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Birmingham’s devolution dilemma: Bore poses the ‘West Vesey Question’

Birmingham’s devolution dilemma: Bore poses the ‘West Vesey Question’

🕔15.Oct 2014

City councillors representing Sutton Coldfield could be barred from voting on matters solely affecting Birmingham if the Royal Borough gets a town council with devolved powers and tax-raising rights.

The possibility was raised by city council leader Sir Albert Bore who said Birmingham faced a dilemma similar to the ‘West Lothian Question’, which asks why Scottish MPs in the House of Commons can vote on matters only affecting England when English MPs don’t get a vote in the Scottish parliament.

Referring to the “West Vesey Question” Sir Albert said the city council would thoroughly investigate the merits of a petition signed by thousands of people in Sutton demanding break-away from Birmingham through a town council with the ability to raise taxes.

But he warned: “If a town council in Sutton was to be given the sort of devolved powers and funding that some people envisage, along with the power to raise a small extra precept from one of the wealthiest parts of the city, then it does raise what I call the West Vesey question.

“Should Sutton councillors have a vote on Birmingham matters if Birmingham councillors cannot vote on the matters devolved to Sutton?

“So we need to look at that proposal alongside the needs and wishes of the whole city and not in isolation. That will include seeing if there is any support for parishes at a smaller scale in other parts of the city.”

Sir Albert tackled the devolution question in a wide-ranging Chamberlain Lecture address focusing on the twin themes of civil renewal and civic renewal – restoring the strength of communities and local government.

Generations of “extreme centralisation” from Westminster had left local government largely powerless and with limited fund-raising abilities. Unfair and “reckless” cuts in Government spending were the latest example of a “long line of abuse” against town halls, he declared.

The council leader sketched out his ideas about devolution for cities and city regions which he said had been given fresh impetus by the Scottish independence referendum.

“A sense of disenchantment with the Westminster system exists across the whole country and not just in Scotland.  You can also see it reflected in the current support for UKIP and their performance in last week’s by-elections.

“But the answer to that disenchantment, that sheer frustration with our sclerotic and unresponsive democracy, cannot be the sort of dangerous fantasy politics peddled by UKIP.

“It is up to those of us who value our open and diverse society and believe in progress rather than a return to bygone days to put forward alternatives that can appeal to those who currently feel excluded from power.

“I believe strongly that a radical devolution of powers and finances must be part of that response.”

Sir Albert argued that devolution had to produce positive results and be meaningful to people.

“They want to know how we can drive growth and create jobs and homes.  They want to know how we can reform our public services to improve our quality of life with a new, devolved system.”

A governance review will consider how Birmingham should be governed at the level below the city council.

Sir Albert rejected a suggestion that the city council is too large and should be split into three or four smaller councils. He did, though, hint at a smaller city council and a large number of neighbourhood or community councils.

He said: “There can be no blueprint sent down from the Council House to describe every detail of how we work together as a civic community.

“Most importantly many thousands of ordinary Birmingham people, working together in community groups and social enterprises and with the public services will help create the vibrant local democracy I want to see.”

He spoke of “bottom up” solutions that would not necessarily involve shifting power from the cabinet to more committees of local councillors.

He said: “We have grown used to the idea that we elect the whole city council and then it is for the council to pass down the resources and delegate the powers to lower levels.  What if we were to switch that around, much as they do in the Arrondissement of Paris and Lyon?

“We could elect to more local bodies who would then delegate up to a smaller, strategic city council?

“I am not saying this is my preferred option or that it would be workable or supported by government, but these are the sort of very different perspectives we need to think about in the year ahead.”

The unprecedented scale of Government spending cuts was “completely altering our concept of what local government is there to do and how it should be funded”, Sir Albert added.

He set out a framework for devolution:

  • Firstly we must devolve funding and responsibility for a range of economic functions such as infrastructure investment, skills and welfare to work to city regions but also what Labour is calling ‘County Regions’.
  • Secondly we must pool funding for public services into whole place budgets for local authorities, enabling us to integrate services and provide them according to local needs.
  • Finally there must be fiscal devolution to give us the tools to determine our own future, to provide sustainable services and to drive economic growth.

Sir Albert spoke about a new era of ‘prevention’ for local government.

“When you think about it, focusing on prevention is what localism is all about.  Who will do the minor housing repairs that prevent expensive problems developing?  The community warden, not the remote faceless housing repair contractor.

“Who will do the extra street cleaning run or clear up accumulations of fly tipped rubbish?  The community group, not the big contractor sticking rigidly to their contractual schedule.”

He spoke about encouraging Birmingham’s “tremendous wealth of social capital in its community groups, social enterprises and neighbourhood forums” to make a greater contribution and help deliver the improvements in the local area “that the city council is no longer able to achieve alone”.

A council green paper to be published soon will enable local communities to gain more control of their neighbourhoods, Sir Albert promised.

“We will create neighbourhood services and hubs not housing services or environmental services and we will make housing an integral part of the community and the neighbourhood.

“But that is just a framework.  We now need to fill out that framework with thousands of small initiatives and plans for change.  And critically many of those plans for change will come not from the city council, but from the people of Birmingham.”

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