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Birmingham must give ‘power to the citizens’ if devolution is to mean anything

Birmingham must give ‘power to the citizens’ if devolution is to mean anything

🕔05.Dec 2014

Backbench Labour councillor and serial leadership challenger John Clancy has submitted the following recommendations to the Kerslake Review into the city council’s governance arrangements, in which he explains how a ‘citizens’ revolution’ could transform Birmingham. 

Beyond politicians themselves and other political anoraks, when it comes to big urban conurbations, very few people identify with their constituency or even their ward. I would suggest only a small minority could even name both exactly.

And I mention people’s identification because that’s important. What politicians or council officers identify as an ‘area’ (and thence to where services could be devolved) is rarely what anyone would regard as ‘My Area’.

And yet I hear talk of ‘Quadrant’ making. Do we really think that the citizens of Birmingham would identify with four bits of it? Do they really see themselves as East Brummies, or West Brummies? Or Central Brummies? I think not.  I think the Quadrant idea is a complete non-starter because of that alone.

A few services might be run best that way, but that is not a reason for wholesale hiving off of all services to that level. Each service needs to find its own most appropriate level, its most appropriate area, most appropriate model.

Whether Birmingham is run as a single-tier metropolitan city authority, or four or more authorities is not really the issue.

Going for Quadrants makes the classic mistake of putting structure before strategy: a major problem in Birmingham over the last decade or so. And I would urge your review to avoid repeating the mistake.

Whether there are four Birmingham councils or one, if standard politicians and standard municipal officers simply remain, with the same old approach to the delivery of services and the wielding of political power, simply in a new mosaic, then little is to be gained.

A smaller number of citizens will be let down by a smaller group of politicians and officers: it’s plus ca change and déjà vu all over again.

It’s not a question of ‘What?’, but ‘Who?’ and ‘To Whom?’

If the wrong people are given the wrong powers and/or the wrong people are denied those powers, any well-intentioned political structure will fail.

More importantly, though, to whom do officers of a council answer?








The officers and employees of the council delivering those services should become answerable not to tiers of administrative or political control above them (as now), but instead to local users of those services and their local representatives, political and otherwise. That will involve the real change, the real culture change, that is needed when deciding how now to govern Birmingham.

The devolution process which has taken place thus far in Birmingham (leading to Constituency Committees, later District committees) has fundamentally failed because they are based upon boundaries constructed, indeed contrived, based on mechanical, political and electoral administrative concerns. They did not emerge from real districts and places. It was an imposition on top of on-the-ground realities.

I would suggest that reform of how Birmingham is governed starts at the most local level. Which services work best at the hyper local level? Build upwards from there, not downwards from a big city-structure plan.

It is the delivery and ownership of those local services in distinctly local hands that matters. Local councillors need to be involved as the democratic ‘glue’ – not necessarily running or controlling them, but at least overseeing or having oversight of them.

Where a service actually IS sometimes has no relevance; sometimes it means everything.

Getting people involved in either a place or a service and allowing them to shape it and help it work, as well as being able to see what is efficient and cost-effective is what matters. That’s why I believe that Birmingham’s problems are not best dealt with by top-down restructuring.

I would suggest that the city needs to be administered and governed through a new network of co-operatives, mutuals and social enterprise organisations overseen by elected members and other representatives of the citizens who use the relevant service – whichever model suits the area or service. This would be real devolution.

The co-operative council is just as legitimate an administrative overlay to solve our problems as some big-fix quadrantine landing of new big municipal life.

These models can apply to children’s or adult social services as much as to domestic refuse collection or housing repairs.

Those who manage must also be on the ground and part of the service delivery. I genuinely think that managers must be practitioners and the further they get away from the real services they have responsibility for, the less likely that service is to work; indeed, the more likely it is to fail. I genuinely believe that the director of Children’s Social Services should have an on-the-ground caseload that takes some of his/her time each week.

Co-operatives, Public Service Mutuals, Employee-owned public enterprises and social enterprise organisations overseen by elected politicians at local, hyper-local and city-wide level provide the flexibility needed in a large city to deliver cost-effective, efficient, responsive, evolving and agile services. This is the structural mosaic that works, to my mind. The upper structures don’t matter so much. It could be by a committee system, it could be by leader and cabinet. I prefer committees.

I would suggest that the council’s experience of using limited companies to deliver services has been poor.

On-the-ground employees and citizens both at the sharp end of service delivery are genuinely the best ones to shape and control services: that’s real devolution. Overseen locally by elected councillors, together they can often grasp how best a service can thrive and develop.

That is the change needed in this city – not tinkering at the top.

In particular I believe that Children’s Social Services would achieve better outcomes through the service being delivered through smaller, locally run employee-led mutuals working in hubs. But that might not work for other services where a co-operative model might work. We must have a range of models, overseen and co-ordinated –  but not part of some ‘directorate’ (the bad clue is in the title – ‘directors’ and ‘directing’ are the problem).

Importantly they can more often bring real efficiencies and savings undreamt of in a command and control administrative structure.

The word ‘citizen’ is simply not heard enough in this city council. Calling citizens “Service-users”, “customers” or “residents” can distance the officers, distance the responsibility and distance the service.

Motivating current employees (especially with less of them) can often come through detaching them from the great monolith of the City Council and letting them thrive in much smaller units they have real control over, together with the citizens who are the actual service users. Let them have real ownership of delivery whether, again, in Public Enterprises, Social Enterprises, Co-operatives or Public Mutuals.

So forget the structural tinkering – the radical reform needed is to put the services of the city away from the pyramids of administration and directorates actually into the hands of its employees and its citizens.

John Clancy, Birmingham Labour Councillor for Quinton

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