Three proposals for participatory democracy in Birmingham: a contribution to the Council’s “conversation across the city”

The Council has opened up what it calls “a conversation across the city” about “how the City Council will work with local neighbourhoods in the years ahead.”  It begins with two papers at the Cabinet meeting on 6 March: ‘Localism in Birmingham: A Framework for Future Policy’, and a longer Draft Policy Statement, a ‘Green Paper’ called ‘Working together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’.  The Green Paper says “We intend to engage stakeholders widely as the statement is developed during 2018, with a view to publishing a further update (a “white paper”) in the autumn.

The Green Paper states a fundamental principle of democratic governance with which we very much agree:

Elected councillors (be they city councillors or parish councillors) and the City Council’s decision making system are the core of our system of “representative democracy”. But a healthy local democracy also requires “participatory democracy” – ways in which local residents can get directly involved in decision-making and in activities that improve the city and our local services. These two forms of democracy need to be well balanced and work well together.

But the two papers restrict “participatory democracy” entirely to residents’ participation in service delivery at the neighbourhood level. They say nothing about participation by citizens in the strategic decision-making process at Council House level. ‘Localism in Birmingham’ spells it out:

The overriding focus of this work is to improve service delivery in neighbourhoods and bend the organisational culture of the council and the wider public sector towards neighbourhood priorities and needs. There is strong commitment from partners to this agenda which can be built on. Empowering councillors in their local leadership role is critical to achieving this.

Citizens and communities must also be able to participate in setting local priorities and to take action themselves, recognising the rights and responsibilities of everyone in the city and the value of collective action for the common good. Building  stronger communities and “Neighbourly Neighbourhoods” is as important as economic and physical improvements.

To achieve this the Council’s strategy is to make Council decision-making more responsive to local needs. The Green Paper says:

In summary, our focus is to improve local neighbourhoods and the local services that everyone benefits from every day. We will do this by:

  • Making key services more responsive to local needs and priorities, through senior management engagement in local areas and dedicated staff in each 6 service whose role is to ensure that local issues are quickly dealt with. This will aim to cut through ‘red tape’ and bureaucracy.

  • Supporting ward councillors to focus on local issues and represent their residents more effectively and giving citizens more power to improve their area and get things done.

‘Localism in Birmingham’ says:

We will:

Steadily increase the influence of local people over services through their wards (particularly the services that the public see) as far as practicable, in a phased programme that realistically reflects the resources available in the years ahead. This will include creatively redesigning services from the bottom up to help implement Ward Plans – engaging local people in the process of prioritisation for the local area. …

The papers advocate more organisation at the sub-local level, beginning with a Ward Plan for every area and potentially extending to the formation of elected parish councils. “Our wider strategic approach will ensure that there is a framework for communities to engage in tackling local issues, whatever form of local democracy they choose to have.” (Green Paper).

This distinction between “local issues”, mainly consisting of service delivery, and strategic policy issues is a false one, because so-called local issues are very largely the result of Cabinet and Council strategic decisions and require top-level actions to address. But participation in decision-making at the sub-local level does not extend to participation in decision-making at the city-wide level where the key strategic policy decisions are taken. On the contrary, not only is there no citizen participation at that level, there is not even any plan to empower local communities to feed concerns and proposals upwards to the decision-makers – they are entirely reliant on their councillors doing so on their behalf.  Ward forums have no power to mandate councillors to raise issues and demands on their behalf so it depends on councillors’ willingness to do so, which they may well choose not to do – and even if they do, it depends on their capability to do so, including whether they have access to the Cabinet member who holds the power or to the relevant Scrutiny Committee.

There is another fundamental flaw in the Council’s proposals. The city is now divided into 69 wards, and while links including joint meetings may be established between neighbouring wards there are no city-wide structures and procedures by which those with an issue of concern in one ward – take any example – can discuss it with those in other wards across the city who have a similar concern. The result is a deeply geographically fragmented body politic – and one that reinforces divisions of social class and ethnicity. It is literally a system of divide and rule.

