Working Together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods AND in Birmingham’s Council House

For a new combination of participative and representative democracy at every level

‘Working Together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’ is the city council’s policy for devolving more power to the local level, including Ward Forums and community organisations. [1]  The White Paper was approved by Cabinet in January 2019, following a Green Paper published in February 2018. [See Note 1] It was launched at a half-day public conference in the Council House on 25 September this year, hosted by Cllr Sharon Thompson, Cabinet Member for Homes and Neighbourhoods, with around 120 people taking part.

In her Foreword to the White Paper Cllr Thompson says:

For the first time we have set out in this paper a framework for a truly bottom-up approach to localism. It is not about a top-down, one-size-fits-all blueprint or council structures and decision making. It is about how we can all work together to liberate the energy, creativity and innovation within our neighbourhoods and empower our communities to achieve their ambitions. (p4)

Our overall aim is to move from focusing on the city council and its structures to a citizen focused approach, working with neighbourhoods to make things work better from the point of view of local residents. (p5)

The White Paper says that it is a key principle that ‘The democracy of the city needs strong participation as well as elected representation’ (p7). But the key question is, where will that participation be enabled to take place? The White Paper’s answer is this:

The overall direction of change will be away from the structures of the city council towards a diverse pattern of neighbourhood and community groups and organisations taking on more power and more assets to enable them to deliver their own solutions to the challenges in their area. What is needed is a change of culture not necessarily a change of council structure. (p9)

The fundamental problem with this is that local issues and local solutions are shaped, and often determined, by strategic decisions – including funding – taken at the top, in the Council House, but participation in decision-making at the neighbourhood level does not extend to participation in decision-making at the city-wide level where the key strategic policy decisions are taken. The 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. In her Foreword Cllr Thompson says ‘we need to develop a new vision, which […] is clear about how we will move from top-down to bottom-up’. (p9). But what mechanisms, what structures, what processes, will enable and empower citizens at the neighbourhood level to feed concerns and proposals upwards to the decision-makers at the top of the pyramid of power? The White Paper contains no such proposals, in fact it doesn’t even register it as an issue.

The only formal avenue for feeding local concerns and demands upwards to the strategic decision-makers in the Council House, apart from consultation exercises, is via local councillors. In other words, the new vision of participatory democracy begins and ends at the ward level. There is no channel of participation to feed issues into the Council House, only the hope of them being taken up and raised there by local councillors. But we all know from experience the limitations of relying solely on local representative democracy. Ward Forums cannot mandate councillors to promote the issues they want, councillors may not have the commitment or the capacity to do so, and it depends largely on their individual relations with relevant Cabinet members. It also means that councillors in many wards may well be attempting to raise identical issues individually and quite independently of each other. It is a hopelessly inefficient system.

Ward Plans but no citizen engagement with Council House powers

The priorities decided on in Ward Plans provide practical examples of the relationship between local concerns and strategic decision-making at Council House level. Let’s take as a typical example Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath East Ward Plan [2], which lists four priorities (quoted below). Each of these issues entails strategic policy-making by the policy-makers in the Council House. These comprise the 10 executive Cabinet members (including the Leader) and also the 10 Overview and Scrutiny Committees, which have substantial influence over policy. (These have cross-party membership but with a Labour chair and majority on each committee.)

  • Improve access for services for vulnerable Older People and Carers
  • Increase access to physical activities, especially those citizens with complex health needs
  • Improve Public Health of local citizens
  • Ensure every under 5 has the best start in life

The issues raised in the Ward Plan are the responsibility of the Cabinet members for Health and Social Care and for Children’s Wellbeing, and of two Overview and Scrutiny Committees, one for Health and Social Care and one for Children’s Social Care. They also come within the Portfolio of the Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources and the brief of the Resources Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

Adult Social Care is the largest area of Birmingham Council’s spending. The principal policy currently is developing support within local communities through the Council’s Day Opportunities strategy and Neighbourhood Network Scheme. Management of the programme involves contracts with various charities under the aegis of Birmingham Voluntary Service Council. On 6 June 2019 the following was announced, significantly not by the Council itself but by BVSC:

The council has approved spending of up to £4.9 million over the next three years in Prevention and Communities. This approach will invest the Council’s resources in programmes of funding which support “Prevention First” and the Adult Social Care Vision and Strategy. It includes the procurement of Information Advice and Guidance (IAG) services for citizens with new and emerging conditions, as well as several programmes of grant awards to voluntary, community and social enterprise sector organisations for activity and services.

