, Children and Families Scrutiny Committee currently has two governors’ representatives (though with no relation of accountability to the rest of the city’s school governors), and it used to have representatives of unions, now abolished.
Where would they come from?
- Regular city-wide Forums on each issue
The third of our proposals to democratise local government and empower citizens and communities is the launching of city-wide interest-based Forums, each on a specific issue or sector, such as housing, social care, education, employment etc, meeting regularly as they decide. These would create a rich fabric of discussion, expertise and ideas for improvement bringing areas of the city together and connecting communities and council. Each Forum could elect representatives to the relevant Scrutiny Committee.
Together these three reforms to Birmingham’s governance arrangements have the potential to empower every citizen and every community, both geographical and interest-based, to participate together with the elected city councillors in shaping the future of our city. Nothing less will do.
Birmingham Against The Cuts
5 February 2018