local economy

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.

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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.

 

Introducing Lisa Trickett, our candidate for the 2012 local elections

by Lisa Trickett

We are living in serious times. Every week we hear about another treasured service being cut by the Tory-Lib Dem Government or the Tory-Lib Dem Council. As a local resident, a mother of two young girls and someone with elderly parents I am deeply concerned about what is happening to our community. I decided that I could not sit by and watch the dismantling of vital services. Huge job cuts will strip away years and years of experience.

Serious times demand a serious response. I will stand up for our community and our city, and you can help by getting in touch with your ideas and concerns.

Together we can make a difference and secure a better future for all.

Hall Green Constituency – a response to Councillor Mullaney

by Martin Straker-Welds

Given that Councillor Martin Mullaney has raised the issue of the Hall Green Constituency on his blog, I would like to respond on behalf of myself and my Labour colleagues in Hall Green. It is certainly true to the extent that the Liberal Democrats in Hall Green have been pushing us to take the constituency chair, a position that we have politely declined.

As you might expect, we discussed the issue at length before coming to this conclusion. With an equal number of votes to Labour, the Lib Dems are nonetheless better placed to influence the corporate centre. Not only are they coalition partners, but Cllr Mullaney’s position as Cabinet Member for Leisure & Culture gives them greater clout when trying to mitigate damage from a sharply reduced budget.

And ultimately, the Lib Dems voted for the cuts to Birmingham’s budget – Labour did not.

The Lib Dems claimed that cuts would not affect frontline services. Labour knew that with cuts of £212m, it was inevitable.

As to Cllr Mullaney’s claims that we voted for specific cuts to the Hall Green constituency budget, the options have yet to be presented by the Hall Green directorate.  We have no choice over the figures laid by the corporate centre, as Cllr Mullaney well knows.

Moseley & Kings Heath railway stations update

At the full council meeting on Tuesday June 14th, Councillor Martin Straker-Welds raised the question of reopening the Moseley & Kings Heath railway stations with the Cabinet Member for Transportation, Councillor Huxtable. In the run-up to the local elections in May, it was clear that the reopening of the stations was a really important issue to the citizens of Moseley and Kings Heath.

Councillor Huxtable emphasised his support for the scheme, and said he was investigating the possibility of a Regional Growth Fund bid in order for the necessary infrastructure, including the ‘Camp Hill Chord’, so that the trains could be brought into Moor Street Station (the current line goes into New Street Station, but there isn’t enough capacity to reinstate a service that terminated there).

He added that he was aiming for the scheme to be part of the 2014-2019 control period. This is by no means confirmed, but is certainly something to work to.

You may also be interested in this report, which illustrates all the potential schemes which are competing to be approved in the 2014-2019 control period, and a list of potential drivers and constraints. One of the more worrying ones is that the lack of rolling stock will need to be taken into account: i.e. Centro will need to purchase more trains in order to reopen our line.

Challenges notwithstanding, Councillor Straker-Welds and Labour remain committed to reopening the stations, and are putting together the strongest case possible. We’d love to know your thoughts, particularly if you have any constructive suggestions for the business case for reopening the line, or any other evidence that will help this to become reality.

Ask Martin:

Martin Straker-Welds is hoping that you will vote for him in the local elections on May 5th – and he has met a lot of residents in his time as a Labour member. But he hasn’t got to everyone, so we on the campaign team have been sourcing questions from Twitter. Martin has answered the first set below – but if you have a question, or want to follow up on one of Martin’s responses below, leave a comment below!

Why Labour?

Labour and its members have always been champions for social justice – and this is particularly true at local level. As a branch, our members work tirelessly for the world around them – that’s something that I wanted to be a part of, and have been for some years now. I have no illusions about how difficult it will be, but I believe Labour is the best mechanism for defending our communities, bringing resilience from uncertainty, and working towards the sort of city we’d love to live in – every hour of every day, regardless of our income. The coalition has reduced the electorate’s choice: locally, nationally, you vote yellow, you get blue. Labour is the only party that seems to care about employment for everyone who wants it, including young people, who are currently up against it!

What will I offer as a councillor?
A fresh vision of Moseley & Kings Heath, and its role in Birmingham – and I want everyone who has ideas and drive to be involved. Indeed, I know there is no other way, this is our home, and we all deserve a chance to shape it. I will also fight tooth and nail to protect our communities from the excesses of the coalition’s cuts. I do not accept the wholesale butchery of jobs and services, it is not the only way to manage the economy responsibly. I am prepared to stand up for Moseley & Kings Heath. If you vote for me – this is what you’ll get. Vote red get red!