These are very important initiatives but in the context of ‘Working Together with Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’ they raise the question, will the users of these services and local supporters in the community – including in the Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath East Ward – have a meaningful role in the drafting and implementation of these programmes, including the design and allocation of contracts, as well as in their delivery? Will there be genuine co-production, involving service users and staff, with the Council House where these strategic decisions are taken? [See Note 2]

  • Reducing Antisocial behaviour and Violent Crime
  • Improving access to youth provision
  • Ensuring every 16-19 has access to education and career advice
  • Reduce unemployment of young people
  • Improving literacy skills providing access to ESOL
  • Increase ICT training for more people to have access to online tools
  • Improve access to relevant training to increase chances to secure employment.
  • Provide life skills training to support vulnerable people improve their lives

The key issue here is helping people into work, including young people and vulnerable people. This is one of the key aims of the Council’s economic policies, which are themselves embedded in the economic strategy of the West Midlands Combined Authority. (Its West Midlands Local Industrial Strategy was published in May this year.) The Council has a Cabinet Member responsible for Education, Skills and Culture and an Overview and Scrutiny Committee for Economy and Skills. In addition Cllr Brigid Jones, the Deputy Leader of the Council, is a member of the Board of the WMCA with the Portfolio for Inclusive Communities. Cllr Ian Ward, Leader of BCC, is also on the Board, responsible for Transport.

So while there are important steps that can be taken at the ward level by the local community, the key powers to address the ward members’ concerns are held by Cabinet members and other leading councillors in the Council House, with no direct channels of citizen engagement.

  • Improve Street Cleaning, especially weekly collections
  • Improve enforcement – illegal parking; improper use of disable bays
  • More use of parks and open spaces
  • Promote Recycling and Reducing waste

Local communities in neighbourhoods across the city are active on these issues, including in Ward Forums. But the policy context, including funding, is decided at the top, in the Council House. These issues come within the portfolios of three Cabinet Members – for Transport and Environment; for Clean Streets, Waste and Recycling; and for Homes and Neighbourhoods (Cllr Thompson) – and are also the responsibility of the Housing and Neighbourhoods Overview and Scrutiny Committee.

The Cabinet and Scrutiny model of local government is incompatible with citizen participation

This example of one Ward Plan illustrates the problem that citizens and community organisations face in wards across the city: urgent concerns, demands and campaigns in every neighbourhood but no means – no structures, no processes – which would allow them to engage directly with those who hold the power to make the policies that shape their neighbourhoods from the top down.

What prevents them from participation is the Cabinet and Scrutiny model of local government that Birmingham and the vast majority of councils in England employ. It was introduced by Tony Blair in 2000, replacing the committee model, and has imported into local councils a highly-centralised and hierarchical business model of governance by a small group of leading councillors comprising the Cabinet. As Ines Newman (currently an academic researcher, having previously been Head of Policy at the Local Government Information Unit) explains in her 2014 book Reclaiming Local Democracy: [3]

…New Labour’s modernisation programme was based on a view that elites should be trusted with strategic decision-making. This model reinforced the separation of representative and participative democracy…. (p108)

…the elitist model of democracy sees participation limited to the neighbourhood sphere and this impacts on the ability to strengthen participative and representative democracy. (p112)

…too often the localism model of democracy sees the community (a community where there are no differences or conflict) as engaged in relatively minor issues around the clean, green, safe agenda, or more recently volunteering to run the local shop, library or youth sports club. Although this can add a very positive dimension to local decision-making, it cannot be seen as a total solution to widening democracy. […] participative democracy is frequently removed from influencing the strategic level. Furthermore, representative and participative democracy are separated. The strategic becomes the domain of the executive, the Council, while the ward role becomes depoliticised and engaged in influencing relatively minor spending decisions. This has an impact on both the participation and representative function. (p117)

