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Power-to-the-people devolution pledge turns out to be ‘talking shop’

Power-to-the-people devolution pledge turns out to be ‘talking shop’

🕔07.Jan 2015

Devolution at its most basic form is not working well in Birmingham and has not lived up to an ambitious power-to-the-people pledge set out two years ago. That is the conclusion of three critical inquiries into the way the city council conducts its business.

A scrutiny committee decided last year that Birmingham’s 40 ward committees, where members of the public are supposed to be able to engage about local issues with elected representatives, were “not fit for purpose”.

That was followed by an inquiry ordered by the scrutiny committee chair, Waseem Zaffar, which reached the same conclusion, with plenty of evidence to support the ‘not fit’ claim.

Zaffar told this month’s full council meeting that ward committees were generally regarded as “talking shops” where nothing was achieved and that members of the public were sometimes “muzzled” and prevented from talking.

He added: “There has to be a shift in power from the top table to the citizens of this city, to the people. Citizens should be able to get items on the agenda and have the right to speak on local issues.”

While Zaffar’s inquiry was underway, the Kerslake Review into the council’s governance arrangements took a similarly depressing view of devolution.

District and ward committees are not working very well and council wards are far too large to deliver any meaningful partnership between councillors and the public.

Kerslake believed ward committees should be an important mechanism for citizen engagement but warned that under the present system “there is a lack of space in formal district and ward meetings for more general conversations so the council is not able to hear what people want and to be able to react.”

He called for a change to allow ward committees to operate “more like residents’ community forums, providing a space for residents to spontaneously raise issues and have general discussions.”

Meanwhile, a separate review into the future of council’s devolved structures is underway and will report later this year.

The critical focus on ward and district committees is challenging for council leader Sir Albert Bore, who in his first leader’s policy statement after regaining control in 2012 promoted Birmingham as an exciting trail blazer for devolution.

In particular, Sir Albert said ward committees would “improve accountability, to enable opportunities for citizens to influence services and to be the major means to engage citizens on issues affecting their area”.

Somewhat embarrassingly, Zaffar’s inquiry found that few members of the public attend their local ward committees and those that do bother to turn up can only speak or vote if the chairman agrees. Under the council constitution citizens “may be granted the right, if invited to do so by the chairman of the relevant committee, to participate and contribute to the discussion”.

Over a 16 month period from May 2012 to September 2013 examined by Zaffar, the number of ward committee meetings ranged from five to eight per ward at an average cost of £345 per meeting. The total number of public attendance ranged from 30 in Tyburn to 311 in Longbridge.

Difficulties in finding out when and where ward committees are to meet has been a constant criticism, as well as the near impossibility of using the council’s “labyrinthine” web site to access agendas and reports.

In its report, Zaffar’s inquiry noted: “One barrier is that most citizens appear not to know about the existence of Ward Committees, or if they do they do not always know when they will be meeting.

“We are aware that improvements are being made to the council’s website. However, currently the web presence of ward committees is not good enough with some information being out of date, hard to find or absent.”

There was also criticism of “long-winded officer reports” at committees as well as the “legalistic, prescriptive and formal” structure of the meetings.

The inquiry concluded: “From the beginning it was clear that this was a Marmite issue – some people love ward committees whilst others appear to hate them. What became very clear, too, during the Inquiry is that across the city many citizens are just unaware of their existence.

“There are many examples of good practice and Ward Committees making a difference. We also heard frustrations that they often do not live up to expectations and that the resources put into them could achieve more if used in a different way.

“As the council’s resources reduce further ward committees will need to change or may have to become optional. What is undeniable is that the council needs to ensure robust engagement with citizens occurs and that this influences priorities and how services are provided.”

Conservative councillors believe Labour is intent on scrapping ward and district committees in their current form to be replaced by “talking shops” not chaired by councillors “where people sit around discussing things”. Cllr Deirdre Alden (Con Edgbaston) said Sir Albert Bore wanted to bring all decision making back to the centre, denying local people a say.

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