Devolution

A road to 2020

by Councillor Claire Spencer

The dust has settled, sleep has been had and this feels like the time to commit some thoughts to this blog. Thursday night was bittersweet, with rather more emphasis on the bitter. In the four wards that make up Birmingham Hall Green – Moseley & Kings Heath, Sparkbrook, Springfield and Hall Green – all of the councillors were re-elected (including our own Councillor Martin Straker-Welds), with larger majorities thanks to energetic campaigns and the general election turnout boost. Our MP, Roger Godsiff, was also returned with an increased majority. And in undoubtedly the best news of the night, Kings Heath’s own Jess Phillips was elected to Parliament as the new MP for Birmingham Yardley. Many of us from Birmingham Hall Green supported Jess’ campaign, and I can think of few people more suited to shake up Parliament and to improve the lot of her constituents, our neighbours.

But it would be wrong to feel triumph – because we have badly let down many areas of the country. I am not going to pretend that I fully appreciated how all the fault lines interrelated until after the event, and I am sure that there are elements that I am yet to understand. I certainly didn’t always see the picture as clearly as I do today. But I think we have a grace period, if not a pause button, in which we can lay out some of the things that we need to address, the bare bones of a future where people trust Labour with their lives again. We’ll soon be electing a new leader, and it is vital that we choose that leader through the prism of the challenges they will face: not by reliving a past where those challenges were completely different. These are the challenges as I see them:

 

A people divided

abdication

“Scottish people want your stuff! By the way, here’s a free chicken”

People are afraid of people who are different to them – fundamentally because they feel threatened, either because of a scarcity of resources – e.g. jobs, space – or simply because of otherness, unknown. Left to fester, these quite human traits can become ugly prejudices. It doesn’t have to be so. But the 2015 general election was conducted on fear. The Tories, taking inspiration from Netanyahu’s recent success in Israel, stoked up fear that Scottish people were seeking to benefit at the expense of English and Welsh people. The SNP became a catalyst and vessel for people’s fears that Scotland was getting an unusually raw deal from a distant Westminster (the raw deal was real, the distinction between Scotland and everywhere else, not so). UKIP stoked up fear that people who come to live here from elsewhere (or look as though they have, frankly it doesn’t seem to matter to them) are occupying a finite number of jobs and space (excerbated by a very real lack of decent jobs and housing). And perhaps most absurdly, a good percentage of people have been made to fear that the very fact that we have a social security system is a threat to them, because their money is going to a shadowy, undeserving figure elsewhere.

I have no interest in a politics that is directed at one of these made up subsections of people. We can’t participate in tearing apart people that have common cause: a person on a poverty wage in Gorbals has the same fight as the person on a poverty wage in Dagenham. An overworked teacher thinking of packing it in in Hove has the same battle as an overworked teacher in Lancaster. Division is a game we all lose. We created the NHS on the back of a horrible war that united people in a shared sense of what it is to be alive, to be human. We wanted to nurture and cherish that at all costs. We need to recapture that (obviously without a war), and the new Labour leader will need to be one of many leaders who can unite people around a shared message, a shared mission that shows the route to a society that people want to be a part of.

 

…speaking of aspiration…

We clearly haven’t nailed this – it’s a criticism that I hear a lot, and we need to take it seriously. In the same way that the Tory leadership talks about austerity without bothering to fill anyone in on what the endgame of that is (partly because it wouldn’t be popular and partly because they don’t have a plan beyond that), we talk about tackling inequality, protecting the NHS and standing up for the vulnerable without saying what is achieved by doing so, how it all hangs together. Perhaps it should be obvious, but I think it’s safe to say that it isn’t – so we need to connect the dots between our core mission and the good things that achieving it will lead to.

However, I don’t buy into a narrow definition of aspiration. A lonely child on the autistic spectrum who becomes part of a community through a local play scheme is as much about fulfilment of aspiration as a child from a deprived background becoming an investment banker. A carer who gets an evening off to have dinner with friends because of respite care is as much a life win as someone getting a promotion at work.

Public services and social security as investments in people, into their lives – not just the part of their life where they happen to be earning a wage. Councils funding parks means that a person can spend time with nature, can be healthy, can be cooler in summer, can breathe cleaner air, can play, can be part of a community. A higher minimum wage, a living wage means that people are more productive, more inclined to stretch themselves, have more time for friends and family, need less direct support from social security. And yes, policies that enable people to start, maintain and grow businesses should be part of that narrative.

