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Birth of the devolution monster

Birth of the devolution monster

🕔06.Sep 2012

A huge city council department is being formed to drive Birmingham’s devolution agenda.

The Local Services Directorate will have almost 8,000 members of staff and a £531 million budget, making it the biggest department at Britain’s largest local authority.

Organisational changes have been approved by the cabinet along with proposals about how the controlling Labour group’s vision to devolve, wherever practicable, service delivery to local level will actually work in practice.

A senior councillor said the aim was to do away with “the dead hand of centralised management” and to encourage communities to take responsibility for running their own areas.

It’s claimed that the devolution process can be managed at no extra cost to the council, which is under pressure to find £400 million in spending cuts.

Councillors on the city’s 10 District Committees, based on parliamentary constituencies, will take political control of a range of services formerly delivered from the Council House.

These include neighbourhood offices, district engineers, sport and leisure, estate management and tenant engagement, local car parks, community libraries, youth services, community and play services, community safety, school crossing patrols.

Management of the devolved services by council officials will rest with four Local Services Teams in district quadrants based on the boundaries used by West Midlands police.

The four district quadrants are:

  • North – Erdington and Sutton Coldfield
  • East – Hodge Hill, Yardley and Hall Green
  • West and Central – Ladywood and Perry Barr
  • South – Edgbaston, Northfield and Selly Oak

Council leader Sir Albert Bore is making it clear that a number of key services will still have to be run on a city-wide basis. These include cemeteries, refuse collection, street cleaning, recycling, the Library of Birmingham, adult education, licensing and enforcement and pest control.

These services “do not lend themselves to local management arrangements but should be responsive to local need” and will be run in consultation with district committees, according to Sir Albert.

The new arrangements threaten to provoke tension among Labour councillors in Edgbaston and Sutton Coldfield, where the Conservatives will control the district committees and budgets, and in Liberal Democrat Yardley.

Social cohesion cabinet member John Cotton insisted this was the price to pay for devolution.

Coun Cotton (Lab Shard End) said: “There is a tension at the heart of any devolution structure about the proper level where powers and responsibilities lie. We have political control of Birmingham city Council but under devolution different political parties will have control and take decisions in their area.”

Coun Cotton was answering questions from sceptical scrutiny committee members who raised doubts about  attempts over 30 years to devolve powers from the centralised Council House to communities in the districts.

He said: “We are going to have to get used to different ways of doing things. The whole point about devolution is that things don’t look the same all over the city. But the Labour group is absolutely united behind this and determined to do it.

“We have to change the council officer mindset to see that accountability now lies with the district committees. The officers will have the dead hand of centralised management taken off of them, enabling them to be more creative.”

Setting up the new Local Services directorate involves changes at the highest level.

A wide-ranging restructure reduces the council’s current six departments to five. As well as the new Local Services directorate, the Development directorate will be enlarged to take in culture and the Homes and Neighbourhoods directorate is to be axed.

The council will lose one strategic director as a result of the shake-up, with Development Director Mark Barrow, Homes and Neighbourhoods Director Elaine Elkington and Environment and Culture Director Sharon Lea engaged in a fight to save their jobs.

Sir Albert is insisting new arrangements must be delivered on a cost-neutral basis.

A cabinet report noted: “The operating costs of delivering structural change are to be contained in the current resource envelope of each directorate. Any additional costs incurred will need to be set out through a business case approval process and offset by balancing financial efficiencies.”

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