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Could Clancy’s Birmingham ever make the Scottish councillor smile?

Could Clancy’s Birmingham ever make the Scottish councillor smile?

🕔31.Aug 2016

Proving the sheer breadth of his reading range, Chris Game from the University of Birmingham goes on a journey from Wigan to Birmingham, via Aberdeen, and muses on whether a modern version of John Major’s Citizen’s Charter might be taken up as a Deal for John Clancy’s Birmingham. 

You may recall a rather (even by Twitter standards) stupid dustup, sparked off last summer by novelist J K Rowling, about anti-English prejudice within the Scottish National Party.

The English-born, Labour-supporting Harry Potter author has lived in Edinburgh for years, and had, as was widely publicised, been a victim of repeated abuse during the Scottish Independence referendum campaign.

And now, all she was doing, in the mildest terms and almost rhetorically, was to question, as “quite a claim”, the daft assertion by an SNP-supporting journalist that “any trace of ethnic nationalism and anti-English sentiment was expunged from the party in the 1970s.”

The SNP’s evidence of this expunction seemed to consist of claiming that many English-born people now supported the party, and indeed several of its elected politicians were actually born the wrong (sorry, south) side of the border. So that was alright, then; case proved, no problem.

All of which came to mind as I read – as one does, in one’s copy of the Aberdeen Press & Journal – that Highland Council “is looking to local authorities in England for inspiration as they aim to streamline their services as part of a major overhaul.”

Highland (unitary) Council covers well over twice the area of the whole West Midlands region, so you might wonder what its councillors could conceivably learn from visiting a geographically compact English urban council like, say, Wigan – to which the answer apparently was: plenty.

Council vice-convenor, SNP Cllr Bill Lobban, was close to effusive:

To me it was absolutely fascinating the way the staff and the communities felt about the council. They felt they had ownership of the council.

To the public it wasn’t that the council was some big entity, they were all in it together. They had produced this thing called The Deal, which is a deal between the community and the council.

Both the community and the staff felt really positively about the entire process. You could go into some items in detail but the overall impression I came back with was with a smile on my face.

Unusual stuff!  You could pay an advertising agency thousands, and they’d not dare to come up with a tribute like that. Even a handful of equally effusive spontaneous encomia – from Birmingham citizens, let alone another authority’s councillors – would surely get the government’s Independent Improvement Panel finally off our own council’s case.

OK, it would probably take more than a handful, but whatever’s in that ‘Deal’ that put the smile on Cllr Lobban’s face must be worth at least some examination.

At first glance, the Wigan ‘Deal’ is nothing that exceptional – particularly for those able to recall the deluge of customer charters and service guarantees that followed Prime Minister John Major’s famous 1991 Citizen’s Charter White Paper.

In fact, as with so much that governments and ministers end up taking the greater credit for, Major’s initiative was pre-dated by several mainly Labour councils developing their own charters, customer contracts and redress mechanisms.

But, either way, there were soon literally thousands of them, seeking, as Major phrased it, “to empower the citizen as an individual service consumer.”

Note his very deliberately placed, singularising apostrophe: Citizen’s Charter.  Major’s citizens were first and foremost individual customers and consumers, whose individual rights should be protected.

Only secondly, if then, were they participants in the collective process of local governance, with civic rights similarly entitled to recognition and promotion – to be informed, to be heard, to influence, participate and be properly represented.

The Wigan Deal differs from most 1990s’ customer charters in several ways. Most obviously, it is prompted by and addresses an era of austerity: massive and ongoing funding and service cuts; the need somehow to keep Council Tax bills down while still balancing the books.

Secondly, and I’d guess deliberately, it avoids the language of rights altogether, and instead is all about roles and parts, set out as a series of pledges and hoped-for responses: “Our part – your part”.

Our part – to freeze council tax for the second year running; your part – to recycle more, recycle right, and bin it right. Our part – to cut red tape and provide value for money; your part – to get online and use the council’s MyAccount available to all residents.

That’s broadly the style, but obviously there’s a great deal more to it – including separate Deals for Children & Young People and Adult Social Care & Wellbeing; a Communities Investment Fund; a Brighter Borough fund for councillors to propose schemes to improve the environment within their own wards; and so on.

As I said, nothing in itself really exceptional – apart from the response it prompted among the Highland councillors, and the degree of interest and involvement it at least appears to have generated among the Wigan citizenry.

And, of course, it’s wholly in line with the sentiment emphasised by John Clancy during his leadership election campaign: that for far too long Birmingham and other councils have done things to people, rather than with them.

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