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‘We must empower ward committees and embrace active citizenship’, says former Tory councillor

‘We must empower ward committees and embrace active citizenship’, says former Tory councillor

🕔01.Sep 2014

An inquiry to determine whether Birmingham’s ward committees are fit for purpose has heard claims from Birmingham City University professor Richard Hatcher that councillors aren’t serious about localism. Here, former Quinton Tory councillor Peter Smallbone gives his verdict:

‘Quinton Ward Committee’. The phrase would be written in my diary four or five times a year, and every time I came across it, I would experience a vague sinking feeling.

Every time, the same faces. Every time, the same issues. Every time, councillors, officers and constituents, just going through the motions demanded of us by our predefined roles.

Now, I’m as guilty as anyone else for not having challenged the status quo thus far, so I would like to thank Prof Hatcher, whose recent comments have spurred me, albeit belatedly, into action. I agree with much of Prof Hatcher’s analysis although I would suggest slightly different remedies.

First of all, we need to decide what ward committees are for.

Are they purely to transact business devolved to them by the council, are they a two-way communication route between the council and its citizens, are they a forum to kick around ideas, are they for politicking and electioneering by the elected members (something that all parties have been guilty of) or are they for something else.

Certainly, some of the things that happen at Ward Committees could, and should, be dealt with by other means.

The infamous ‘Matters of Urgent Local Concern’ item mainly consists of ordinary casework – the kinds of issues that fill up the inboxes of all councillors, day in, day out. Rather than calling or writing to you, a minority of constituents, for reasons best known to themselves, prefer to store it all up until the next ward committee comes along.

This is the best example, although there are plenty of others.

We also need to ask the question: if local government has created a problem, as is the case with ward committees, can we trust local government to provide a solution?

In my view, there is plenty of scope for more community-led initiatives. Police tasking meetings, Neighbourhood Forums and Street Associations are all fine examples of largely ‘bottom up’ initiatives that are formally or informally supported (but not run by) by the authorities.

Any half-decent councillor knows it’s in their interests to turn up to these; indeed, I always enjoyed Neighbourhood Forums far more than Ward Committees, and found them at least as productive. Rather than tinkering with the membership of Ward Committees, we need more of this.

Step 1: Decide on what is best delivered by ward committees and cut out everything else. Don’t be afraid of citizens who want to do more themselves – support them.

Now to the main cause of the malaise with ward committees: they have very little real power. Sure, they have a pot of £100,000 or so that they can spend largely at their discretion, but that’s pretty much it. Even in that respect, the ward committee usually acts as a rubber stamp to a decision already taken behind closed doors. Is it any wonder, therefore, that they’re so poorly attended?

There is much, much greater scope for devolution of decisions and for community participation in those decisions.

Step 2: Devolve more and make your decisions with real public participation.

Finally, the way that we promote ward committees is hopeless. To start with, ‘ward committee’ is an almost meaningless term outside the jargon-laden corridors of the council. You might as well call it ‘bacon widget’. (Actually, I prefer that.) But wouldn’t it be better to call it ‘We’ve got £100,000 to spend’?

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the outcomes of a previous ward committee advertised anywhere, only when the next one is. If constituents can see positive results, surely they’re more likely to turn up.

Step 3: Come up with a better name than ‘ward committee’ and be more imaginative in how it’s promoted.

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