Are Ward Committees Fit for Purpose?

FINAL TOR for Ward Commitees_Page_1

The first inquiry of the year for the Committee is on Ward Committees.
The main question is “Are Ward Committees Fit For Purpose?”

The Key lines of enquiry are:
• Is there clarity on the purpose of Ward Committees?
• Do they enable effective engagement, influence and contribution by citizens?
• How effective are the process and outcomes?
• How effective is the support available?
• What is their overall effectiveness?
• What should good Ward Committees look like?
• Are there alternative models that could be developed to meet the aims?

The aim is to present a report to City Council in December setting out suggested minimum standards.

The intention is to gather views from a wide variety of people including:
• Citizens
• Ward Chairs
• City Council Officers

An on-line survey will be carried out & Committee Member feedback from Ward Committees will be collated. An evidence gathering session will be held on 2nd September, 2014.


Two previous inquiries for the background to this.

  • First the Committee’s 2013 Citizen Engagement report concluded that “Ward Committees are not currently fit for the purpose set out in the Leader’s Policy Statement (2012) as the major means for citizens to engage on issues affecting their area.”
  • Second the Social Cohesion and Community Safety O&S Committee on Neighbourhood Tasking looked at a key local meeting.

In addition two key documents set out the purpose of Ward Committees:

  • The Leader’s Policy Statement 2012 set out the aim of Ward Committees: “Improve accountability to residents and opportunities to influence services at the local level, with Ward Committees being the major means of local people engaging on issues affecting their area.”
  • The Constitution describes the role of Ward Committees as being to “encourage and facilitate dialogue, between the Council and local people within their Ward” (See Appendix).

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Devolution – Your Views

For the past four Wednesdays the councillors (from all the political parties) involved in the Making it Real inquiry have been listening to evidence. The focus has been about what needs to change to make sure that devolution this time around is not just about changing names on the office doors, but about changing the way the Council works and makes an impact in local areas.  (I will let you know what the last two sessions covered soon.)

But now the councillors also want to hear from you. Whether or not you think devolution is great, or it’s terribly, or frankly you still don’t understand what it is please give then your views.

Your options are:

1) To comment on this blog

2) To complete an online questionnaire at:

3) To complete this hard copy questionnaire and send it back by email or snail mail

Questionnaire Making it Real Inquiry

You can send this back by email to: (you’ll probably need to download and save it)

or by snail mail to:  Scrutiny Office, Council House, Victoria Square, Birmingham, B1 1BB

4) Or to email other thoughts and comments you might have to the email address above.

We’re looking for feedback by 26th October.

There is also a leaflet here explaining the role of scrutiny and the aims of the inquiry.

Making it Real Leaflet

Please do take copies of the leaflet and questionnaire along to local meetings or send round this link to your local mailing list.

The catalyst tonight for putting these links up was the launch of the Chamberlain Forum’s tool kit for neighbourhood forums.

Neighbourhood Networking – 26 September 2012

It was great to see so many people at the launch passionate about changing their neighbourhoods. As the councillors have been told at every session this month the Council can’t change things alone. The only way to make the changes necessary to improve people’s lives is by working in partnership with citizens, community and voluntary organisations, statutory bodies and the private sector.

Local organisations like neighbourhood forums can help the council identify local needs and suggest ways of meeting those needs. They may even be able to help deliver services locally. The message delivered tonight was that neighbourhood forums want to have a voice and be heard by the Council, but they don’t want to compromise their independence in doing that.


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Managing the Money

Money was a focus for last week’s session as the success of devolution will rest upon this. Key questions include:

  • Is there enough?
  • Does devolution to ten areas make economic sense?
  • Who has control of it?
  • Where does this control rest?
  • How do citizens influence these decisions?
  • How is City Council money used to make a difference and bring added value?

Paul Dransfield the Strategic Director of Corporate Resources attended with Sukvinder Kalsi to explain how his officers would help. He assured the councillors that his team would be ensuring that District Committees gettimely financial information in future to help with budgeting.

Paul Dransfield, Strategic Director Corporate Resources

There are a set of services, including rubbish collection, recycling and street cleansing which District Committees hold the budget for, but don’t feel they have any real control. The services are actually delivered on a city-wide basis and managed through service level agreements. Local councillors argue that there is no way to withhold funding or hold the service to account if the service is inadequate. The review of the history of devolution indicated that this concern has been part of the way structures were set up from the beginning. It is obviously still an area that needs to be resolved.

