Experts to the rescue

Alan Clawley hopes that the city council will take some expert advice.

Birmingham city council leader John Clancy deserves credit for promising to draw on the vast pool of expertise that exists outside the council in order to improve its governance and performance.

He implies that under Sir Albert Bore’s administration that kind of thing wasn’t welcomed, but in fact Birmingham has always been wary of interference from outsiders and even local experts. I was such an outsider as a member of the team of London-based consultants, Llewelyn-Davies Weeks Forestier-Walker & Bor, who were appointed by the Department of the Environment in 1973 to study the problems of the inner city neighbourhood of Small Heath.

Left wing activists lampooned us as a ‘travelling circus’ of highly paid outsiders who knew nothing about Birmingham. Hostility from senior officers and councillors, community activists, and local residents was palpable and proved very hard to overcome.

The idea that ‘London’ should tell ‘Birmingham’ what to do is as objectionable to councillors as relying on independent professional advice whether it is home-grown or not. Over the Central Library controversy, the council’s chief of regeneration dismissed the official recommendations of English Heritage as “mere opinion” that was no better than his own.

So without a degree of corporate and personal humility not evident so far, Councillor Clancy will struggle change this deeply ingrained culture.

I suspect that the expertise he is looking for will cost the council little or nothing by way of fees. He rightly sees local residents as experts at being local residents. No-one knows more about a neighbourhood than the people who live there. They can show a visiting council officer where the worst litter and dumping is, where drug dealing takes place, how well schools are doing, which roads are dangerous, and what should be done with vacant sites.

So why has the council ignored this valuable expertise until now? The new approach may not be as cheap as expected because staff must be paid to listen to and act on the intelligence provided by local communities. And councillors must still decide who to listen to and which demands can be paid for. It’s idealistic to imagine that everything demanded by local experts will be accepted without question. The council can also avoid responsibility by casting doubt on the qualifications of the expert as barristers do by means of character assassination.

The council will also argue that it has a city-wide duty and can’t give special preference to one individual or neighbourhood over another. But even if detailed accounts are available it is very hard to prove whether discrimination between neighbourhoods occurs or not.

Surveys can be used as a substitute for action. Thus, after the results of a survey of the state of streets on a ward basis were published there was no visible improvement to the worst streets or wards. I suspect that follow-up surveys will be quietly dropped to save money and avoid further embarrassment.

At every level the council can involve unelected experts to help run the city, but final decisions inevitably rest with local councillors who are elected once every four years and who jealously guard their rapidly diminishing powers. In the meantime we ‘experts’ can only stand by and wait for the Leader’s call.