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The end of the road for Birmingham’s devolved district committees

The end of the road for Birmingham’s devolved district committees

🕔13.Jan 2015

Birmingham’s ten district committees responsible for running local services have been given four months’ notice that they are likely to be abolished in their current form, signalling a major change to the city council’s devolution programme.

The committees will lose budgets totalling £106 million and switch from delivering a range of services including community libraries, housing management, refuse collection and street cleansing to a super-scrutiny role overseeing the performance of the council and all public agencies.

The switch is in line with one of the key recommendations from Sir Bob Kerslake’s review of council governance which concluded that devolution was not working because the district committees did not have large enough budgets or enough staff to make any real difference to local services.

A plan to take the district budgets back to the centre has been proposed by council leader Sir Albert Bore and his cabinet colleagues. Sir Albert said the move had the backing of the ten district committee chairs, although that was disputed at a meeting of Edgbaston district where members said they were surprised and saddened to hear about the idea.

Controversially under the proposal the district committees’ overspent budgets will be written off.

Sir Albert said he wanted to “wipe the slate clean”.

The decision to write off overspending totalling £3 million and overdrawn reserves of £4.2 million is likely to provoke a backlash from committees that have managed their finances carefully.

Edgbaston district is forecasting to underspend by£24,000 on its £8.4 million budget. Hodge Hill expects to underspend by £116,000 while Ladywood and Erdington expect to break even.

Sutton Coldfield district is forecasting a £1.7 million overspend, Northfield and Hodge Hill report £459,000 and £116,000 overspends respectively.

In addition, the district committees have failed to deliver £2.3 million of savings they were required to make to reflect the council’s overall budget cuts plan.

Sir Bob Kerslake’s criticism of district committees was blunt and to the point. His 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, he noted.

He pointed out that discretionary spending under the direct control of the committees fell from £46.7 million in 2010-11 to £24.9 million in 2014-15. The committees had also consistently overspent their budgets on sport and leisure services for several years.

Kerslake added that the committees lacked the capacity to run housing management effectively.

The review noted: “We were told that officer headcount assigned to the district committees has fallen from 900 to 358. Five of the ten current district managers are currently being filled on an interim basis and one of the ten district managers is part-time.

“BCC expect to be required to identify savings of £360 million by 2017-18. Nobody – members, officer, partners or community – was able to explain how devolution might work in consistent terms that align with the council’s budget, staff challenges and the role of members. There was considerable confusion across the council about both how devolution worked now or was likely to work in the future.

“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.”

Conservative and liberal Democrat councillors are likely to portray the changes as a mortal blow to devolution.

Cllr John Lines (Con Bartley Green) commented on Sir Albert’s appearance before the main scrutiny committee: “When the leader of the council gave his report it became clear that the future of democracy is very limited with regards to the wards and the districts. Only a few weeks ago Sir Albert was reported as wanting more devolution, but now we are getting less.

“It’s make your mind up time for the future of democracy.”

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