Another financial issue discussed included council housing finance. Paul’s final area of discussion was about the Council’s assets. He explained that officers are working to build a better understanding of the buildings that Districts are responsible for and the opportunities and risks they provide.

Next on was another Strategic Director – Mark Barrow – from the Development Directorate. The Directorate has responsibility for lanning, growth and jobs in Birmingham. Its activities will not be devolved. That is the budgets will not be held by the Districts and the staff will remain accountable to the Cabinet Member, Cllr Ali. So the challenge is how a service such as that adapts to the devolution agenda.

These services have connections with thousands of people and organisations (such as businesses) across the city and could use this connectivity to help support local partnerships.

Mark Barrow, Strategic Director Corporate Resources

Even though it remains a centralised service the Director recognised that:

The closer you get to the decision-making and the impact of the decision the better the quality of the decision.

The previous week Councillor John Cotton had talked of the need for devolution to be about changing the map of deprivation. On that basis amongst the most pressing needs in some communities are jobs and skills. So it’s clear that even if Districts do not have direct responsibility for what the Council is doing to achieve this they need to work closely with this Directorate. Similarly, the Directorate needs to support and listen to Districts.  The ways this will happen in practice will become clearer during this transitional year. As the Director suggested:

It’ll be a bit of a discovery.

Procurement refers to the ways in which the Council acquires goods and services. One argument for devolution is that Districts will, in the long term, be able to procure different services to meet local needs. The Head of Corporate Procurement Nigel Kletz pointed out that it is often most cost effective to procure a single contract across the whole city. Certainly the most expensive way forward would be to break every contract down into ten. However, bundling groups of services together within a district could be effective. In the future decisions will need to be made on a case by case basis.

Nigel Kletz, Assistant Director Corporate Resources

Finally, Sharon Lea, the Strategic Director of Environment and Culture talked about the needs for champions to make devolution work. She argued that within Districts councillors and officers will need to be strong champions and hold other parts of the Council to account as it has to be:

A one-council agenda.

She explained that a new Local Services Directorate is being created to bring together some 8000 council staff working in localities and those supporting them strategically.

The new Directorate will create a locality focus for the Council’s services. Citizen engagement will be important. Staff will be helped by the imminent launch of the Chamberlain Forum toolkit on supporting neighbourhood forums, which are one way for residents to have a representative and collective voice when dealing with the Council and other organisations.

Once again this blog does not signal any decisions by the City Council. The aim is to capture some of the discussions taking place and the options being considered. It’s clear that there’s a lot of work to be done during this transitional year to ensure that practical issues are resolved to so that the Council can have a real locality focus in the future.

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What’s next on the agenda?

The next meetings of the Making it Real Inquiry are on 19th September (3 pm) and 26th September (2.15 pm) in the Council House Victoria Square. Tomorrow, proceedings will kick off with the Leader of the Council,  Sir Albert Bore setting out his vision for devolution.

Rob James, Assistant Director of the Environment and Culture Directorate will be presenting the recent Cabinet paper which set out the proposals for establishing a new Local Services Directorate.

The Councillors will also be talking to council officers responsible for managing services in the Districts and those responsible for managing two of the services which will become more accountable to local councillors and residents (regulatory services and community safety).

Devolution Inquiry Session Plans for 19 and 26 Sept DiB

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How Does Your Garden Grow?

This was part of the discussion at last week’s committee meeting. Hannah Worth and Paul Slatter of the Chamberlain Forum, a think-do tank, suggested that devolution should be more like gardening. Gardeners allow plants to grow where they appear and don’t cover things over with mulch to kill them. They suggested that the council should nurture the best of what’s happening in the garden. They also pointed out that you can’t garden from the living room which might explain why my garden looks such a mess!

But an alternative view was put forward that gardeners are actually benign dictators – always in control and moving plants around to suit the agreed plan with no scope for self seeding. If you’re green fingers are like this the gardening analogy is surely the wrong way to describe devolution!

This conversation was part of the process of understanding how devolution’s arrived at this point in Birmingham. [See also the 7 September post on the journey of devolution – your views welcome on that.] Guests at the table and the councillors set out what they saw as home truths about the city and also offered ways forward.

