Wednesday, 19 December 2012

'The end of local government as we know it' - response to Birmingham City Council's budget consultation

Birmingham City Council are facing what the Council leader recently described as 'the end of local government as we know it'. Here's my response to BCC's consultation on their 2012-13 budget. You can see the proposals, and respond too, at:

To whom it may concern:

I’m grateful for the opportunity to respond through the Budget Consultation process, and I hope many other Birmingham citizens have also done so.

My response is largely around the general principles (what you call ‘the wider service delivery issues’ in the document) rather than the particularities of individual budget lines.

I’m sure cliches have already been over-used in this conversation, but I’m afraid the cliche that springs to mind is about ‘rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic’. It is becoming increasingly clear that the figures, projected into the future, mean not only that so-called ‘salami slicing’ of services is an ineffective response, but even that an approach that ‘preserves’ some services while cutting others will not be going far enough. Albert Bore’s description of ‘the end of local government as we know it’ is correct, and what is needed is a radically different approach to local government. Rather than ‘restructuring the building’, I would suggest, what is needed, unavoidably, is to begin the work of imagining what might be built, what seeds planted and nurtured, in the rubble that is left behind.

1) Who will be able to think the unthinkable?

I would humbly suggest that those best-equipped to do this imagining might include some council members and officers with an ability to think far enough ‘outside the box’, but that the pressures of working within the current system may well mean that many will find that just too difficult. Those of us who work in what is often called the ‘Third’ (and sometimes, more recently, the ‘Tired’) Sector have, I would suggest, a wealth of experience not simply in surviving on a shoestring, but on the kind of creative reinvention that is needed for Birmingham.

My first suggestion, then, would be an urgent need, not for another consultation exercise, or polite listening, but for getting the right people in rooms, together, with a blank sheet of paper, across all the areas and departments in which the Council currently provides, or aspires to provide, some kind of service – to re-imagine what kind of support will be needed for Birmingham to survive, and ideally thrive. As a concrete example, I would want to highlight the work of the Chamberlain Forum as being ideally placed to enable such thinking to happen and develop.

2) A radical approach that starts with neighbourhoods

The traditional model of ‘service provision’ is almost dead. That will, inevitably, mean huge losses, both in terms of council employees but also in terms of what local neighbourhoods will no longer benefit from. I would suggest, however, that in the crisis there is also an opportunity, and it is an opportunity to rediscover ourselves as a city, begin with our local neighbourhoods. There are many things that are ‘provided’ as ‘services’ that neighbourhoods are actually, with adequate resourcing, much better at doing themselves. There is clear evidence, for example, that the most significant factors that make people feel safe and secure is not police presence, but the levels of trust between neighbours, and the frequency with which people in a neighbourhood gather together outdoors. There is also clear evidence that the wellbeing of the most vulnerable people – children & young people, older people, and adults in between – is maximised not within institutions, but within communities of mutual care.

What I’m suggesting here is not ‘big society’ – a policy that looks for all the world like a smokescreen for massive cuts in public services, with nothing positive to replace them apart from some patronising moral exhortations emanating from comfortable Oxfordshire villages. It is also not simply about ‘devolving to District Committees’, as if that somehow solves anything – merely displacing the same old problems to a lower level on the chain (something that central government have been doing very ‘successfully’ themselves, as Birmingham can testify).

What I am suggesting needs resourcing. But it needs a kind of resourcing that is utterly different from ‘service provision’. It also, helpfully, can be done very effectively with rather less money. It is not about ‘neighbourhood management’, although that was a very good initiative in this direction. There will, after all, be rather less services for communities to manage or commission. This is about community development. Paid people, in each local neighbourhood (and ‘local’ means ‘local’ here – if it’s not within walking distance, it’s not ‘local’) of the city, who are trained and skilled in connecting people, building relationships, growing trust, nurturing friendships, drawing out people’s skills and confidence and knowledge and passions. It is, as the Social Cohesion Inquiry has at least begun to realise about identifying, unlocking, and connecting the ‘assets’ within people and communities so often labelled in ‘deficit’ terms – but using them to grow things from the grassroots, not to support a creaking, disintegrating, top-down structure.

Again, it is often the 3rd Sector that knows better than most how to do this. But even ‘we’ are often so tied in to the ‘service provision’ mentality that we fail to do what needs doing most.

Yes, Birmingham needs infrastructure, and it would be easy and obvious for the City Council to focus on that. But Birmingham needs strong, resilient and caring communities more. If we’re asking the hardest questions about what BCC spends its money on, I would argue this has to come first, before anything else – because everything else will flow from this. BCC is in the best possible position to commission the recruitment, training, and support of such a network of community developers – and it will pay dividends. The evidence from a programme such as ‘Near Neighbours’ in significant sections of the city would back this up.

There is, of course, an ‘equality’ question in all of this. Clearly some neighbourhoods will need more ‘intense’ work, others will require a ‘lighter touch’. There are measures around that will help with that judgement, but they may not be the traditional ‘deprivation’ indices. Levels of social capital, social infrastructure, and formal/informal co-production (again, see Chamberlain Forum’s work in this area) will be the key indicators.

3) Relationship with central government

As an outsider to the workings of ‘government’, I can only imagine what goes on behind the scenes in the relationship between local and central government. I would suggest, however, that we are again moving into radically new terrain in that relationship. While central government slashes and burns local government’s powers and budget (especially in authorities like Birmingham, particularly dependent on central funding), ‘responsibility’ (for picking up the pieces) is devolved to local level like never before.

It must surely be time for cities like Birmingham to find creative ways to vocally and powerfully resist the central government agenda and its impact on our communities, especially where it hits the poorest and most vulnerable. It may be an uncomfortable alliance, but I would suggest Birmingham City Council might find a whole new strength in forging links with groups as diverse as Citizens UK and UK Uncut, to make the people power of Birmingham known in the corridors of Westminster.

In conclusion, I appreciate these may well be answers to questions that you haven’t quite been asking, and that as answers go they may be either beyond what feels currently imaginable, or too vague to be of use. Whatever happens, please have the courage to not allow the vested interests and impoverished imaginations of those who wish to preserve their own small patch of ‘status quo’ to, if not win the day, at least paralyse any possibility of meaningful action. The ship is sinking, and we need to be hard at work making the best possible lifeboats.

With warmest wishes,
Revd Al Barrett

Church of England Priest, Hodge Hill Church
(St Philip & St James C of E in partnership with Hodge Hill URC)
"Growing Loving Community... in the love of God ♥ with all our neighbours ♥ across Hodge Hill"

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