Tuesday 29 December 2015

Desperately seeking devolution

What does devolution mean? From B'ham Budget consultation
Despite some good news from Birmingham in the last year, we're in something of a Pickle regarding devolution.  Bob Kerslake and everyone across Birmingham agree that 'devolution' and 'localisation' is needed, so why is it so confusing?  What's more, how is it that devolution plans appear to be increasing central power, and act against the 'will of the people'?

Take the West Midlands Combined Authority Devolution Agreement published this November.  The new authority will have a substantial budget and will be taking many decisions on spending previously negotiated by our local council, whose budget is much shrunk.  It is 'based on the establishment of a mayor for the West Midlands metropolitan area working as part of the combined authority with a cabinet of council leaders and subject to local democratic scrutiny'.

Birmingham people decisively rejected the previous elected mayoral plan in 2012, and together with the budget effectively moving from City to Regional control, how can the devolution agreement be considered either 'devolution' or 'localisation'?  Local people do not support these devolution plans and it will move local people further from budgetary decisions.

Budget consultations appear to offer local control - it's a process designed to increase local involvement in decision making regarding our budget.  It is a good thing that there is a budget consultation process to elicit the views of Birmingham people, but increasingly it feels less like, 'What would you like your council to do?' and more like 'Would you prefer a roof over your head or food on your plate?'

Budget cuts are turning attempts at devolution into farce.  As budgets are reduced by central government, and strict time deadlines imposed, devolution risks becoming a distraction 'from getting right the basics of serving the people of Birmingham well'  (Kerslake review)

Budget consultation, even on a tight budget still needs to be done better - work is needed to improve transparency - having invested a couple of hours adding your comments to the survey, or attending a local meeting, what happens to your views?  There are brief summaries on you asked, we said, you did, but beyond that, the process is far from easy to follow or understand.  Information is hard to find and lacking in detail.

There were only two mentions of transparency in the whole of the 67 page Kerslake review - both relating to regional partnership, both vague references.  To my mind the level of transparency in Birmingham City Council have been low, and changes in structure have only exasperated this situation.  Without effective transparency there can be no effective devolution or localisation, as the people at 'grass roots' are confused, ill-informed and disillusioned, with even the mention of 'consultation', 'devolution' or 'localisation' more likely to anger than excite.

And then there's the new boundaries associated with 'devolution' - coming as they do, not asked for, divisive, definitely not 'localisation'.  Changes in the Moseley boundaries have shocked local residents.

In 2014 Kerslake noted:
'The current devolution arrangements within the city are confused and very few people understand them. They have also not been reconciled with the council’s financial position.'
He also suggests:
'Councillors should concentrate on regular, direct engagement with the people and organisations in their wards and role as community leaders...a culture where councillors, directors, service managers and frontline staff value engagement.'

While recommendations he gives have mostly been completed, and on time (see progress report), The 2014 review recognises his devolution were not welcomed by Birmingham in 2014:
'We found almost no support for this option within the city among residents, partners, council officers or politically'

Birmingham wants devolution but doesn't like what's been offered, and is deeply suspicious of who is devolving what and why.

Even if present devolution plans are forced on unwilling Brummies, what use is the power to make changes without the knowledge to make effective decisions?

Failure in transparency foils any attempt at devolution - nowhere is this clearer than in attempts to improve roads - a topic which no matter how dull, always leads to animated discussion, 'engaging' local people.

Two years ago after a poor consultation process changes proposed on Swan Corner Roundabout were opposed by local residents supported by local councillors, leading to the plans being abandoned.  Similar improvements were again proposed earlier this year as part of 'Safer Routes to schools', again with some opposition from residents.

Depressingly the most recent consultation began in a similar way.  The initial letter posted to local residents gave no explanation for changes to the road, and asked residents to either accept or reject the whole of a raft of more than a dozen changes to make the route to school safer.  Swan Corner Community group intervened, finding out more about improvements and why they were being proposed, distributing to all local people.  We conducted our own survey, open for all to see the results at any point.  We arranged a public meeting at a pub on the roundabout (The Billesley).  We have forwarded to Highways a detailed report about what local residents want.

I hope we will be kept informed and involved, as even if not all the changes are wanted by residents we need improvements to save children at Swanshurst school and local residents from serious injury and death on what is a black spot for accidents.  As with all devolution plans, without effective transparency and engagement the plans for improvement with fail again, wasting yet more time and money.

At Swan Corner we have enjoyed the support of councillors to ensure transparency and involvement.  How can we work with our councillors to plan our own wider Council devolution?

Find out more about Safer routes to Swanshurst school

Also see Birmingham 2020; Forward together

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