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Council devolution drive based on ‘managing, not empowering’ communities

Council devolution drive based on ‘managing, not empowering’ communities

🕔29.Aug 2014

Birmingham’s 40 city council ward committees are failing to engage people in decision-making because councillors and town hall officials have no genuine interest in community empowerment, an academic has claimed.

In an outspoken critique of the Labour-led council’s apparent commitment to devolution, Richard Hatcher, Professor of Education at Birmingham City University, said the committees embodied a bureaucratic model of local government “which is about managing the local community, not empowering it.”

Professor Hatcher was giving evidence to a scrutiny committee inquiry into whether ward committees are fit for purpose.

According to council leader Sir Albert Bore, the committees represent basic grassroots democracy and are at the forefront of an effort to extend devolution and “rebuild engagement in local democracy by putting local people and communities at the heart of everything we do”.

In his leader’s speech to the council in June Sir Albert said: “We need to value the enormous contribution of active citizenship and voluntary work in our neighbourhoods and the knowledge and judgement of people when it comes to dealing with local issues. We need to build stronger local civic governance in our local communities.”

Prof Hatcher hit out, claiming that the real role of Birmingham’s ward committees was to “maintain the existing dominance of councillor interests over community interests by controlling the agendas and the meeting procedures”.

He added: “Nothing in these procedures is designed to enable local citizens to take initiatives in policy‐making, let alone to empower local communities ‐ which is why Ward Committees have such a low attendance: people feel, rightly, that they are not places where they have much influence, let alone power.

Prof Hatcher continued: “The way ward committees work at the moment is completely out of step with aspirations for more active citizen involvement in policy‐making.

“They embody a bureaucratic model of local government which is about managing the local community, not empowering it. Why they continue is not just historical inertia, it is because they serve the interests of many councillors, and council officers, who have no interest in enhancing local democracy and empowering local communities.”

Prof Hatcher said community views were only taken into account if people were supporting councillors’ preferred policy options. If not, the views of residents were likely to be ignored.

He painted a picture of unwelcoming meetings based on rigid rules.

“The meeting room is laid out with rows of chairs facing a table at which sit the local councillors, the local support officer, and the clerk.

“There are copies of the agenda and other documentation available. The agenda has been decided by the councillors. There is a code of conduct in the documentation but it makes no mention of how citizens can put items on the agenda, apart from raising them in the agenda item called Open Forum or similar. It mentions ‘invited guests’, but again makes no mention of how citizens can invite them.

“There is no provision for citizens to submit documents in the agenda papers. Often the first two substantive agenda items are reports from the local police and fire service. The former mainly involve petty crime, litter and traffic.

“While these are important issues for residents they tend to be low‐level operational rather than strategic policy issues, and they often take up a large part of the meeting. In contrast, there are rarely or never comparable items on other local services such as schools, health provision, or social care.

“Citizens can speak, but it is generally to ask questions for information or to make a complaint, and time may be cut short. Proposals can be made, and if the chair permits a vote can be taken, but the vote does not constitute a mandate on the councillors to, for example, represent the proposal at the District Committee, which of course is almost entirely inaccessible to local citizens since it takes place during the day in the Council House and citizens have no rights to speak.”

Prof Hatcher is calling for a cultural change at the Council House to enable a “much more deliberative citizen‐led participatory approach”.

He puts forward three recommendations:

  • Each ward committee should be headed by a Board consisting of the councillors and an equal number of local citizens elected by a ward committee meeting. They should set the agenda of meetings.
  • The ward committee meetings should be chaired by one of the elected citizens, not by a councillor.
  • There should be clear procedures to enable local citizens to put items on the ward committee agendas, circulate papers, and introduce items at meetings. The Board members should actively encourage and support citizens to do so.

A council survey asking for views about the committees has so far attracted only 87 responses.

Just over a third said they didn’t attend meetings because they didn’t know about them, while over a quarter described the meetings as boring and dominated by the concerns of certain people and groups.

Attendance varies across the city. Each committee held between five and eight meetings between May 2013 and September 2014. Longbridge had the highest number of public attendees, at 311. Tyburn had the lowest during the period, with 30.

Bournville, Erdington and Kingstanding ward committees each had a meeting where only one member of the public attended. Sutton Trinity had two meetings with one member of the public in attendance.

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