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"

'Stand and raise your heads' - a sermon for Advent Sunday 2012

(Readings: Jer 33:14-16; 1Thess 3:9-13; Lk 21:25-36)

We had around 50 Muslims visit church on Thursday. Most of them aged 5-6. They'd been told to have their eyes open, to look for clues as to what goes on here.

They'd seen a cross - the big one outside, and several inside. They'd seen the big candle in the middle (our Paschal candle, powerful symbol of Easter life). They'd seen the font, the place of baptism, and the altar table, the place around which we share bread and wine together. They'd seen the lectern, from which we read from the Bible... and they saw a Christmas tree... They knew Christians celebrate Christmas, and I asked them where else they might have seen Christmas trees? In the shops, and on the telly, they replied.

I was left wondering what kind of Christmas they thought Christians like us might celebrate. Would the images in the shops and on the telly give them a good idea? Is a 'Christian Christmas' all about over-eating & arguing? And how about Advent, Christianity's four weeks of preparation? From the shops and the telly, my Muslim friends would be forgiven for thinking it was all about parties and drinking and shopping...

And then I looked at our gospel for today...

One version, Eugene Petersen's The Message, renders Luke 21:34 as follows: "But be on your guard. Don't let the sharp edge of your expectation get dulled by parties and drinking and shopping. Otherwise, that Day is going to take you by complete surprise...."

As always, as we enter Advent, with the jolly Christmas songs that have already been jingling out of our radios for too long ringing in our ears, the words we are given from Scripture sound a sharp note of warning, of dissent, an alert to those with ears to hear... to stop, unplug the Christmas tree lights, turn off the TV and radio and look, and listen... Just as our Muslim sisters and brothers in Ramadan very clearly mark themselves out as doing something different to the rest of the world, so in Advent, we Christians are summoned to do December differently... But how...?

If we dig a little deeper into gospel passage, we find Jesus painting a picture of a world in ‘distress, confusion and fear. It doesn’t take much effort for such a picture to ring bells with the world we see on our TV screens and hear on our radios: with Israel & Palestine sending rockets at each other; with floods that tell of environmental disaster; with drastic government cuts in this country that mean, among other things, here in Birmingham we’re witnessing ‘the end of local government as we know it’ (as the Council Leader recently described it).

It is enough to bring us to our knees...

But Jesus says something different. He says: ‘stand - and raise your heads’.

Jesus invites us, particularly through the weeks of Advent, into a different way of looking...

It is all too easy to get enthralled by the smoke of pollution, destruction and war playing out on our news reports, seduced by politicians’ promises that things are about to get better, or indeed by the TV ads for ‘the perfect Christmas’ (if only we bought this, or shopped there...). But Jesus says ‘look somewhere else’ – ‘look at the fig tree’, stare long and hard at the dead branches until you begin to glimpse tiny signs of new life... sit still, quietly, listening long and hard for the ‘still small voice’ whispering to us words of truth & hope...

Because in the midst of the big dramas of our TV screens, both real and fictional, there are little stories of real people – stories of desperate need, stories of courageous care, stories of fragile hope. These are the stories, the people, Jesus summons us, in this Advent waiting time, to pay long, hard, careful attention to. And they are not only in little places half way across the world – they are right on our doorstep...

In September, we began 'Open Door', down the road at The Hub. Offering a place to 'drop in' to, offering a cuppa and some toast, a warm welcome, friendship, and the possibility of practical support - with finding work, putting together a CV, managing money, finding volunteering opportunities, and the like. Nothing dramatic, really simply, literally, opening a door and waiting... And slowly but surely a trickle of people started coming. Coming with real needs, but also with real gifts, real passions, real possibilities - and horizons have opened up, and new and genuine friendships have begun to grow, shared journeys have begun.

In the summer, we did an activity week on the wasteland, at the end of Bromford Drive. Alongside music, games, and art & craft,  a handful of people, younger and older, cleared a path through the most bramble-tangled, nettle-infested, rubbish-strewn part of the wasteland. Some passers-by thought we were mad: it would make no difference, it was futile effort. But many children and adults use that path every day, to get to school, to a playground, to the shops. Echoing the ancient prophets, in our own small way we were ‘preparing a way’ through the wilderness - a highway for young and old, a path for God to walk with human beings.

Two small examples of what we think we are doing here, in Hodge Hill. We're in the business of looking for, and living out, little signs of God’s big future. Those little signs might look, and feel, irrelevant, insignificant. It might feel like we're fighting a losing battle... But those little signs are, in fact, like the first tiny specks of blossom on the fig tree. The beginnings of spring, even in the icy grip of winter. The first fruits of the coming kingdom of God.

If we are to ‘stand and raise our heads’ – to see, and to be, Christ’s body in the world – then we need each other. And we need to pray for each other, as Paul does in his letter to the Thessalonians...

We will need to pray with joy & thanksgiving & abundant love. To pray that we might truly see each other face to face. To pray for our faith to be restored where it is lacking, and for our hearts to be strengthened. And, most importantly, to pray for love to increase and abound among us – for each other... for all God’s children, and for all creation... this Advent, and in the year to come.

I want to finish by offering you an Advent gift - a poem by our outgoing Archbishop, Rowan Williams:

Advent Calendar

He will come like last leaf's fall.
One night when the November wind
has flayed the trees to the bone, and earth
wakes choking on the mould,
the soft shroud's folding.

