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Clancy rallies ‘citizens’ army’ to lead Birmingham’s evolution of devolution drive

Clancy rallies ‘citizens’ army’ to lead Birmingham’s evolution of devolution drive

🕔13.Apr 2016

A ‘citizens’ army’ of people whose views have been ignored in the past could be recruited to help lead Birmingham city council’s devolution drive.

The notion of delving deep down to neighbourhood level by unleashing the “latent talent” of residents and encouraging them to play a far more active role in local government has been set out by city council leader John Clancy.

Cllr Clancy said there were many “experts” in Birmingham whose experience and knowledge of the area where they lived should be utilised, but they had been overlooked by the council for too long.

Speaking at a meeting of the main scrutiny committee, Cllr Clancy sketched out his strategy for the evolution of devolution. He intends to appoint four assistant council leaders in May who will lead a year-long view of localism and produce proposals for a long- term process of change towards a “more bottom up and inclusive approach to leadership in Birmingham”.

Cllr Clancy said: “We are looking to put in place changes over the next two years in relation to the local leadership and set up structures to enable local people in their wards and neighbourhoods to have more influence on the services of this city council.”

He emphasised an “absolute determination” to reach cross-party agreement on a new devolved structure for the council. Opposition Tory and Liberal Democrat leaders will sit on a new cabinet committee which he will chair along with the assistant leaders and district committee chairs to draw up a devolution strategy.

Cllr Clancy added: “It is important there should be a cabinet committee to give a high profile to the important process of how this city changes to become more hands-on with services being shaped by local people in their areas.”

While insisting there could be no one-size fits all approach and that different parts of the city would view devolution differently, Cllr Clancy said he envisaged a structure based on ward and neighbourhood boundaries rather than the parliamentary constituencies.

At the moment Birmingham has 40 ward committees and 10 district committees. District committees are based on the constituencies and until recently were responsible for delivering some local services.

But the size of the constituencies, with some as large as small councils, has made decision making at a very local level almost impossible to achieve.

The council leader said a review of ward boundaries underway at the moment as well as plans to cut the number of city councillors from 120 to 101 from 2018 could offer a perfect opportunity to devise radical devolution plans.

Encouraging community groups and organisations to play their part is crucial to the future of the council which is increasingly reliant on commissioning service delivery through partnership working.

Cllr Clancy accepted that some of Birmingham’s communities may be more comfortable with devolution than others. He added: “In a city of this size it’s crucial that whatever works in that locale is what matters. It could be that certain parts of the city get very hands on in terms of their devolution while others may not. It is perfectly possible that an area might see as parish council as important.

“The direction of travel has to be away from parliamentary boundaries and districts and towards wards and neighbourhoods.”

Picking up on the Kerslake Review, which criticised the council for a ‘we know best approach’, Cllr Clancy suggested communities had been trampled over in the past.

“This is all about tapping into the skills and talents at a neighbourhood level. The latent potential of Birmingham citizens has simply not been exploited over the past 20 or 30 years.

“There are absolute experts in their field that we don’t utilise enough. You don’t have to be an elected politician to have input in your area.”

As ever, the devolution drive will depend to a certain extent on the amount of money the council is prepared to allocate towards establishing a new administrative structure.

Cllr Clancy warned colleagues to expect “baby steps” at first and added “it won’t happen overnight”.

Money would have to follow devolution, he said, but there was a need to be “practical and realistic” about what might be available this financial year.

The council leader accepts that devolution at local level will be meaningless unless communities have control of basic services such as street cleaning and highways maintenance. That will entail renegotiating the council’s contract with Amey to manage the roads and pavements.

Cllr Clancy admitted: “The Amey contract has to be at the absolute heart of this and how we reshape it. I have had conversations with Amey about their ability to adapt to whatever form of devolution emerges. There has to be an assumption that they are working with the cabinet committee to look at the contract again. The idea that we can continue as is won’t run.”

Opposition group leaders gave a cautious welcome to the council leader’s plans with deputy Conservative group leader Randal Brew and Liberal Democrat group leader Jon Hunt welcoming “the direction of travel”.

Cllr Hunt retained a level of scepticism, demanding to know how the assistant council leaders would be chosen and whether they would be selected on merit. There was a danger they might end up as “political commissars”, he warned.

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