Councillor John Cotton, the Cabinet Member for Social Cohesion and Equalities talked of the “creative tension” between the centre and localities. He suggested that as devolution concerns the delivery of public services and spending public money districts need to have core standards to work to. But at the same time discussions with local communities need to flow back to the centre to ensure the right structures are in place. He suggested that creative approaches need to be particularly encouraged at ward and neighbourhood level

It was noted that the Council can’t deliver everything alone and the partnerships with voluntary and community organisations are key. The way the Council consults with and listens to communities was debated by all the contributors too. Paul Slatter suggested:

“When you can show people one bit of action that’s happened because of their involvement everything changes and people can share the credit for it.”

There was much debate about how the culture of the council needs to change to make devolution work. It was suggested that:

“We need a new covenant between officers and members with shared accountability”.

It was also agreed that the Council had to do more to learn from mistakes and become a learning organisation.

One challenge in Birmingham is that the pattern of deprivation within the city hasn’t changed over the past 20 years. It’s not necessarily that regeneration programmes haven’t worked, but when people have become skilled up and empowered they often move away. For devolution to be a success it was argued that this pattern has to change.

Arguably, the biggest issue to face up to is finance with budget reductions of up to 28% over three years. It was argued that local government has gone through the phases of doing “more for less” and “less for less”, and now it’s time to do things “different for less.” Angus Kennedy, who used to head up Castle Vale’s Housing Action Trust warned of the danger of devolution being blamed for not being able to deliver key services, when the real issue is the current financial position.

It was pointed out that it will be people that make this agenda work. Getting the structures right was argued to be less important than ensuring there is a common understanding of devolution and that those involved in making it work are signed up to it.

It’s clear that a devolved approach has to strengthen the city as a whole. The isolation of people in certain parts of the city was mentioned. Should an aim of devolution be about helping to connect them with jobs and leisure and culture opportunities beyond the boundaries of the neighbourhood they identify with? Or is the aim just to improve local services and local neighbourhoods?

Everything is changing in this transition period, but this shouldn’t be seen as the end. Cllr Cotton agreed that the structures and processes need to evolve and change over time as local councillors get to grips with what district committees need to deliver and suggested:

“We’re all going on a bit of a journey here.”

The aim of the committee is to help provide direction on that journey.

(The next session of the Districts and Public Engagement Making it Real Inquiry will be on 12th September at 1415 hours in the Council House, Victoria Square.)

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September 11, 2012 · 4:44 pm

What’s on the agenda?

The session plans for the committee’s discussions on 5th and 12th September sessions are below.

At the meeting on the 12th September the  Strategic Directors in charge of many key areas of the Council will be in attendance – Corporate Resources (responsible for  finance and human resources), Environment and Culture (responsibilities ranging from refuse collection to parks) and  Development (jobs, growth and the council’s buildings).

Members of the public are welcome to attend in Committee Room 6 of the Council House from 2.15 p.m.

Devolution Inquiry Session Plan 5 and 12 September 2012

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The Devolution Journey: How have we got here?

How have we ended up here? For once, I’m not referring to the now familiar outcome of map reading without my glasses. Birmingham City Council’s going through major changes again, with the intention of giving more power to local councillors so the Council’s better equipped to meet the needs of local people. But that’s not new is it? No – localisation and devolution were first discussed in the City Council meeting back in 2003 and the ideas date back longer than that.

So to answer that question “how have we ended up here?” we’ve tried to piece together the history of the past decade:

Devolution – The Journey

But listening to the members of the committee discuss the question with their guests this week was a reminder that there’s always more than one view of history. It might depend on where you live, what your priorities are, whether or not you were involved in the decisions, which political group you support and probably who was involved. What’s your view?

This week’s discussion reminded me that important steps on the devolution journey have also included:

  • Opening neighbourhood offices in the 1980s;
  • Spending of Neighbourhood Renewal Fund on local priorities by Constituency Committees;
  • The role of the neighbourhood forum in supporting local engagement;
  • Challenges that Constituencies have risen to such as the Sparkbrook tornado; and
  • Lots of local projects, such as the Castle Vale Housing Action Trust.

What’s your perspective on this bit of history?  What were the things that made a difference? How have we ended up here and what lessons do we need to learn from the journey? Aside from remembering to wear those glasses and look at the map!

The potted history of devolution is attached above. Please comment (or correct it) below or send an email (by the end of September 2012) to

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