A new combination of participative and representative local democracy

What is the alternative? Newman says ‘Local democracy needs to be reconceived as part of multilevel governance.’ (p119). That requires a radical new combination of representative and participative democracy at every level in local government. And that is precisely what is currently in the process of development by the leadership of the Labour Party nationally. A new and very different approach to citizen participation in the policy process is the theme of two recent Labour Party documents. They argue for public participation at every level in how public services are run and, though they don’t explicitly refer to local Council services, they have unavoidable implications for them.

The Labour Party Consultation Paper Democratic Public Ownership was commissioned by John McDonnell and published in September 2018. [4] The core argument of the report is that:

An organisation, and indeed sector, should be run by the people who have the experience, skills, knowledge, and competence to do this. However, this is always a collective learning process and is done best where the considerable diverse knowledges of the workforce and citizenry are brought together to inform the decision-making process. (p13)

This has fundamental implications for how local government works. It entails effective participation by citizens, as service users and service workers, in strategic policy-making at Council House and Town Hall level, not just in service delivery at neighbourhood level.

In June 2019 the Labour Party published a follow-up document, From Paternalism to Participation. [5] It says:

We want to deepen democracy and transfer real power to the people of this country so they can take control of the decisions that affect them. Doing that requires a strong independent civil society as its cornerstone. (p4)

Labour wants people to have a bigger say over the public decisions and the public services that affect them, with more direct accountability to service users where possible. (p10)

 We will promote collaborative decision making, encouraging public service providers to involve their service users in taking decisions about how those services are run, the outcomes they are working towards, and the support they offer. This cannot be limited to consultation alone – people need the power to assert their voice when those in power refuse to listen, and civil society has an important role in acting as their advocates and champions. This will mark a radical change from top-down approach to public services and put services users and front-line workers in the driving seat. (p10)

Instead of being passive recipients of whatever’s on offer, Labour wants people to have the power to actively shape the services they use and decisions that affect them. (p10)

Putting participative democracy into practice in Birmingham from bottom to top:  three practical reforms

This is a radical new approach – a new combination of representative and participative democracy – with radical implications for local government. How can it be translated into practical reforms that would transform local democracy in Birmingham?

First, what is needed is the ability of Ward Forums and local community organisations across the city to be able to participate collectively in the policy process at the city level. The large majority of the issues which Ward Forums prioritise are shared by most if not all the wards in the city. Each of them requires participation in policy-making at the top – but not separately. So for example helping young people into work is an issue that concerns everyone in every ward in the city. But at present citizens are divided into 69 separate Wards with 69 separate Ward Forums, having separate discussions about the same issues, all requiring the same policy responses from the Council House.

The ability to participate collectively in the policy process at the city level would encourage citizens to have a vision not just for their own neighbourhood but for all the neighbourhoods in the city, seeing how their neighbourhood concerns fit into the city-wide picture and sharing in judgements about how best to ensure that neighbourhood-focused localism doesn’t foster inequality between wards.

What structures would make this possible? There are three reforms which Birmingham City Council could put into practice tomorrow, even under the present government:

  1. Council Committees with participation by the users and providers of services
  2. Participation by the users and providers of services in Scrutiny Committees
  3. City-wide Citizen Forums
  1. For Council Committees with participation by the users and providers of services

Each Cabinet Portfolio service sector, headed by a Cabinet Member, should establish an advisory committee. It should comprise

  • the Cabinet member and a number of other councillors, thus sharing the workload;
  • representatives of service users from across the city, in an advisory role;
  • it should also include representatives of the workers providing the service, again in an advisory role.

Sub-committees could be set up if and when needed.

  1. For participation by the users and providers of services in each Scrutiny Committee

Each Overview and Scrutiny Committee should comprise, in addition to their current membership of councillors, representatives of service users and the workers providing the service on each and Committee, in an advisory role. Again, sub-committees could be set up if needed.

