Too much democracy?

Birmingham needs to devolve its own powers, argue Alan Clawley.

Kerslake’s prescription for Birmingham’s problems – that the number of elected councillors should be cut from 120 to 100 – implies that we need less rather than more democracy. But If democracy is good, as most of us believe, we need more of it not less.

Birmingham needs more councillors, not fewer, to represent the interests of its one million citizens. Civil servants like Kerslake may not like too much democracy, preferring to run the country themselves so he may be using the current climate of ‘austerity’ as a pretext to weaken the democracy of the biggest local authority in Europe. His underlying argument is compelling in this context – everything else in local government is being cut so why not cut the number of councillors?

Genuine participatory democracy doesn’t come cheap, nor is it efficient when measured by the cost-benefit analysis beloved by civil servants. Elected committees take time to make decisions but their slow pace allows all the options to be debated. Dictators can make bad decisions very quickly because they can ignore the people around them. Elected mayors get things done by short-circuiting the democratic process. If we, the people who voted them in, don’t like it we are told that we can vote them out next time. That seems to be the government’s idea of local democracy.

My view of Birmingham, having lived here since 1974, is that it is not a single entity but consists of a city centre – oddly labelled ‘Birmingham’ on the buses – surrounded by at least a dozen distinct townships where most people live. Birmingham people have little affection for their city centre and I am constantly surprised about how little they know or care about it. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the huge physical changes that continually disrupt it. Even life-long residents can’t find their way about when they do venture in for the occasional shopping, theatre or library visit.

We spend most of our daily lives in our home suburbs – Handsworth, Moseley, Small Heath, Yardley, Woodgate Valley, and so on. There, what matters is litter in the streets, traffic fumes, poor schools, unsafe parks and inadequate housing, all in sharp contrast to the cleanliness, glamour and constant rebuilding of the city centre. When few of us care about what happens in the centre it allows the city fathers to more or less do what they like with it. In return the suburbs have been offered the sop of ‘devolution’ but even that is being whittled away in this so-called era of austerity.

There are of course functions that are best managed at city level and functions best managed by local people with local knowledge. The danger in separating the governance of the ‘centre’ from the rest of the city is that, as in any large organisation, the centre will tend to dominate. When cuts are to be made those at the centre or top of the hierarchy make the decisions and rarely cut themselves.

They start at the bottom of the pyramid, typically with school crossing patrols and community libraries. If Birmingham is to continue as a single political entity – and there are hints that it may be broken up if it doesn’t sort itself out soon – we need to find a way to reconcile the inherent conflict between the centre and the periphery, a conflict symbolised graphically by the contrast between its centre and its neglected residential suburbs.

A federal structure is not outlandish. It could consist of a number of Township Councils each with about 20 members directly elected by the residents of the Township. They might even meet in former town halls. Each Township Council would elect one of its members or all Birmingham residents would elect members to a Birmingham Assembly that will oversee a Greater Birmingham Authority (GBA). Members of the Greater London Assembly are elected by a system of Proportional Representation; 11 of them are London-wide members and 14 represent various groupings of London Boroughs.

If Birmingham wanted a directly elected mayor he or she could be accountable to the Birmingham Assembly. Responsibilities would be shared between the Township Councils and the GBA as they are in London. The Townships would be given the power to collect council tax in their area and be eligible for central government finance.

If shared governance can work in London it can surely work, albeit at a smaller scale in Birmingham. And if it takes more than 120 elected representatives to make it work so be it.

One thought on “Too much democracy?

  1. The “townships” will become increasingly remote from the centre as people become less able to afford the newly high petrol prices and as the main public transport (the buses) continues to be degraded for the convenience of the profit-spinning metro-peenic-extensions.

    The model you describe seems to have much sense in it. Elected mayors and cabinets are only promoted as supposedly good ideas because they mean fewer people needing to be bribed.

    But there’s more wrong, seriously wrong. I attended a main council meeting a few months back. I would have expected that the whole point of such a meeting is TO MAKE IMPORTANT DECISIONS. And yet it consisted entirely of people asking questions (or mentioning this or that new report). And to my mind that is 199% NOT what that meeting should have been about. It should be where the DECISIONS are made. Why not? What a farce. No wonder the city is going down the s-hole at high speed.

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