This paper is a detailed analysis of Birmingham City Council plans for local area development and of a related plan for community engagement. It ends with making the case for a radical joint community-trade union strategy – social movement unionism.
Below is a summary version of the paper. The full version, with all the references, can be found here: https://anticapitalistresistance.org/the-east-birmingham-inclusive-growth-strategy/
The ‘East Birmingham Inclusive Growth Strategy’ is Birmingham City Council’s most ambitious project for green economic development. The population of East Birmingham is about 230,000 and includes some of the poorest areas of Birmingham.
‘Strength in Common: A Just Transition and Recovery – in a Post-COVID World’ by Lisa Trickett and Bryan Nott advocates ‘Community Learning Platforms’ as a collective process of policy design to empower communities and build consensus in East Birmingham.
This paper is organised in three parts:
Part 1: The ‘East Birmingham Inclusive Growth Strategy’
Part 2: ‘Strength in Common’
Part 3: Collective action for radical change
PART 1: THE EAST BIRMINGHAM INCLUSIVE GROWTH STRATEGY
The 48 page report ‘East Birmingham Inclusive Growth Strategy’ (EBIGS) was adopted at Birmingham City Council’s Cabinet meeting on 9 February 2021. A key theme of EBIGS is tackling climate change. Birmingham Council Leader Ian Ward’s Foreword to the ‘East Birmingham Inclusive Growth Strategy’ says:
‘Climate change is a key priority for the whole city and East Birmingham will be at the forefront of our efforts as a new centre for sustainable and low carbon technologies which will make a major contribution to achieving our target of a zero-carbon Birmingham by 2030.’ (p3)
Another key theme of EBIGS is community participation:
‘The publication of this draft document for consultation has been the first step of a continuous process of engagement through which residents of East Birmingham will be empowered not only to shape and influence the strategy and decide how it is to be delivered, but also to play a leading role in that delivery.’ (p7)
Public participation in the policy process is a prominent theme in the policy discourse of Birmingham City Council. It is exemplified by the following statement by Cllr Ian Ward in the ‘Birmingham City Council Delivery Plan: 2020-2022’, adopted at the Cabinet meeting on 10 November 2020:
‘People also expect a much greater level of involvement in decisions that affect their lives. Be they the big things that have a bearing across the City as a whole, or the little things that have a big impact in their street or neighbourhood. People want to be heard and when they are not, they will mobilise. We are all activists now. The question for the Council: do we bring those voices in and help shape the fortunes of our city and places; or do we seek to keep them out? We need to bring them in.’ (p6)
The East Birmingham Board
EBIGS is run by a new local government structure, the East Birmingham Board. Its chair is Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne with Cllr Ian Ward as deputy chair. The 20 members include BCC lead officers, leading representatives of local public, private (including HS2) and voluntary sector institutions and the West Midlands Combined Authority.
No community or trade union representatives on the Board
But there are no community representatives on the Board, where the key strategic decisions are made, nor on the Delivery Board, so there is no direct community input into them.
And while there is a collective Members Forum bringing together all the 26 local councillors, there is no equivalent body, no Community Forum, bringing together lay representatives from all the Ward Forums. The only access that citizens have to where the strategic decisions are made is indirect, mediated and controlled by their local councillors, who cannot be mandated. This is not empowerment. Genuine participation would mean some elected representatives from the Ward Forums, or from regular East Birmingham-wide Forums comprising representatives from the Ward Forums, able to participate directly in the Board discussions.
Trade union representatives are also excluded from participation in the governance of the EBIGS.
In short, a model of governance has been imposed on East Birmingham which, far from being inclusive and participatory, is deliberately hierarchical, exclusionary and, at the community level, divisive.
PART 2: ‘STRENGTH IN COMMON: A JUST TRANSITION AND RECOVERY – IN A POST-COVID WORLD’
In the autumn of 2021 the University of Birmingham published a 48 page report by Lisa Trickett and Bryan Nott titled ‘Strength in Common: A Just Transition and Recovery – in a Post-COVID World’. It is published jointly by Places in Common and the Birmingham Energy Institute at Birmingham University.