The Labour leadership candidates will need to understand this – because people won’t turn away from the status quo unless there is something tangible to turn to, something so positive and real that the change doesn’t seem like a risk to what they have now. Labour councils in our great towns and cities will have a role to play here. Birmingham is a city of opportunities, and one of our priorities as a Council is enable citizens to take advantage of these opportunities. If we lead the way, we can show that a healthy investment portfolio is more than money in a bank account.

 

…and cities?

Insofar as city and regional leadership is concerned, we’re going to have to get on with it. George Osborne sees localism as about Mayors and LEPs, and we’re not going to be able to shift him from that view. He sees all money as identical – what does it matter if we can only spend it on a nice building but not the people who live near it? Money will be funneled into the LEP for high profile developments, and it’s up to us to create the society where – as described above – our citizens are able to take advantage of the opportunities that those developments create. Our services have been through desperate cuts, and there will be more. Social security isn’t providing security. Towns and cities will need to work with any partner – charity, private sector, community group, co-operative – who wants to be part of enabling people to get on, part of ensuring that disadvantage is not a millstone to be dragged for a lifetime. We will need to make our own caring societies, our own inclusive economies, our own sustainable environments. In Birmingham, the ‘Future Council’ programme is partly geared to getting BCC to be a better partner. It is absolutely essential to the wellbeing of our people that it becomes one, because this government – to be blunt – doesn’t care whether everyone succeeds as long as enough people succeed financially to cover up for it.

Labour’s new leader will need to understand that this is also a vital route for the English voices who feel silenced to have their influence. Regional identities are strong, and ensuring that corresponding institutions exist so that people feel that power and leadership resides in the places they feel close to and can shape is a huge step down the path to feeling that they have the purpose and autonomy of their Scottish neighbours, healing a wound that has been so cruelly inflicted upon us.

 

I’m sure that people could add to this list. This is just some of the stuff that I thought about during the walk home in the dawn light of beautiful Moseley & Kings Heath on May 8th, tears welling in my eyes. But tears, cried and uncried, aren’t going to help the people I care about. So let’s get on with it.

Moseley Big Plan returns to the community

by Claire Spencer

Back in 2010, Moseley residents, visitors and businesses were asked to imagine the sort of place that they would like Moseley to become. Not as an idle daydream, but to feed into the Moseley Big Plan – a set of aims and objectives to judge developments by. Since that time, the Moseley Regeneration Group has been working in partnership with Birmingham City Council to turn those insights into a ‘supplementary planning document‘.

So I was really pleased to hear today that Birmingham City Council has agreed that the latest draft is now allowed to go out to public consultation. Given that local people helped to create this plan, it is very important that they help Birmingham City Council to ensure that this plan meets Moseley’s ambitions.

We’ll put up the approved draft when it is released – but until then, here are some consultation dates for you to put in your diaries:

  • June 12th – Moseley & Kings Heath Ward Committee – 7pm – St. Columba’s Church
  • June 14th – Moseley Exchange (time TBC)
  • June 27th – The MAC (time TBC)
  • July 2nd – Moseley Co-op (time TBC)

Devolution in practice: why more public meetings ≠ more influence

by Claire Spencer

This admission will surprise no-one who has met me, but I am quite a fan of public meetings. I like it when people get together to share ideas, question received wisdom and debate in an open space. I like it that you can never quite anticipate who will come, or what they will say. And I certainly like it when decision-makers have to develop, discuss and explain their decisions with people affected by those decisions. Public meetings are a crucial element of democracy and (certainly as far as public institutions and agencies are concerned) need to be part of an overall, ongoing consultation strategy.

But not all public meetings give the public that opportunity to shape or interrogate decisions. When I worked at Chamberlain Forum, we produced a report into public sector consultation called ‘Are you being heard?‘, following a cross-sector research project. One thing that became clear was:

…that the insights of both residents and local public services may be ignored because decisions have already been made at a higher level, removed from the locality they will affect.

One example sticks in my mind particularly clearly. A couple of years ago, those assembled at that month’s Moseley & Kings Heath Ward Committee meeting were told by the Chair that the Safer Birmingham Partnership was offering money (£100,000 + contribution to the running costs) to install CCTV in the centre of Moseley – in response to antisocial behaviour issues in the area. The community was to be consulted on the locations of the cameras. One gentleman asked whether the money might be spent on youth services instead. Others agreed, why not spend the money on more preventative measures?

