Democratise Birmingham

Urban Parishes, cross-party council committees and male and female candidate lists are amongst Green Party member David Williams’s proposals to refresh Birmingham’s democracy.

Birmingham City CouncilDuring the recent mayoral referendum opponents of change were branded conservative and reluctant to embrace the ‘brave new world’ of big city bosses. An elected mayor, it was suggested, would be the catalyst to cure all Birmingham’s woes, leading to a new popular political consensus.

Yet an elected mayor would have damaged what was left of local democracy without genuinely involving the wider public in the decision-making process. Birmingham’s political weakness requires a far more thorough ‘root and branch’ remedy than that proposed by mayoral proponents.

The key problem in local democracy is the alienation felt by many electors. Turnout in many Birmingham wards this May was below 30%. In other words the vast majority of electors did not use their right to choose who was to represent them on the city council for the next four years. Most people are cynical about their local politicians and uninterested in the policies presented to them by the parties, but a low turnout bleeds legitimacy from the system.

One method of involving more people in local politics would be to establish urban parishes across Birmingham (See Phil Simpson’s article here). The city has many residents groups and neighbourhood forums, with dedicated individuals doing their best for their street. A network of around 100 urban parishes would give real powers to these local activists and help to bridge the gulf between the voter and Victoria Square. Moves to parish the city go back 30 years or more but have always been resisted by ward councillors fearing that the parishes in their area would challenge them. I believe the way that some councillors behave as if they were lords of the manor in their wards is profoundly anti-democratic.

The Local Government Act 2000 established our current cabinet and scrutiny system. As feared, it has given huge power to a handful of councillors and precious little to the rest. This is bad politics. Far better to devolve executive power to small cross-party teams of councillors who would have a larger pool of experience to draw upon than is currently available to any individual cabinet member. Such teams might be responsible for operational decisions – the sort currently taken individually, rather than collectively, by cabinet members. Meanwhile, strategic, city-wide decision-making might still be determined by a grouping of the ten or so team leaders, and including the council leader.

In one sense electors are right to be uninterested in local elections; Birmingham has little independence from the dictates of central government and Whitehall supervises the city council’s every action. To become more relevant local government must be set free from such constraints. For instance, the Business Rate should be returned to the city’s control and the central government cap taken off the Council Tax. At present London tells us both what we can spend and how much we can raise through local taxation. Birmingham will always need central grants to deal with its problems of poverty, unemployment and urban degradation but it must have the right to make mistakes. Even more importantly than revenue is the vice-like grip Whitehall has on the city’s capital programme. Birmingham should be able to borrow whatever it feels it can afford and not have to jump through hoops before it receives money to spend on infrastructure. Such changes as these would make it a matter of real importance to voters what the local parties were promising at election time.

One of the scourges of democracy in the city is the impact of ‘safe’ seats on the conduct of local politicians. Those who don’t think that they will ever be voted out of office have less incentive to pay attention to the voters. The domination of the three main parties shuts many voices out of the local political debate. Thus we should consider reducing the number of councillors from three per ward to two and elect the entire council once every three years. That would allow us, for instance, to insist that one woman and one man be elected per ward. The remaining 40 council seats could be allocated by topping-up the representation of parties that had done better in the popular vote than they had in winning seats at ward level. Under the First Past The Post system one party can, in theory, win all of the seats with just 51% of the vote. The top-up system would help to get rid of the idea that a vote was wasted because one party always won in that particular ward.

Our governance and democracy has stagnated while Birmingham, the city of a thousand trades, has become the city of a thousand communities. We must ensure that every community has its place round the table when decisions are made that affect all our futures.

David Williams

Birmingham Green Party and former Labour Deputy Leader