  1. For City-wide Citizen Forums

It should be a basic civic right that the Council facilitates meetings of citizens with common concerns and interests that extend beyond the boundaries of individual Ward Forums. Issue-based city-wide Citizen Forums would enable a vital horizontal connection between service users, workers who provide them, communities and councillors, creating a rich network across the city of shared experiences, knowledge and ideas for improvement. There would be separate Citizen Forums on each key issue, meeting on a regular basis, perhaps initially based on the Portfolio areas of Cabinet members but developing over time as participants decide.

And each issue-based Forum could elect representatives to the Council Committees and Scrutiny Committees proposed above.

This is not a model set in concrete, it would develop to meet people’s needs. [See Note 3] To borrow Cllr Thompson’s words at the White Paper launch event and re-frame them in the context of the Labour leadership’s embrace of multi-level participatory democracy, it is ‘the beginning of a journey, shaped by people power’.


Richard Hatcher

4 October 2019

Birmingham Against the Cuts


Note 1

This is not a new policy initiative by the Council, though there is no acknowledgement of that in the White Paper. The Labour council has in fact produced a series of policy documents and consultation events on localism – how the council should engage with wards and neighbourhoods – over the past seven years. In February 2014 it published ‘Citizen Engagement’, a Report of the Districts and Public Engagement Overview and Scrutiny Committee. In her introduction Cllr Lisa Trickett, the chair, wrote ‘We need to secure fundamental change in the way we behave and interact with communities and citizens in the city.’ This report deals with the same themes as the 2019 White Paper, including ‘How Can the Council do Better This Time Around? – Working Together’ and ‘How Can the Council do Better This Time Around? – Governance and Relationships’. It would be useful to have a balance-sheet of this and other previous initiatives to see what we can learn from them.

There is also no recognition in the White Paper that many councils around the country have been addressing the same issues as the White Paper and some have been implementing similar policies at a more advanced stage than Birmingham, and that we can learn from them. To give just two examples among many, Lambeth Council first launched its Co-operative Council policy in 2010, and research by Jane Wills into Neighbourhood Forums in Leeds, Exeter and Highgate in London is reported in her 2016 book Locating Localism. No doubt Cllr Thompson and the other councillors and officers who have produced the White Paper drew on these and the many other recent studies of localism policies in other local authorities, but not acknowledging it and situating the White Paper in that context means that that knowledge is not being shared with the citizens and local communities in Birmingham that they aim to be empowering. The politics of knowledge is central to the politics of localism.

Note 2

Birmingham City Council is promoting this policy as ‘co-production’ of adult social care based on local collaboration between service users, professionals and support facilities within the community. This can have valuable benefits, but it can also be a substitute for austerity cuts in Council provision, and confine co-production to the local level while leaving top-level strategic policy-making in the hands of managerial and political elites. This issue, with Birmingham as a case study, is the subject of ‘Co-production, social care and participatory democracy’ by Richard Hatcher, July 2019. [6]

Note 3

In addition, in order to make access to the policy process more accessible to all, the Council should set up a digital network to enable online participatory democracy in policy-making, like Decidim – We Decide – in Barcelona, the city council’s free open-source system, or the similar system in Madrid

This is a digital platform for participatory democracy that allows citizens to make proposals, deliberate on them, promote them and collectively defend and improve them. It was used to build the strategic plan for the city of Barcelona, and to develop some prototypes of processes such as participatory budgeting. [7]


  1. Birmingham City Council (2019) ‘Working Together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’ White Paper.
  2. Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath East Ward Plan 2018-2022.
  3. Ines Newman (2014) Reclaiming Local Democracy: a progressive future for local government. Bristol: Policy Press.
  4. The Labour Party (2018) Democratic Public Ownership.
  5. The Labour Party (2019) From Paternalism to Participation  
  6. Richard Hatcher (2019) ‘Co-production, social care and participatory democracy’, July. Birmingham Against the Cuts at  
  7. Barcelona en Comú (2019) Fearless Cities, p87. Decidim is at . See also . Both are in English. Madrid has a similar digital platform: see

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s