Places in Common describes itself on its website as ‘a collective that aims to be a disruptive promoter of system change’. Lisa Trickett is Labour councillor for Moseley and Kings Heath ward, Advisor and Co-convenor of the City Council’s Route to Zero Climate Assembly, and Member of the EC of SERA, Labour’s environment affiliate. She has been working for several years on issues in East Birmingham. Bryan Nott is a lawyer and community campaigner.
The Birmingham Energy Institute says it ‘is developing and applying the technological innovation, original thinking and new ways of working required to create sustainable energy solutions and support the regional, national and global transition to a zero carbon energy system’.
‘Strength in Common’ stands for community empowerment
The Executive Summary of the ‘Strength in Common’ report begins: ‘This report poses a challenge to those who are the incumbents of the current system of improving the lives and life chances of local people, developing communities and regenerating neighbourhoods’. (p4). The recipients of community development, especially ‘communities who are marginalised or disadvantaged’, often have little say in what happens. ‘Those who exercise authority or control – the incumbents – need to cede power to those communities’. (p5).
Community Learning Platforms
‘Strength in Common’ says ‘Approaches that rely solely on existing structures inevitably reflect the interests of those who currently hold power’. (p26). Its solution is Community Learning Platforms (CLPs), which will give ‘Frontline communities and businesses whose voices are not currently heard and whose experience is not reflected in the policy dynamic a chance to tell their stories and participate as equals in the policy development and decision-making process.’ (p27).
‘CLPs will offer a space for residents, workers, innovators and industry to explore opportunity, share knowledge and define future approaches and innovation. CLPs should provide for a learning framework that will allow policy makers and participants to look at key social and economic issues in a holistic way. This will entail the sharing of knowledge, negotiation of outputs from proposed activity and an increase in skills on the part of all participants. Learning from the activities (test and learn) is as important as the activities themselves.’ (p5)
Of course the opportunity – and the right – of local residents ‘to explore opportunity, share knowledge and define future approaches and innovation’ is vital. But ‘Strength in Common’ makes a much more ambitious claim: that Community Learning Platforms can enable ordinary citizens to challenge and overcome the dominance of ‘those who currently hold power’.
‘Local programmes can and often do offer to create a strong community input with local control but wider structural influences can still heavily outweigh the agency on the part of the local community. One intention behind community learning platforms is to address the imbalance of power relationships within such activity.’ (p27)
‘Strength in Common’: a strategy for consensus between the powerful and the people
But ‘Strength in Common’ makes no demand for the opening up of the Board to representatives of the community and local trade unions in order to democratise the governance structure of East Birmingham where the strategic policy decisions are made by those who command the powers of the local state and local business. There is no recognition that there are different and conflicting class interests at stake – and Lisa Trickett and Bryan Nott avoid the language of class politics – between those who hold power in the local economy and the working class communities of East Birmingham.
‘Strength in Common’ is based on the premise that through discussion on Community Learning Platforms those interests can be reconciled and consensus can be constructed between those in power and those without it.
Strength in Common, or Strengths in Contention?
‘Strength in Common’ opposes the dominant model of economic development. It specifically rejects the ‘competitive city’ approach of the WMCA leadership. What ‘Strength in Common’ attempts to do is to construct a compromise, enforcing social and environmental limits to economic growth while supporting businesses in the context of the competitive city. But the limits of the consensual policy between the classes would apply from the very beginning to restrict progress to what the market will accept.
The problem of lack of funding for EBIGS
The limits set by the market are exemplified by the crucial issue of funding. Will it depend on private investment for profit? The EBIGS report ends with a table which ‘summarises some of the work which will make up the action plan’. Many of the actions will require additional funding. There are two possible sources: government grants and private investment. It is certain that sufficient additional funding from government will not be forthcoming. That means that the Council’s zero carbon policy depends on attracting private investment. That is why the aim is defined as net zero, not zero carbon. Net zero provides the rationale for investment in economic growth which produces pollutants which can then be traded off. It is the basis of the COP26 agreement. And net zero is accepted by ‘Strength in Common’.