What are the good and bad things about Moseley & Kings Heath ward?
Great place to live. A cosmopolitan community. Super spots to eat and drink. But the roads are too narrow for the density of traffic. That is why I was opposed to the Meteor Ford development and I was totally committed to the inspiring ‘Save Moseley Village’ campaign. Also, I would like to see a twenty mph on roads where schools are located.

It’s a safe place to live – but crime and fear of crime are issues for residents, and both of those things are important to me. I have been really impressed with community policing, and I worry that the cuts will undo what the police and community have achieved.

What will I work to improve?
Residents want safe clean street that are serviced according to need. I would keep an eagle eye on the potholes, poor pavements and litter that seem to bedevil the streets (particularly in parts of Kings Heath) – because I want people to take joy in getting out and about. On that note, I would also want to make sure that all  communities have access to better and safer roads.

Long term I would what to campaign for better facilities for youth and adult services – people dear to my heart, as a recovering teacher. They have been under-resourced for too long now, and deserve better.

If you could change one thing overnight, what would it be?
Free public transport for everyone! But if I can’t have a miracle: more consumer representation of the bus company boards, to improve bus service in the city. You know as well as I – if you live in Moseley or Kings Heath, and want to use public transport, you need your 50, 11, 35, 76, 1, 2, 3 (have I missed any?) to be running on time, to have adequate capacity at peak, and to be clean and safe. It’s not much to ask.

What do you think of the BCC Cycling Strategy?
It paints a pleasant picture, but it’s thin on details – where are the dates, the costs? Where are the maps, the phases? We need more than a picture, we need a plan…and I don’t think the strategy is there yet. I would certainly like to be more concrete, more ambitious – and I don’t think local members (many of whom are keen cyclists) will let me be otherwise!

Are there any plans to bring a train service to Moseley/ Kings Heath? I know there’s a line, and I think there’s a station in Kings Heath but no trains! Reopening this line would ease traffic congestion and help protect the environment.
Adding to what Claire said in the comments, I am in complete agreement with the popular demand for the reopening of Moseley and Kings Heath stations. It could make a real difference to traffic and transport for residents and contribute to a more ecologically sustainable future for the community.

However, given the financial constraints and the massive loss of local and national jobs and services, I would caution against raising the hopes of residents that anything can be done in a hurry, given the costs. But I would work closely with the members in Tyburn ward (Castle Vale) to keep the pressure on to get those chords built.

I also want to see improvements in the bus services. If anything can be done to reduce the costs and promote greater use of public transport, I’d be really happy to support it. When I look down the narrow roads of Moseley and Kings Heath I see a stream of cars, sometimes parked down both sides of the road. People value the freedom to use their own vehicles for business and pleasure. But if anything can be done to persuade residents to leave their cars and take to the buses and trains, it should be done. Cost is a major factor. That is why I would support subsidies to make public transport less expensive to potential users.

Finally, I would be interested to know if there is any mileage in piloting school buses, along the lines developed in Manchester. Would that ease the rush hour traffic along roads and outside school gates? I think it’s worth investigating.

Can you go into a little bit more detail regarding your vision for Moseley & Kings Heath?

My vision is of a community that is constantly being regenerated, where all residents are proud to live and work, and where a range of support services are available to all people, regardless of age. In practical terms, if I were elected, I would focus on the most vulnerable in our community in the near term – cuts to social and home care services, as well as Sure Start centres and youth services will quickly be felt, and I’d need to be making the case in Council House for extra funding and support-in-kind, and ensuring that people are aware of the options available to them.

I also want to see a more sustainable future for Moseley & Kings Heath. That means promoting a lifestyle that is energy-conscious and healthy, and focusing on the positives for the individual and the environment. There is a lot of excellent work coming out of community groups in the ward (such as Kings Heath Transition Initiative and SusMo), and I want to make sure that the Council is a willing partner in their endeavours.

I want to see a thriving business and trading community with diverse shops, goods and services. This means being an active supporter of the BID for Moseley, drawing support from the successful BID in Kings Heath – and being a champion for the ward as a place to do business.

This naturally links to employment – both in terms of businesses based in the ward and employing local people, but also, in terms of prospects for local people – in education, training and employment. This doesn’t have one answer or approach, and nor can it be entirely achieved at local level – but there is a lot that can be done. As a former teacher, and as I have said many times, I am particularly concerned about young people.

It is my view that councillors should give the council a clear view of what the community needs to thrive, and ensure that all stakeholders can work in partnership to meet aspirations we all share: health and happiness; lifelong education; community arts; and a vibrant cosmopolitan community.

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