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Do not pass go, do not collect from community chest

Do not pass go, do not collect from community chest

🕔18.Feb 2013

chestBirmingham’s community chest fund, which distributes significant sums of money to the city’s 40 ward committees for grassroots projects, is as good as dead and buried.

Council leader Sir Albert Bore has already slashed the pot in half, from £4 million to £2 million, to pay for an onslaught against youth unemployment. He has also announced an “evaluation” of past performance to see whether community chest has delivered longstanding gain to the communities it is supposed to serve.

You won’t find many people at the Council House betting on the evaluation containing much in the way of positive news.

Sir Albert made it clear at a cabinet meeting that he didn’t believe projects such as community chest, the £50 million Neighbourhood Renewal Fund and £114 million Working Neighbourhoods Fund have provided the Birmingham economy with long-term benefits, certainly not in the form of permanent jobs.

If community chest does disappear next year, and abolition must be odds-on, the irony will not be lost on political observers who have always wondered about the Labour’s actual commitment to devolution as opposed to the claims over many years that the party is a champion of power to the people.

After all, allowing councillors to spend up to £100,000 a year on very local projects – carnivals, floral displays, environmental improvements, housing estate security schemes are favourite items – is probably the best example Birmingham has ever experienced of handing budgets and responsibility down to neighbourhood level and trusting councillors as to how the money should be invested for the good of their communities.

Raiding community chest is seen by Sir Albert as a necessity in these difficult times and few can argue that the money will, in theory, be well spent on tackling the scourge of youth unemployment, but the decision must be seen against the council leader’s outspoken support for devolution in the past.

One of his first pronouncements upon regaining power last May was that Constituency Committees would be restyled as District Committees, given larger budgets and wide-ranging powers to run local services. They were to work in conjunction with a new Local Services Directorate.

Sir Albert said then: “Devolution works. Local councillors know that it does and local people want it. We will put Birmingham back at the forefront of the devolution agenda so that local politics and local government is far more relevant to the people we serve.

“People want influence over their own neighbourhood and over problems that confront them when they step outside their front door. Issues like litter, graffiti and anti-social behaviour and better street lighting.”

As is often the case, the small print surrounding his announcement raised a number of questions. The new committees, with their multi-million pound budgets, were expressly told to meet not in their own districts but at the Council House where they could better work with senior officers.

Committees that resisted this order were told by Sir Albert that they had no choice in the matter. It was in many ways a trivial disagreement, but seemed to sum up an underlying centralisation mentality some might even say control-freakery by the council leadership.

The distribution of devolved funds has been something of a long-running sore in Birmingham’s Labour Party ranks. Sir Albert has always taken the view that regeneration funds should be used primarily in the areas of greatest social need and fought hard when council leader in 2001 to spend all of the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund in the 13 most deprived wards.

Political opposition, not least from within his own party, meant that NRF was eventually distributed across the city with the council topping up the fund to ensure that even wealthy Sutton Coldfield had some of the money.

Community chest was introduced a decade ago and the available funds were doubled by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition between 2004 and 2012.

Sir Albert’s decision to halve the community chest fund was reportedly greeted with opposition at a Labour group meeting, but the proposal was eventually approved. The leader made it clear that the £2 million diverted to the youth employment initiative will be targeted on the parts of Birmingham where unemployment among 18-24 year olds is highest.

However, one disgruntled councillor noted: “Imposing a £2 million cut in community chest funding is not wise in terms of marginal seats and campaigning. Quite often the little extras provided by such a fund can make all of the difference to an area.”

And former Moseley Liberal Democrat councillor Martin Mullaney predicted that cuts in community chest funding would mean the end of street wardens in Moseley and the Moseley in Bloom festival. “The funding for these things won’t be available from anywhere else,” Mr Mullaney added.

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