Changes to the city council constitution making it mandatory for the committees to meet in the Council House during the day rather than in their local area during the evening are to be the subject of a formal challenge by Liberal Democrat and Conservative councillors.
Not only will sessions have to be held at times when most people find it difficult to attend, members of the public will in future only be able to ask questions “at the chairman’s discretion”.
It all appears, on the face of it, to be an exercise in centralisation and control rather than localisation and openness.
The matter is to be debated at the next meeting of the splendidly named Districts and Public Engagement Overview and Scrutiny Committee, where Lib Dem councillor Jerry Evans will attempt to block the constitutional change and have the matter referred back to the cabinet.
Evans has no chance of getting his way, of course, since the new arrangements for District Committees were devised by Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore who has made it clear there is no room for compromise. Labour’s hefty majority on the scrutiny committee will ensure that the Leader gets his way.
Sir Albert is already furious at having to spend time changing the constitution after the Tory controlled Sutton Coldfield and Liberal Democrat controlled Yardley threatened to defy him and carry on meeting in their back yards.
As is so often the way with Sir Albert, he can’t understand why his own remorseless logic isn’t appreciated by others.
He justifies the changes by pointing out that the new District Committees are very different beasts from their predecessor Constituency Committees, which did meet locally.
They have far larger budgets and greater responsibility for delivering up to 80 per cent of local services. They are specifically not bodies for local public engagement, and should be seen more as old-style council committees requiring the full hands-on administrative back up that can only be provided at the Council House.
There are also some cost savings to be made by removing the need for District Committees to hire rooms in the districts, as well as ending mileage claims by officers attending meetings in the suburbs.
Grass roots public engagement will be the responsibility of 40 Ward Committees who will act as the eyes and ears of the local population, according to Sir Albert who has accused his Tory and Lib Dem opponents of deliberately confusing the whole localisation programme.
Coun Evans says it’s “a bit rich” to ban local meetings simply to make life more convenient for officials. His theory is that Sir Albert wants as few people as possible attending District Committee meetings because he doesn’t want to be “embarrassed” by the shortcomings of Labour councillors.
Coun Evans added: “This is control freakery at its worst and a slap in the face for Yardley and Sutton Coldfield districts who want to hold their meetings in local venues.
“Labour claims it wants to enhance devolution – this decision suggests this is purely lip service to the concept”. What sort of devolution is it where district committees can’t even decide where they want to meet?”
In the unlikely event that this Friday’s scrutiny committee decides to “call in” the constitutional change, a full inquiry would have to be held at which Sir Albert would be invited to explain himself. Now that it something I would willingly pay to watch.