He will come like frost.
One morning when the shrinking earth
opens on mist, to find itself
arrested in the net
of alien, sword-set beauty.

He will come like dark.
One evening when the bursting red
December sun draws up the sheet
and penny-masks its eye to yield
the star-snowed fields of sky.

He will come, will come,
will come like crying in the night,
like blood, like breaking,
as the earth writhes to toss him free.
He will come like child.

Friday, 14 December 2012

'I am Bethlehem...' - some pre-Christmas meditations

I wrote these in 2008 and used them in a Christmas Eve service in Smethwick. We used them again in Hodge Hill last year as the 'gathering gloom' of austerity approached. Not one for repetition, we're doing something different here this year - but these still feel worth sharing. Feel free to use and share as you like...

I am Bethlehem…​
A little town, a nowhere-in-particular.
A place of hope, over the years,
but also, often, of fear.
My streets are dark;
my people are longing
for freedom from the fear of violence,
for a healing of divided communities,
for peace –
peace here, peace for all the earth.
And tonight, unnoticed,
the tiniest of lights has been lit,
tonight, unheard,
the whisper of God travels on the wind.
in the most unlikely of places
for the birth of hope.
in the silence
for the most extraordinary of messages.
in my dark streets,
God says:
‘Do not be afraid’

I am Mary…​
A teenaged girl, no one in particular.
Not quite a single mum,
but not married, not settled down,
not with the baby’s dad.
Of course I’m excited
about bringing
a tiny new life
into the world.
But you’d be scared too
if you were me:
my first baby could be here any time;
we’re in a strange town far from home;
there are no beds free,
and no hospital, come to that.
As for the disapproving looks
off the neighbours back home,
well… I’ve had months of that already.
But look…
In my body – mine! –
God’s love is taking shape.
In my ears – yes, mine! –
God whispered the promise:
‘Do not be afraid’

I am Joseph…​
before the word was even thought of.
Good with my hands –
not so clever with words.
I’m with Mary because I love her,
baby or no baby.
How many of you
have brought up a child,
knowing from the beginning it wasn’t yours,
but doing your best –
your very best, I mean –
to teach him all you know
about love,
and faithfulness,
and courage,
and being a man,
a real man,
a good man?
I fear
I might not have
a big-enough heart
to do that.
But then there’s God,
chipping away,
gently but firmly,
with those words again:
‘Don’t be afraid.’

I’m a shepherd…​
Paid barely enough to make ends meet,
put food on the table,
keep the babbies in clothes.
Working conditions not great either:
outdoors, whatever the weather;
long days;
long nights.
And hardly secure employment:
hired and fired from month to month;
Leaving your flock
is not a good career move,
whether an angel’s told you to
or not.
I’m scared
this winter’s going to bite hard.
But maybe if God knows
all about cold
and poverty
and insecurity.
Maybe I’ve got nothing to lose.
‘Don’t be afraid.’
That’s what the angel said.

I am a wise man,​
​Although they don’t say that
​about everyone
​who looks for messages in the stars.

I am a traveller.
My journey has brought me a long, long way.
I have not found much yet:
only power-hungry rulers,
and too many doors shut in my face.

​I am a foreigner.
I might look and sound quite different to you.
But just because I struggle to speak your language
doesn’t mean I don’t have a brain,
or a heart.

You and I are searching for the same thing,
I think.
A new government,
a different world,
a brighter future,
we hope.

But maybe we are looking in the wrong places.
Not in the corridors of power,
among the money men
and the decision-makers.
But in a back-street stable,
among the young mums
and the shift-workers.
The starlight
​I have been following
seems to shine
down those dark streets,
‘Do not be afraid.’

I am busy!​
​I’m an innkeeper.
Which means
I run a pub,
and this,
for people in my trade,
is the busiest,
most stressful,
time of year.
No room,
no time,
no joy.
Too many people around,
too many jobs to do,
too many places to be
at the same time.
I’m good without
the aggro.
just to keep head above water.
Better when it’s all over.
But if,
for ten minutes even,
I could leave the customers,
the complaints,
the constant demands,
and get round the back
to the cattle shed,
to see that new-born baby
I can hear crying,
and hold him in my arms…
even for five minutes,
I could just stop
and do nothing,
except be there,
and look
and listen…
in the space,
and the silence,
I might just hear God saying:
‘Don’t be afraid.’

I am me…​
I am you…
I am your next-door neighbour…
I am the person you go out of your way
to avoid…
I am your best friend…
We are waiting,
all of us,
sitting in darkness,
waiting for the light of dawn to break.
We tell ourselves
‘Christmas is for the children’,
but there is a little child
in each of us
that is waiting for more
than the contents
of the brightly-wrapped boxes
and the feast
of chocolate.
The little child
is waiting
for the moment
of wonder…
For the moment
the world
holds its breath
and then breaks into
a smile.
For the moment
when a lifetime
of hurts
and disappointments
is forgotten
in a hug.
For the moment
when the poor
and the hungry
are lifted up
and the rich
are sent
For the moment
when the hopes
and fears
of all the years
in the dark streets
and whisper
to each other:
‘Don’t be afraid.’
The little child
is waiting.
to be born.