PART 3: COLLECTIVE ACTION FOR RADICAL CHANGE
Of course Birmingham Council will need to seek external investment to make up for the lack of sufficient government funding, but it has to ensure that the private sector isn’t driving the agenda. That can only be achieved by a strategy of public mobilisation in communities across the city not just for more government funding to tackle the climate emergency but also for radical change in the whole system. But ‘Strength in Common’ has no strategy for collective popular mobilisation, for example, to open up the governance structure of East Birmingham to enable public participation by opening up places on the Board for representatives of trade unions and the community (which might include representatives of Community Learning Platforms themselves).
Forces for change: communities and unions
To challenge the EBIGS policy framework of the combination of lack of democracy, net zero, lack of funding and reliance on sufficiently profitable private investment requires organised mass pressure for radical change. Trade unions must play a leading role, but to do so requires them to adopt two new strategies. One is local place-based inter-union collaboration, the other is collaboration between unions and communities – social movement unionism.
Local place-based inter-union collaboration
Unions are used to dealing with issues in their local workplace. In some cases this may involve cordination between unions, perhaps a joint union committee. But the EBIGS is on a very different scale. Its workstreams cut across the sectoral areas of every single union. It is not primarily workplace-based, it is place-based. Take for example retrofitting homes: it involves a whole range of workers from construction to insulation and heating engineers. The policy-makers and the companies they contract are organised on a collective East Birmingham place basis through the East Birmingham Board and its management structures. That is why workers and their unions will need to do the same and coordinate on an East Birmingham basis.
An East Birmingham Joint Union Coordinating Committee is vital in order for workers to be represented on the East Birmingham Board to have their say in policy at the top level. A transformational collaborative plan of action developed by the unions working together in East Birmingham would begin to put into practice what the New Lucas Plan working group are saying: ‘The Lucas Plan sets out a plan for socially-useful production within one organisation but this approach can be used to produce plans for new jobs for one local area, such as at a community or city scale’.
Social Movement Unionism: place-based collaborative union and community organising
East Birmingham also needs effective community organisation for radical change. The question then is what should be the relationship between place-based union and community organising? There is a history of collaboration between trade unions and local communities, in Britain and other countries, to draw on. It goes under the name of social movement unionism.
Social movement unionism stresses the need for union democracy and rank-and-file involvement together with forming alliances with social movements and local communities. The theoretical basis of social movement unionism lies in the mutually interpenetrating spheres of production and reproduction, of the workplace, the home and the locality.
East Birmingham could be the site of a groundbreaking practical example. Retrofitting homes is one of the main themes of the City Council’s Route to Zero action plan to tackle climate change. Yet bizarrely it is not mentioned at all in the EBIGS plan, even though it is vital for socially deprived areas in particular. This is an opportunity to launch an in-house retrofitting project, structured as a community-trade union-local authority cooperative.
This would put into practice in East Birmingham one of the commitments, till now ignored, of ‘Building a better Birmingham: Labour’s Local Manifesto 2018-2022’:
‘We will re-state the case for the municipal provision of services in Birmingham, heralding a new age of municipal socialism. […]
And the Labour council in Birmingham will lead by example, calling time on the misplaced notion that the private sector always trumps the public sector by adopting a policy of in-house preferred for all contracts.’ (My emphasis)
Hodge Hill, one of the two constituencies in East Birmingham, is an ideal site. The MP for Hodge Hill is Liam Byrne, chair of the East Birmingham Board. He was the Labour and Co-operative Party candidate for Mayor of the West Midlands Combined Authority. One of his election pledges was to ‘Establish a Cooperative Commission tasked with tripling the Cooperative Sector’. Hodge Hill has 9 wards with 13 councillors, all Labour. One of them is Ian Ward, the Council Leader who launched the Manifesto with its commitment to ‘a policy of in-house preferred for all contracts’. The challenge to them is to seize this opportunity to turn their election promises into actions.
And if or when they don’t, the challenge and opportunity for the local communities and trade unions is to go ahead regardless and take the first step towards what could be a new ‘Lucas Plan’ for East Birmingham, a plan based not just on collaboration among unions but on collaboration between unions and communities. This is how social movement unionism is built in practice, drawing on existing relationships in the area and creating new democratic and participatory ways of working through local committees and assemblies. Of course there is a long way to go in Birmingham, but social movement unionism should be the direction of travel.
1 January 2022