But the decision had been made. The community could decide whether to have the CCTV or not, and where it would go…but they were not part of the strategic decision-making process around crime and antisocial behaviour, or even present during a conversation where that strategy was being developed.

This situation didn’t arise due to a lack of public meetings. Rather, the substance of the decision had already been made by central and local government before it got to the public. There could have been 3, 5, 10 public meetings and it wouldn’t have changed a thing – the choice was CCTV, or no CCTV.

As such, Birmingham Labour’s localisation and devolution proposals do not seek to give local people more public meetings – they seek to give people more power to influence decisions that affect them by bringing those decisions to District (constituency*) level. Decisions about housing, youth services, community and play services, libraries, community safety, neighbourhood offices, sport and leisure services, refuse collection and street cleansing, highways services and environmental wardens are all made at District Level under Labour’s plans.

How much of a difference would this have made to my earlier example? There are a couple of things. Firstly, the ability to influence housing, community safety, youth services, sport and leisure services and environmental wardens would have given the community more scope to shape preventative approaches to crime and antisocial behaviour from the start. Secondly, a closer relationship between those services and local people would have made earlier involvement of the community in exploring CCTV as part of a response to crime and ASB more likely.

I prefer Labour’s system – different areas have somewhat different needs and priorities, and should be able to reflect those needs and priorities in the services they commission. But under both the old and the new systems, there is a crucial element which determines the success or failure of involvement and local influence – a culture of listening and communicating within Birmingham City Council (extending from officers and councillors and extending to contractors and delivery partners). If decision-makers do not listen when people speak to them, or do not provide adequate mechanisms for conversations to occur, all the advantages of devolution – engineered co-production, tailored services, community buy-in – are lost.

******

In a somewhat roundabout fashion, this brings me to the reason for writing this. Some people were unhappy at one part of Labour’s localisation and devolution proposals – namely that District (formerly Constituency) Committees would a) be based in the city centre and b) no longer allow members of the  public to speak. They felt that this amounted to slicing their influence in half.

My argument, based on the above, is that shortening the distance between people and decision-makers, and the culture of listening and communicating, is far more important. In my experience as a community activist, the most meaningful influence over local decision-making occurs via emails, conversations and community-organised meetings and events. If decision-makers are serious about engagement, they will use a multitude of tools and structures to listen.

But I do have some sympathy for those who are worried. After all, trust in systems, in people, has to be earned. Ultimately, the District Committees have the power to meet where they like – and some have already started to exercise that power. If the expenses of meeting locally are significant, or if extra meetings have to be held, then those committees will have to demonstrate that the benefits of holding the meeting locally justifies the expenditure. Conversely, those that hold meetings centrally will want to consider whether they are getting value from that arrangement. Time and practice will tell.

 

 

*the distinction between District and Constituency has been questioned by a few people that I have spoken to. The Districts align with the current parliamentary constituencies. When the boundaries of the parliamentary constituencies change (one proposal is that Moseley & Kings Heath and Sparkbrook join Selly Oak and Edgbaston to make a new Birmingham Edgbaston constituency), the Districts will not change with them. This is to ensure that the City Council escapes from service delivery complications arising from wards outside of the Birmingham local authority area (such as Castle Bromwich) becoming part of Birmingham parliamentary constituencies.

 

Data and the Birmingham Budget

by Claire Spencer

The purpose of getting power is to be able to give it away – Nye Bevan

It has been just over a month since voters gave Labour the mandate to run Birmingham City Council. As the local Labour Party branch for residents in Moseley and Kings Heath, we want to play our part in helping to bring clarity to the changes that will be made over the coming months. It’s easy to talk about involving people in decisions that affect them – but true involvement requires good information, clear and credible engagement processes and a culture of active listening throughout the Council and its contractors.

So when we came across these visualisations of the Birmingham City Council budget, we wanted to share them in the spirit of ensuring that local people have access to good information.

They indicate the levels of spending on different council services in the 2011/12 budget (set by the outgoing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition) in the form of a ‘Treemap‘. This is useful as it indicates the spending priorities of the council at that time, in a format which is easy to digest. Furthermore, it will aid comparison with future budgets, and could be used very effectively to bring clarity to the changes in service management and delivery which will arise from devolving more power to District (constituency) level.

This fascinating work was done by Andy Pryke for The Data Mine (“Transforming Information into Knowledge”) – so if you would like to comment or ask any questions, email andy@the-data-mine.co.uk, or comment below.

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