The city as a local entity
It is a long time since Birmingham was recognised, by Charter, as an administrative structure in its own right. Various surrounding towns and villages were incorporated into the city, making it the largest local authority in Europe.
There have been recurring issues lasting until the present:
- What freedoms and flexibilities does the city have, or is it there mostly as a locality for the delivery of central government diktats?
- Birmingham has always looked for Birmingham solutions to Birmingham problems (from early sewerage systems; civic developments; slum clearances and Manzoni planning; ….) but with the dangers that its size makes Birmingham ‘over-important’ or that its history as the City of a Thousand Trades encourages it to dismiss ideas not Made in Birmingham.
Birmingham has had various attempts at getting a local dimension to city planning and governance, to service delivery, and to the engagement of residents in neighbourhoods in key actions in their locality. Some key features, and tensions, of these are set out below. This is not an in-detail account of all aspects of localisation in cities, but a brief overview of some developments within one city.
In-city area structures for local service delivery and management
Given the size of Birmingham there has been an urge for the division of services into area-based teams localised along constituency lines. This has particularly been the case since the 1960s and particularly for services managed by the City Council. At the same time, police had their own boundaries; public health services had their boundaries; and schools were clustered into various consortia groupings.
- Boundary disputes where service needs overlapped across boundaries for different services’ delivery and local management.
- The degrees of relative autonomy afforded to locality service management and to whole-city planning: Locality structures being primarily there to ensure that central intentions reach into every locality; or there to feed intelligence from the ‘swampy lowlands of frontline practice’ up into the shaping of central decision-making.
- When budgets tightened (1980s; early 1990s; since 2007) locality services were increasingly merged from being managed on the basis of 12 separate constituencies, to 4 areas of 3 constituencies, to 3 areas; etc… with area managers being asked to take on more and more activities across wider-spread localities. Balancing city-wide and small-area development has been a recurring theme.
- Potential lack of clarities and responsibilities, particularly where Area Managers each had responsibility for a locality, but where some also took a citywide lead on particular themes or for specific client groups.
- Senior managers were expected to attend multiple locality meetings, each with the same agenda. One potential result of this was attendance at regular, scheduled, locality-focused meetings eroding time and energies from the oversight of service delivery across localities.
Localisation of governance
In 2004, a strong effort was made to embed this localisation and devolution. Birmingham City Council established a set of local constituency-based Area Sub-Committees – to bring some decision-making closer to the communities involved; to engage locally-elected councillors with the service delivery of partner agencies; to allocate small improvement grants for local spend; to diversify services based on detailed locality profiles. A lot of energy went into these actions. Community engagement was enabled; inter-service understandings improved and joint-working improved. Substantial improvements in the lives of local residents were less easy to demonstrate.
- Determining what is best for Birmingham: central overview perspectives cf aggregated local determinations.
- How far Birmingham should take localisation forward: A push for up to 50 parish councils? Delegated, devolved, Total Place budgeting?
- Endless recycling of committee papers up, down and across overlapping governance and decision-making processes across layers of the Council, various partner agencies, specific projects and initiatives etc.
In addition to arguments for reshaping mainstream budgets towards some level of place-based or community-budgeting, Birmingham has had various versions of specific budgets for localised developments.
Neighbourhood Renewal: Based on a whole-city framework re teenage pregnancies, infant mortalities, domestic violence, NEET, employability, housing needs etc; to be coloured in locally to bring about local changes, steered by local processes etc.
Single Regeneration Budgets: Rolling together various strands of national development monies to give a unified fund behind a single locality (or theme) plan across several years; with approved Annual Development Plan commitments to next-step developments, quarterly monitoring to ensure planned progress is made. Two models were tried in Birmingham, with Audit finding one more successful than the other.
Working Neighbourhood Funding: 47 neighbourhoods were identified, determined by the day-to-day lived experiences of local residents rather than by a distant carving up of existing administrative areas. These were localities where there were high levels of unemployment and low levels of skills. Year-on-year progress in the neighbourhoods was to be driven forward by a focus on work and employability.
Such initiatives brought about significant changes in the city but, in many cases, encouraged the establishment of a separate team/organisation to manage the process, with some replication of existing management and decision-making. Too often, there tended to be an over-focus on money, bids and projects rather than ensuring that longer-term progress was locked into place across target localities.
Networks of localised professional understandings and actions
Fifty years ago Birmingham had an established pattern of professional workers’ meetings in localities: 20-30 local workers from a range of local agencies; for about an hour over a sandwich lunch, monthly; a round-robin update on changes to staffing or policy for each agency followed by a short input on a topic of local relevance, then a brief discussion of implications for the area.
Recent versions of this have focused more on immediate family problems: Up to 10 staff from police/ housing/ care/ health/ schools etc; discussion of urgent issues for specific local families; each agency committing to particular actions; with some sense of urgency; commitment to meet in a week’s time to confirm that problems had been fixed for the families. These initiatives were, however, unusual rather than the norm.
The more consistent model, over several years, was one of services across a local area being co-located in a local appropriate venue eg a Children’s Centre; a Neighbourhood Office; a Community Hub. Locating services in a shared property has been one position on a spectrum that included integration of information; single-door access points for residents with multiple concerns; and a potential for integration of staffing, planning, budgets and responsiveness across service silos.
These models have generally provided organisational improvements, better working across agencies, and improved services for residents of the city.
Localities and neighbourhoods have always been important in Birmingham, as has operating as a coherent set of whole-city arrangements.
Various aspects of localisation need to be considered, across a range of agencies involved at different levels: decision-making; management structures and activities; delivery of improvements and stabilities in the lives of people needing particular forms of support and development.
Structural features (boundaries, financings, accountabilities, leads etc) can start to have more emphasis than is sometimes necessary.
There have been successful models. The extent to which these got embedded into normal practices depended largely on national policy and funding changes, but also on the extent to which they were used as opportunities for real change or perceived as one-off initiatives driven by finance or by organisational restructurings.
Insights have been gained from past experiences, but organisational memory is weak in a large fast-shifting city. The tensions and issues emerging from the wish to balance city/local can be avoided, minimised or optimised by careful forethought.