What needs to be done

Yes, we need a new combination of representative democracy and participatory democracy, but participatory democracy needs to be an integral element in the whole policy-making process from bottom to top, not be confined just to ward level.  At present the flow of strategic policy-making is one-way, downwards from Cabinet to wards. Two changes are needed: that vertical flow needs to be complemented by upwards flows of ideas and proposals from citizens to the centre, and there needs to be a structure for the horizontal flow of ideas and proposals by and between citizens across the wards and across the city. That requires three key reforms that together would transform local democracy in Birmingham.

  • Ensure that Ward Meetings are democratically run and address the range of policy issues

In general ward meetings or ward forums attract only a very small percentage of local residents. They operate in different ways and it would be very useful to have a regular sharing of experiences and ideas across the city about what works best. Two basic principles are these:

Ward meetings should be run by residents not by councillors. In some, perhaps many cases, the councillors automatically assume that they should chair the meetings. Much better to make it clear that ownership belongs to the residents by having an elected chair and a small elected committee to arrange the agenda etc.

Linked to this is the nature of the issues discussed at ward meetings. Residents want to talk about immediate local problems such as parking, rubbish, anti-social behaviour, houses in multiple occupation etc., and ask the councillors(s) to deal with them. These are vital important issues, of course, but the danger is that often meetings discuss little else. What may be left out of ward meetings are issues of fundamental importance to local residents, families and communities such as health, education, social care, transport, libraries, and jobs and training. Residents may not raise them not because they don’t care but because they don’t feel that ward meetings can do anything about them. It may be reinforced by councillors themselves not raising these issues – how often, for example, do ward meetings receive any reports of issues that have come up at Council, Cabinet and Scrutiny committee meetings?

The result is that there is little or no citizen input, via their councillors, into Council policy-making on these vital strategic issues. Of course that depends, as we have said, on the willingness and capacity of councillors to raise residents’ concerns with decision-makers. Participatory democracy means finding additional ways of empowering citizens to contribute to strategic policy-making, complementary to the role of elected councillors, by feeding into and having influence in the city-wide bodies of the Council where the strategic decisions are made. The solution is to open up city-wide bodies to direct participation by citizens, in an advisory capacity, complementing the role of the councillors. There are two innovations that together would enable this.

  • Open up Scrutiny Committees to representatives of citizens, in an advisory capacity

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”.  Scrutiny arrangements in Birmingham are being reviewed, and our proposal here would make a major contribution to their improvement.

The principle of lay members in an advisory capacity on Birmingham Scrutiny committees is not new. For example, the Schools, Children and Families Scrutiny Committee currently has representatives of school governors and diocesan authorities, and it used to have representatives of unions, now abolished.

The addition of lay members in an advisory role would contribute both the experiences and ideas of citizens and relevant expertise. How would they be chosen? That requires our third proposal for reform.

  • Create regular city-wide issue-based Forums

The third of our proposals for participatory democracy in Birmingham to empower citizens and communities is the establishment of city-wide Forums, each dealing with a specific policy area such as housing, social care, education, employment etc, meeting on a regular basis. These would enable that vital horizontal connection between all the areas of the city, bringing communities together, creating a rich fabric of shared experiences, knowledge and ideas for improvement and helping to overcome social divisions. This would be a unique and ground-breaking innovation: it is extraordinary to think that no such opportunity currently exists in the city on this scale.

Would these be Open Forums which anyone could attend, or would they be open to elected representatives from ward meetings? How often would they meet? (Perhaps bi-monthly or quarterly?) Those and other organisational matters need further discussion: the key point now is to establish the principle.

But the purpose of the Forums would not just be to enable city-wide discussions. The discussions must be able to feed into the city’s policy-making processes. How could this be achieved? By each Forum electing representatives to the relevant Scrutiny Committee. They would take the role proposed in the previous section.

Since the five Scrutiny committees each cover rather a wide brief it might be necessary to have representatives on some of them from more than one Forum. For example, it might be sensible to have a Forum on Economy and Skills and a separate Forum on Transport, with both having representatives on the Economy, Skills and Transport Overview and Scrutiny Committee. Again, it’s a matter for further discussion.

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.

Richard Hatcher

28 March 2018

Contact: Richard


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