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Localism turns into centralism as district committees stripped of powers

Localism turns into centralism as district committees stripped of powers

🕔11.Feb 2015

Birmingham council’s devolved district committees will lose all powers to run local services from May putting paid to a 10-year experiment in localism, it has been confirmed.

Responsibilities and budgets for running a range of services including community libraries, housing management, refuse collection and street cleansing will pass upwards to cabinet members in a display of centralism forced on to the council by the Kerslake Review.

Sir Bob Kerslake was scathing about devolution in his hard-hitting analysis of the council’s governance capabilities and concluded that the experiment was not working because the district committees did not have large enough budgets or enough staff to make any real difference to local services.

In a new role the districts will operate as super-scrutiny bodies focusing on shaping and leading their local areas through influence, representation and independent challenge of all public services located in the district, including those of the council.

And instead of handling budgets totalling £106 million the districts will simply be responsible for administering a new Community Initiative Fund of £2 million. The CIF cannot be used to directly deliver services but rather to commission external services to meet local priorities.

The decision to wind down the ten districts, which will be approved at the annual council meeting, represents a sharp about-turn for Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore who gave the committees additional powers and budgets to run more local services when he resumed control in 2012.

Most of the committees have routinely overspent their budgets and all debts totalling £7.2 million will be written off. There have been tensions between the cabinet and district committee chairs who have complained that they have been expected to carry out the work of the executive by passing on devastating cuts.

Sir Albert indicated in January that he was prepared to follow Kerslake’s recommendation. Details of the new role for the districts are set out in the council’s 2015 business plan and budget.

Sir Bob’s review team did not believe the creation of ten mini-councils within Birmingham was “working in practice or will work”. The committees were too big to be local but too small to be strategic.

The review document stated: “The council clearly faces a tension between the desire for local control and its budget. It has argued that devolution could bring benefits of reducing service costs and improving responsiveness to local people. However, we have not seen any evidence of this and consider it to be a very high risk strategy.

“The ten district committees should not be responsible for delivering services or managing them through service level agreements. Instead, if they are to be retained, they should be refocused on shaping and leading their local areas through influence, representation and independent challenge of all public services located in the district, including those of the council.

“The districts should be provided with a modest commissioning budget to purchase additional services that help meet local priorities. Services commissioned will not necessarily need to be managed or provided by the council.”

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