Support for ‘Big Society’ volunteers running public services in council survey
Birmingham people support the idea of a ‘Big Society’ and recognise that volunteers must increasingly take responsibility for delivering services the public sector can no longer afford to run, according to research by the city council.
Residents were invited to discuss the future of Birmingham in 2020 and beyond and how this could be achieved with the huge financial challenges facing the council at meetings in each of the city’s 10 districts in the first half of November.
Broad themes to emerge from the 11 workshops attended by 325 people suggest a general understanding that the council can no longer afford to act as a universal provider of public services and must shift to an enabling role by working more closely with the voluntary sector and other stakeholder organisations.
There were also calls for businesses to play a more prominent civic role by keeping clean streets and pavements outside of their premises, investing in community organisations and sharing their skills and knowledge with them.
It was suggested that communities should organise street cleaning days and the council should support activists to clean up their area by providing resources such as tools and high visibility jackets with ‘Community Volunteer’ written on them.
Several participants stressed that not all neighbourhoods were the same and that some lacked the community capacity to take on the responsibilities required if services were cut. It was harder to organise community action in areas where there was a high population turnover.
The district meetings were part of a consultation exercise before the council publishes budget proposals for 2016-17, which are expected to detail spending cuts of over £150 million. A council cabinet member attended each of the meetings to help lead discussions.
Asked about a vision for Birmingham, the themes that occurred most frequently were for a city that:
- Stands up for itself where citizens have pride and dignity, have a sense of purpose and direction, and take responsibility.
- A fairer and more equal city that is inclusive, with engaged communities, provides for the needs of all its residents and protects and supports the most vulnerable.
- Has a strong community spirit where residents are informed and feel that they own the city.
An analysis of the meetings by consultants CSK Strategies notes: “The council should help citizens cope with cuts, that is, help improve community resilience. To do this the council needed to be out in the community more and there should be more devolving of budgets to local people. There also had to be recognition (by all service providers, not just the council) that neighbourhoods are different.”
Pride in the city and inclusivity were often connected to a wish to see a city with a strong community spirit “where Birmingham citizens understand it’s no longer what they can do for us but what we can do for ourselves”, the report states.
There were also calls for a city “where local groups are active and not isolated”.
However, this required citizens to be well informed, an essential requirement for increasing engagement and engendering a sense of ownership of the city. This meant “we need better communication between all organisations which cascades to all, not just staying at the top”.
The council was urged to do more to encourage community activity particularly in areas where community organisation is weaker.
A perception that Birmingham city centre had benefited from investment over the years at the expense of suburbs and inner city areas was another common theme to emerge from the meetings.
One comment suggested that the city would be more manageable if it were broken into four while another that localism would lead to ‘nutters in charge of microbudgets’.
However, these appeared to be minority views with almost all participants who addressed this issue favouring more local control within a whole Birmingham context.
The importance of arts and culture in any vision of the future was raised in some workshops by those who wanted a city which is creative and adaptive and at the “cultural cutting edge”.
Many linked this with a focus on the development of Birmingham’s young citizens and the way that city centre cultural institutions could provide opportunities for young people in all the city’s neighbourhoods.
Reference was made to the ‘Family Concerts’ at Symphony Hall and to CBSO’s outreach work of performing in schools.
Birmingham is viewed as a modern, European city and a city which leads the world in culture and innovation and technology all the things which bring people into the city
Economic and employment growth was another frequent component of the visions of workshop participants. The need to be a city which attracts investment, retains its firms and supports local, small businesses was raised by many.
There were calls for a “Birmingham that keeps moving” and “a place where businesses want to invest” and it was recognised this required strong links with the planned West Midlands combined authority.
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