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Localism in Birmingham: bureaucratic nightmare, or a dream come true for council officers?

Localism in Birmingham: bureaucratic nightmare, or a dream come true for council officers?

🕔27.Feb 2012
Paul Tilsley, Deputy Leader of Birmingham City...

Just over a year ago, Birmingham City Council’s grandly-named Cabinet Committee for Achieving Excellence with Communities met for the first time to begin planning for the far-reaching implications that the Localism Act would have on service delivery.

Twelve months later, the committee finally got around to meeting for a second time. The start was delayed by five minutes because no cabinet members had turned up. Eventually, deputy council leader Paul Tilsley arrived and took control as the committee chairman, council leader Mike Whitby, was nowhere to be seen and sent his apologies.

Coun Tilsley was joined by cabinet colleague Tim Huxtable, and business was able to get underway. There were three opposition Labour members present, including group leader Sir Albert Bore.

The localism agenda, it might be argued, is one of the most important issues facing Birmingham City Council, whichever political group or coalition wins control in May, and will usher in the greatest change to the way local government works in 60 years. Yet this meeting lasted barely 30 minutes and the cabinet members present, including local services member Ayoub Khan who arrived 15 minutes late, made little contribution.

Labour local services shadow cabinet member John Cotton remarked sarcastically that the length of time between the committee’s two sessions had been so long that “this is more like a reunion than a meeting”. But he couldn’t really criticise, since his Labour colleagues studiously played little part in the limited discussion that did take place.

Sir Albert will rip up the Tory-Lib Dem council’s localism and devolution strategy if he becomes council leader in May and replace it with his own, so clearly didn’t think it worthwhile saying anything at all at the cabinet committee meeting.

It would be very misleading to suggest that nothing has been happening in Birmingham with regards to localism planning. Council officers and colleagues at the city strategic partnership Be Birmingham have produced a mini-mountain of reports and strategies, charts and flow diagrams depicting how the various strands of localism could fit together.

The one thing that no-one is talking about, however, is how the cost of administering all of the Government’s localism initiatives can be managed by the council and other public agencies, who are themselves under an unprecedented spending squeeze.

Changes just around the corner when the Localism Act is fully implemented include, in no particular order of importance, the following:

  • Community Right to Build – giving local people the right to deliver the development their community wants, by drawing up Neighbourhood Plans and putting proposals to referendums.
  • Community Right to Challenge – voluntary and community groups with “bright ideas” can express an interest in taking over and running local services. The council will be under a legal obligation to engage with such groups and take proposals seriously.
  • Community Right to Bid – councils will be obliged to maintain a list of community assets, village halls or community centres for instance,  and when they are threatened with change of ownership or closure local community groups must be given the time to develop bids and to raise money to buy the asset.

All of these changes will involve the council in additional administration costs because officers will have to work closely with community leaders in responding to their wishes and developing policies. Then there are other schemes including Neighbourhood Level Community Budget pilots at Shard End, Castle Vale and Balsall Heath, which involve enabling local neighbourhoods to run local services. These pilot schemes were awarded to Birmingham by the Government, but Whitehall is not contributing financially towards the work that is taking place.

On top of that, there are moves to encourage communities to play a direct role in setting crime prevention policies for their areas, which are being developed by the Birmingham Community Safety Partnership under the Be Birmingham umbrella.

A policy paper setting out how this might work, called Integrated Community Safety Tasking, gives every impression of descending into a bureaucratic nightmare, or providing a council officer’s dream job depending on where you are starting from. There will be no less than eight layers of management, from community engagement meetings at the bottom layer where local people get an opportunity to help set community safety priorities in each of the city’s 40 wards, right up to the Be Birmingham executive board which oversees the whole thing.

From the bottom up: community-level neighbourhood tasking groups provide an interface between community and business leaders and the police, and community safety special interest groups, which is a posh name for neighbourhood watch.

On the next rung of the ladder sits ward-level working neighbourhood tasking groups, which set priorities for neighbourhood policing teams. Their meetings will be open twice a year to the public. These groups consist of representatives nominated by community, voluntary, business and faith-based organisations, as well as city councillors.

Then there are constituency-level safer communities groups covering each of Birmingham’s 10 parliamentary constituencies. These groups tackle more important issues such as serious anti-social behaviour on housing estates and membership includes police inspectors and council officials. They will work closely with local delivery groups whose purpose is to identify longer term problems within communities with the highest crime levels. Membership includes police chief inspectors and fire station commanders.

Almost at the top of the pile, but not quite, are tactical area tasking and coordination groups, which use police intelligence to identify key crime and disorder threats. Their meetings will be administered by West Midlands Police and membership includes senior police officers, but not elected councillors.

Next up is the partnership operational group, which sits just beneath the Be Birmingham board and is responsible for day to day running of the entire neighbourhood crime-fighting initiative. Its membership includes very senior council and police officers.

The cabinet committee report made it clear that Birmingham’s 10 constituency committees and 40 ward committees, which will be expected to play a major role in localism, are facing severe financial restrictions. The constituencies have to identify savings of £7.3 million a year by 2013-14. Be Birmingham has seen its budget and staffing levels dramatically reduced, while West Midlands Police is facing a £125 budget cut over four years and will shed more than 1,000 serving police officers. Little wonder, therefore, that the constituency committees are under orders to find smarter ways to work which include amalgamation of services where possible.

Birmingham’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition may utter just the slightest sigh of relief if it loses power in May, for the task of delivering the Government’s “substantial and lasting shift in power” away from the Council House to local communities is likely to be onerous, expensive and in a city the size of Birmingham, extremely complex.

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