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Birmingham devolution: 13 years of talking and the conversation goes on…

Birmingham devolution: 13 years of talking and the conversation goes on…

🕔30.Oct 2014

The choice of Joseph Chamberlain’s ancestral home Highbury Hall to stage the latest in a series of Birmingham democracy conventions was symbolic in more ways than one, writes Paul Dale.

A hat tip of course to this city’s greatest politician, the man credited with inventing modern local government and remodelling Birmingham as an industrial and commercial powerhouse at the end of the 19th century. Who knows what he would have thought of lending his name to a political blogsite.

But Highbury also happens to be the place where Birmingham’s long-running conversation about devolution began 13 years ago when city councillors and the great and good gathered to discuss the recommendations of the Democracy Commission, chaired by Sir Adrian Cadbury.

First, some context. In 2001, Tony Blair’s Labour government was still in radical mode before the cynicism and in-fighting of later years set in. Blair wanted radical reform of local government, devolving powers from Westminster to the great cities under the leadership of new-style cabinets and even elected mayors.

There were proposals for regional assemblies to work with regional development agencies to generate growth, create jobs and eventually take control of housing, planning and transport.

Underpinning Labour’s approach was an understanding that Britain had become far too centralised.

Town hall powers and budgets were removed from local councils and placed in the hands of ministers during the Thatcher years. Blair’s aim was to re-balance in favour of the regions, or city regions as we call them now, or if you want to be really up to date, metros.

Does this sound familiar? It should do for 13 years after Sir Adrian Cadbury issued his report Birmingham city council is still debating the same issues that were highlighted by the Democracy Commission. And in a Groundhog Day-like coincidence, Sir Albert Bore, the Labour council leader of 2000, is still council leader and is again offering his own particular brand of devolution.

Let’s look at Sir Adrian’s recommendations all those years ago:

  • Birmingham city council should hold a referendum on whether to have an elected mayor.
  • Referenda should be held on certain local issues.
  • The present ad hoc patchwork of neighbourhood and community groups should be better co-ordinated.
  • Parish councils should be set up where there is local demand.
  • Wards could be split up, with councillors representing part of current ward.
  • Proportional voting could ensure representation of a wider range of groups and interests.
  • For scrutiny and executive arms of council to have equal weight, the role of the scrutiny committees in making decisions and policy must be strengthened.

A referendum on an elected mayor was held, well a consultative ballot actually. Birmingham city council came together as never before, but not to demand a mayor. A cross-party ‘Birmingham against an Elected Dictator’ campaign set the tone of the ‘debate’ and it was difficult to identify a single councillor other than Sir Albert in favour of a mayor.

Despite the ferocity of the ‘no’ campaign a majority of those voting favoured one of two types of elected mayor, but the then local government minister Nick Raynsford decided against ordering the council to hold a mayoral election. It was at that moment, arguably, that Labour bottled the mayoral issue and condemned Birmingham to lag behind London with its high-profile mayor – a sad state of affairs that still exists today.

A second referendum was staged in 2012 and this time Birmingham voted comfortably not to be governed by an elected mayor.

As for Cadbury’s other recommendations, there have been no referenda on local issues, the patchwork of neighbourhood and community groups is as shambolic as ever, there appears to be no demand for parish councils, wards have not been split up, no one is talking about proportional voting and Birmingham’s scrutiny committees have no real role in policy making.

So, thanks for your efforts Sir Adrian but your commission didn’t achieve very much at all.

When you are a council leader you must have belief in your own capabilities. This is particularly important when you run the largest council in Europe. So it’s as well that Sir Albert has plenty of chutzpa, but he may have rather over-egged the pudding when he stood up at Highbury Hall this week and declared: “Over the last twenty or thirty years we have been at the forefront of innovation in local democracy, civic enterprise and community engagement.”

He was, presumably, referring to the establishment of Birmingham’s district committees, based on the 10 parliamentary constituencies, where local councillors run the following services: sports and leisure, community libraries, neighbourhood advice and information services, community development and play services, district engineers, school crossing patrols, local car parks, community arts, local housing management, youth services, adult education and local community safety teams.

The intention is to empower community decision making for basic services, leaving the cabinet to act as a strategic decision making body. But as Sir Albert accepts, the sheer size of Birmingham’s districts, comparable to small boroughs elsewhere in the country, makes it difficult to get close to the grass roots.

It may look impressive on paper, but district committees are administering the very services most under threat of disappearing as the council grapples with massive cuts in public spending and it is clear that the district committee experiment has not so far been a great success.

The committees share an annual budget of £92 million (set by the cabinet), which for a city the size of Birmingham is small fry indeed. The latest forecasts show projected overspending by the districts of £4 million which includes a £3 million under-achievement of the savings programme.

District committee members, of all political colours, feel strongly that they have been dealt a rubbish hand by devolution. They don’t have the powers they need, they certainly don’t have the budgets they need and they are taking the blame at community level for service cuts.

One senior Labour figure told me recently: “The district committees are little more than talking shops. No one bothers to go to the meetings, certainly not local people, because they are a complete waste of time.”

That may be a biased view, but it is clear that the great devolution debate has passed by most people in Birmingham. Sir Albert declared “this is not a dry, constitutional debate for political anoraks”, but he is surely letting his enthusiasm get in the way of reason.

Political anoraks love to talk about structures, and have been doing so in Birmingham since Cadbury produced his, then, radical plans. However, research produced for the 2014 Kerslake governance review suggests the people are underwhelmed by this debate.

Two-thirds of Birmingham residents feel they are not involved in the decision making process, but they are content with this and quite happy to play no role in local government. For these people, councillors are elected to do a job and should be left to get on with delivering what’s best for Birmingham.

One in five residents, though, are annoyed because they are not involved in the decision making process. And they think they ought to be. It is this 20 per cent, the active citizens, who must help shape the devolution path.

When he addressed the first Highbury governance convention in 2001, Sir Albert told his audience: “We recognise that decisions about the future governance of Birmingham are not a matter for councillors alone.

“The challenge is to sit down and work out together the outline of a new direction for local government in the city.  That is a serious task and a big responsibility.  It calls for imagination and the ability to find common ground.”

That task continues today. The long, often lonely, road towards meaningful devolution may have shortened significantly recently following a commitment by the three main political parties to embrace a localism agenda after next year’s General Election.

Whether it is to be city regions, metro mayors, city mayors, combined authorities or something completely different remains to be seen. But some factors will always be with us: local government is inherently conservative and not good at embracing radical change; there will always be a tendency towards a centrist approach from cabinets and officials unwilling to devolve downwards; Birmingham’s sheer physical size is a problem.

How, to take one example, should Sparkbrook ward with 33,000 people relate to the Hall Green district committee with a population of 117,000? How can decision making be relevant to the very different needs of communities at ultra-local level yet still reflect broad strategic policies decided by the cabinet?

Perhaps these issues will have been resolved by 2028, which will mark a quarter of a century after Sir Adrian Cadbury produced his report. But don’t bet on it.

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