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Lollipops, the library and school dinners – a question of trust for the council

Lollipops, the library and school dinners – a question of trust for the council

🕔15.Feb 2016

There may appear to be little obvious connection between the Library of Birmingham, the eternal row over the future of school crossing patrols, and an ambitious plan to give a free daily hot meal to every child at council-run infant and primary schools.

In fact, the three capture very clearly the difficult challenges facing the council as it moves slowly but surely to a position where it can only afford to pay for the services it is legally obliged to deliver such as children’s and adult social care and refuse collection.

Everything else, the kind of stuff councils have provided for years even though strictly speaking they don’t have to, like school crossing patrols, will disappear unless someone else picks up the tab or, whisper it softly, volunteers are prepared to give their services for free.

The Government calls this the Big Society. John Clancy, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, calls it the decent society. Either way, the meaning is the same: communities must do more for themselves in an era of slimmed down local government. Those that can must help those that cannot.

The mere mention of Big Society is guaranteed to send angry emails whizzing Chamberlain Files’ way, so conditioned are most people to the notion that if a service is required the council should deliver it.

Barring a dramatic change of heart by George Osborne, or the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government, with both events seeming equally unlikely, Birmingham had better get used to the idea that a range of town hall services will have to be delivered by the public rather than the council.

Clancy likes to refer to ‘step up Birmingham’, inviting businesses and the general public to get on with helping the council deliver services. Sometimes, this can take the form of quite small but effective community events. The Facebook pages of local councillors are full of pictures depicting litter-picking patrols where local streets have been cleared of rubbish by willing volunteers.

Other elements of Clancy’s step up Birmingham will be far more difficult to deliver.

There is a lot riding on trusts, for example, as a mid-way house between council-run services and handing responsibility entirely to volunteers. A trust is being formed to oversee the council leader’s pledge to fund free school meals. There is also to be a trust to run school crossing patrols.

Both trusts rely on businesses, or other partners, coming forward to contribute financially.

As far as school crossing patrols are concerned, the lollipop men and women beloved by tabloid newspapers, the council had intended to save £500,000 a year in 2016-17 and £800,000 a year thereafter by phasing out the patrols.

Next year’s savings have been abandoned after Clancy conveniently discovered £500,000 down the back of the municipal sofa (a trick which he routinely criticised former council leader Sir Albert Bore for doing), thereby avoiding the wrath of yet another Birmingham Mail ‘Save Our Lollipop Patrols’ campaign.

If by this time next year a trust is up and running with £800,000 in the bank, all will be well. If not, Cllr Clancy will have to give that sofa another good shaking to keep the patrols going.

There is an alternative, of course. Individual schools or groups of schools could take responsibility for organising crossing patrols, encouraging parents and grandparents to do their bit for no financial recompense whatsoever. A difficult concept for sure, but there must be plenty of potential volunteers, who do not work, who would happily give a couple of hours of their time to help children cross the road, if only someone asked them to do so.

The school meals trust is in an entirely different league altogether. The cost of delivering Cllr Clancy’s free meals pledge in full has not been officially calculated but is understood to be at least £20 million a year.

The council leader has said big businesses might see their way to contributing as part of their corporate social responsibility obligations, with the likes of Asda, Primark and professional football clubs singled out as potential contributors. It’s a high-minded idea, but it remains to be seen how keen businesses will be to demonstrate and pay for social responsibility when the economy remains on a knife edge and protecting the bottom line is the main priority for most firms.

Perhaps the next generation of Birmingham school children might enjoy sausage and beans off plates with an Asda or Aston Villa logo, and why not? But the very real lessons to be learned from the collapse of the Library of Birmingham Trust demonstrate that many people struggle to understand the relationship between local government and voluntary service.

The library trust was set up by the council and given a target to raise about £2 million a year largely through philanthropic contributions. When the promised money failed to materialise, the library’s finances slumped into the red. The position deteriorated further as the council cut its funding by £1.3 million.

The take on this from Randall Brew, a Conservative city councillor who was on the library trust, is most interesting. Brew told the Birmingham Mail the problem was “when the city council started imposing the cuts, the private philanthropy dried up. People just felt they were paying for the cuts.”

Brew went on to note that libraries in Europe and the US “get a lot more philanthropy than we get”.

Yes, well, this really is it in a nutshell. People are being asked to dip their hands into their pockets or to give their time for free to help others because the council can no longer afford to do so. In that respect, the very rich people asked to leave substantial legacies for the library certainly are “paying for the cuts” just as much as a volunteer litter picker is helping to pay for the cuts.

But because in this country we have no great tradition of bottom-up volunteer-led public service provision, there is sometimes resentment when citizens are asked to get involved and the biggest challenge facing Cllr Clancy if he is serious about step up Birmingham is to overcome the default position that “this is the council’s job”.

It may have been the council’s job once. But those days are rapidly disappearing.

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