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Birmingham’s ‘power to the people’ drive could deliver biggest governance changes for a generation

Birmingham’s ‘power to the people’ drive could deliver biggest governance changes for a generation

🕔19.Jun 2014

Birmingham could be heading for the biggest structural change in governance for a generation after the city council announced it was setting up a wide-ranging devolution review.

A working party will examine how to give people more influence and control over the administration of services in their local area and is expected to address concerns that the city council in its present form is too large to be effective.

The review reflects the long-held ambition of council leader Sir Albert Bore to deliver meaningful devolution and will build on Birmingham’s 10 district committees which already have responsibility for some local services.

The review was triggered by a petition from people in Sutton Coldfield demanding a town council.

It is likely, however, that the city council will dismiss the idea of a town council as ineffective and unambitious since the body would have few powers and a tiny budget.

Instead, the working party is expected to focus on how best to bring power closer to the people while also accommodating two seemingly contradictory factors.

It will have to examine the potentially difficult relationship between the council cabinet, which has executive powers to run Birmingham, and devolved districts and neighbourhoods where councillors and residents will also expect executive powers and budgets to match.

One possibility is the development of Neighbourhood Councils – smaller administrative bodies reflecting local communities and possibly cutting across constituency boundaries.

Tensions have already been apparent with disputes between Sir Albert and the cabinet and the district committees over which services should be axed or trimmed in response to £85 million of budget cuts. Although he passed responsibility for deciding on many of the cuts to the districts, Sir Albert took care to ensure that final budget decisions remained with the cabinet and was able to overrule the districts if necessary.

Devolution will pose problems at a political level for the Labour-run council.

The Sutton District Committee and the Edgbaston District Committee already have a majority of Conservative councillors. In Northfield, Labour and the Conservatives each have eight councillors. The Liberal Democrats control the Yardley District Committee.

The review will also have to consider the impact of Government-backed moves to establish Combined Authorities, with the possibility that Birmingham may join forces with the Black Country councils to form a body responsible for economic development and transport.

Lines of responsibility between a Combined Authority, Birmingham city council cabinet and a network of devolved mini-councils across Birmingham will have to be carefully defined.

Sir Albert said:We welcome the interest in new democratic arrangements from campaigners in Sutton Coldfield and we will now fully evaluate their proposals in line with the legal requirements.

“Sutton Coldfield is not an island, it is an important part of the city of Birmingham, so any changes we make there will have implications for the rest of the city.

“I believe, along with my Conservative and Lib Dem colleagues, that people right across the city are keen to have more influence over their local services and more control over their local neighbourhood. “So we have decided that we should be much more radical and take this opportunity to have a wider look at how we organise democracy in the city at the most local level.

“We will be looking at good ideas from around the country and also how they do things in other countries. We would also be keen to work with the Government and political parties – we believe this review can open up exciting options for the future of local government across the country.”

Cllr Anne Underwood, Sutton Coldfield District chair, said: “As a Sutton Coldfield councillor I am passionate about how residents in my area are represented and can influence decisions that affect them.

“But Sutton is also part of the wider Birmingham area. I believe it would be a mistake to push for a Town Council, which would have very little influence over the services provided by the city, and which, if established, could stand in the way of an exciting development for Birmingham as a whole and give greater devolution to Sutton Coldfield than it currently has or would have under a town council.”

Last year, Birmingham City Council was presented with a petition from residents calling for a Community Governance Review to consider the feasibility of creating a town council for Sutton Coldfield.

A cross party working group, chaired by Sir Albert Bore was set up to look at how this could be done and how the change would impact on Sutton Coldfield and the rest of Birmingham.

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