Anna Randle, Head of Policy, NLGN
Local Government Chronicle
As I arrive in Birmingham for the third and final month of the Localism Project, I am feeling apprehensive. Yes, I have two months of researching localism in practice behind me, in West Sussex and Wakefield. I have adjusted to living in strange places, finding my way around new areas, and mentally negotiating the complex structures of individual councils and their myriad partnerships.
But Birmingham is the mother of all councils. The biggest unitary council in Western Europe, governing the UK’s second city. And its devolution scheme, ‘Going Local’, the most radical programme of its kind being developed anywhere at the moment.
However, despite my apprehensions, I was also looking forward to living in a city centre. No more winter cycling through miles of countryside to reach the Town Hall. Cinemas and shops nearby. And the sheer size of the place. I was ready for some city living.
Of course the sheer size of the place is one of the reasons why Birmingham’s Going Local scheme exists at all. In Birmingham more than anywhere else, devolution of some service delivery, engagement and partnership working was motivated by the feeling that responsive governance in a city of one million was impossible from the centre.
The city has been divided into eleven Districts, and the corporate centre of the council streamlined. Certain functions, services and budgets have been devolved to the Districts, in Stage 1 of what will be an evolutionary process. District Directors have been appointed, and District Committees of local councillors established to make final decisions on council services and budgets. Alongside these also sit District Partnerships – or ‘mini LSPs’ – of local partners and some councillors. These are charged with setting a District Plan, covering strategic issues as well as engagement strategies and services. In this way the model might be seen to include elements of both West Sussex’s Area Committee structure, and Wakefield’s Local Area Partnership model.
The differences in the three case study councils’ models of making localism a reality reflects the inherently local context in which councils operate. There were certain sets of incentives to localise which were common to all three: engaging with communities and giving citizens; making services more responsive; developing new roles for councillors; partnership working. However there were also some drivers which were unique to each place, and which informed the models they developed in unquantifiable ways.
Birmingham’s model is radical and exciting. It involves real devolution of power, and as it develops, will have the potential to really change how the city is governed. As will all the different models in each council.
What did I learn from a month in Birmingham? That the city centre is fantastic. The BullRing is great for shopping. New city centre apartments have fire-prone ovens and unpredictable water supplies. And that attending a public evening meeting of an outer city District Committee can be genuinely exciting.
During the three month project I have learned so much about the three different areas and how it feels to live – briefly – in those places. I enjoyed all of them enormously. But most exciting was to witness good local government in action: innovative, thoughtful, ambitious for its places and communities, and brave in finding new ways of working in partnership with other agencies and local communities. Localism is a daily reality to councils.
As greater local autonomy and increased powers for communities become cornerstones of policy, we must learn from what some councils are doing already. I am frequently asked by friends and family: What is it like in West Sussex, Wakefield and Birmingham? On a personal level, it was an enjoyable experiment in living and working in new places. In policy terms: it’s a brave new world.