It is fair to say Birmingham City Council leader Sir Albert Bore’s claim on taking office in May, that his administration would deliver an unprecedented programme of devolution by cascading down responsibility for service delivery to 10 district committees, was treated with some scepticism.
Opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors were quick to paint Sir Albert as a ‘control freak’ who would not really transfer power away from the cabinet and the Council House.
Talk of involving communities in setting spending priorities was just no more than talk, they reckoned. And when it became clear that new District Committees were expected to meet in the Council House where they could be close to chief officers, rather than in the areas they serve, the Tories and Lib Dems expected Sir Albert’s devolution plans to quickly unfold.
If that’s what opposition councillors thought, then they may be in for something of a surprise.
A scrutiny committee set up to devise a programme for devolution looks like it means business.
The Districts and Public Engagement Committee, under the chairmanship of Moseley Labour councillor Lisa Trickett, is charged with “developing a common understanding of what can be achieved by devolution and how it can be real and relevant for residents in terms of the quality of services and local opportunity.”
Coun Trickett’s committee has even launched its own website, a first in Birmingham for a scrutiny committee, asking for comments and views.
In an article headed Beyond Constitutional Change – Making it Real, Coun Trickett talks about delivering a “fundamental shift” in power.
Significantly, Sir Albert is quoted in the same article: “I welcome this inquiry and the opportunity it will provide to review our progress and generate new thinking and opportunities for delivering the UK’s most ambitious devolution programme for local government.”
The committee will begin its deliberations as a new tranche of services including housing management, youth services, adult education and key regulatory responsibilities such as fly tipping are transferred to District Committees, alongside existing devolved services such as libraries and leisure that were delegated to the previous constituency arrangements.
Sir Albert has said he wants every “community facing” service to be devolved eventually, a move that would leave the cabinet to focus on city-wide strategy rather than day to day delivery of services.
Coun Trickett’s inquiry is being run along the lines of what Labour rather grandly calls a House of Commons Select Committee-style. This means that evidence is gathered before the council executive decides how to proceed with devolution, with the committee’s findings being used to inform Sir Albert in his decision making.
One of the key issues the inquiry will have to face is likely to focus on the extent to which District Committees can unravel centrally negotiated service-level agreements for street cleaning, dustbin collection and parks maintenance.
Past experience has demonstrated that devolved constituency committees found it difficult, or impossible, to meet residents’ demands for changes in service delivery because they were bound by rigid legal contracts which could not be altered without incurring substantial financial cost.
The inquiry website notes: “Recognising constitutional change is one thing, but securing the necessary cultural change and power shift is another.
“The committee aims to develop a common understanding of what can be achieved by devolution, what needs to happen and change on the way, and how it can be real and relevant for residents in terms of the quality of services and local opportunity.”
Coun Trickett said: “Birmingham is the largest local authority in Europe. The one size fits all approach cannot work given our size and complexity.
“We are in a hugely challenging time for local government and the communities we serve, much of what we have taken for granted in terms of services and basic rights are now under threat. We have to build a new settlement with local communities where we together understand the strengths and opportunities in our localities, and establish how we can best work together to protect and improve key services and secure opportunity.
“Our devolution programme is not a paper exercise; it is about a fundamental shift in power and cultural change. I want to ensure that through the work of this committee we are all clear on the challenges before us and have in place the collective capacity and confidence to make it happen this time around.”