Devolving powers and budgets from the centralised Council House to locally-based constituency committees has, on paper, been a key Birmingham City Council policy since 2005.
But the push towards localisation put in place by Sir Albert Bore before Labour lost control to a Tory-Lib Dem coalition in 2004 struggled to achieve its aims, caught up in a clash of opposing interests between the council’s executive cabinet and backbench councillors from all political parties on the committees.
Too often, the constituency committees discovered that important budgetary decisions were taken by the cabinet and that, in any case, city-wide service contracts severely limited the scope for change when it came to services like refuse collection and street cleaning.
The initiative also exposed internal differences in the coalition, where Lib Dem councillors tended to be more in favour of devolving power down to constituency level while Conservatives were more suspicious of the venture.
Sir Albert’s latest attempt at devolution is in its infancy, but will change quite dramatically the way services are delivered in Birmingham if his proposals are pushed through with determination as promised.
Intriguingly, his proposals will also allow Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors a sizeable chunk of power in parts of Birmingham where the two parties have a majority of members.
The ten constituency committees are being re-named District Committees and each of the chairmen will be an executive cabinet member entitled to attend and speak at cabinet meetings where relevant items are being discussed.
And since almost any item before the cabinet will have an impact in every constituency, the possibility immediately arises of Sir Albert’s ‘slimmed down’ cabinet of eight members more than doubling in size to 18 and becoming a prominent publicity platform for the Conservative chairmen of Edgbaston and Sutton Coldfield, Coun Bruce Lines and Coun Anne Underwood, and the Liberal Democrat chairman of Yardley, Coun Mike Ward.
The committees, which could each have individual budgets in excess of £20 million, will have powers to approve revenue spending up to £500,000 and capital projects up to £1 million, without first seeking cabinet approval. The capital allocation is four times the current spending limit for constituency committees.
Some Labour councillors are uneasy about handing any decision-making powers at all to Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. But Sir Albert is adamant that localisation must mean councillors engaging with residents to deliver services that people want even if the majority of councillors and residents are not Labour supporters.
It’s hardly surprising that when he first attempted to introduce devolution Sir Albert insisted that the new constituency committees should not be referred to as ‘mini-town halls’. He had sound political reasons for giving the impression that real power would remain with the Labour cabinet, even if that was not strictly the case.
But when you look at the ever-growing list of powers now being granted to district committees to run housing, refuse collection, highways, and a host of other important local services, it becomes clear that a real shift of influence from the centre to the suburbs is underway.
Labour’s 2012 local election manifesto for Birmingham could not have put it any clearer: “Devolution is about the transfer of powers, responsibilities and, crucially, budgets.” The importance given to the transfer of budgets should be noted, you may feel.
There is certainly some discontent at the prospect of these very large constituencies – Edgbaston has a population of 93,000, Sutton Coldfield 92,000 and Yardley 104,000 – falling under the control of opposition councillors. In some parts of the country, these vast areas would almost qualify for council status on their own merits.
Sir Albert actually wanted to go further, by offering a limited number of scrutiny committee chairmanships to Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors. But that idea was vetoed by the Labour group. The dawning realisation that devolution may mean handing power to political opponents is being described as ‘Albert’s scrutiny through the back door’.
One Labour member said: “It’s all very well in Sutton, where the area clearly votes Conservative, and in Yardley which is overwhelmingly Liberal Democrat. But in Edgbaston, where there are seven Tory councillors to Labour’s five and it is much closer, our supporters are asking why we are giving power away.”
The district committees will not actually meet in the districts they serve, gathering instead at the Council House where they can work more closely with chief officers. It is not even clear whether their meetings will be held in public.
Labour explains this by insisting that Birmingham’s 40 ward committees will be the “eyes and ears” of the public, and “vehicles for engaging directly with residents and communities”. It is intended that the ward committees will work in partnership with the district committees, and there will be an annual conference to agree on priorities with input from community groups and stakeholders.
The cost of administering 50 committees, with officer support, will be substantial and was an issue for the former Tory-Lib Dem coalition when reassessing the devolution programme in the light of financial pressures faced by the council. Sir Albert also plans to establish a new Localised Services Directorate, “bringing together services that should be localised”.
A list of District Committee functions is already lengthy, and includes: adult education; community arts; community libraries; district engineers; enforcement for litter, fly-tipping and pest control; highway services; car parks; community safety; housing management services; parks and allotments; neighbourhood advice; pest control; refuse collection, street cleansing and recycling; sport and leisure services; trading standards; youth services. A re-written council constitution states that there will probably be further additions to the list as 2012 proceeds.