Participatory democracy means citizens influencing decision-making at the top, not just more engagement at ward level: Professor Richard Hatcher

Richard Hatcher writes:

How should the city council work with Birmingham’s local neighbourhoods? That is the theme of a draft Policy Statement called ‘Working together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’, published in July. It is on the council’s BeHeard website for consultation. In her Introduction Councillor Sharon Thompson, Cabinet Member for Homes and Neighbourhoods, says ‘We want to work in partnership with people in their local area to make services more responsive to local needs and preferences and to improve local neighbourhoods.’

Ward Forums and Ward Plans

The 40-page draft Policy Statement was agreed at the Cabinet meeting on 6 March this year, together with  a 4-page paper called ‘Localism in Birmingham: A Framework for Future Policy’. This paper (which is not part of the consultation) contains the following commitments to improve local provision through the involvement of local citizens and organisations in Ward Forums and Ward Plans in the city’s 69 wards. 

We will:

§  Align the existing resource provision to support work at the ward level, by May 2018

§  Steadily increase the influence of local people over services through their wards (particularly the services that the public see) as far as practicable, in a phased programme that realistically reflects the resources available in the years ahead. This will include creatively redesigning services from the bottom up to help implement Ward Plans – engaging local people in the process of prioritisation for the local area. Note that these are not to be confused with more formal neighbourhood ‘spatial’ plans, in 2018-19

§  Seek opportunities to make external service contracts more open to local influence, both in existing contracts and as they come up for renewal in 2018-19

§  Seek ways to enable local organisations to provide additional services and activities that help improve neighbourhoods, in 2018-19

§  Substantially intensify our focus on income generation opportunities to bring in external funding to local areas, in particular working with community organisations to help them secure more funding, in 2018-19. (p2)

We will:

§  Support every ward in setting up a Ward Forum in partnership with local organisations and seek resources to provide officer support to work at the ward level. This will include single member wards after May 2018, in 2018-19

§  Enable cross-ward working where there is local support and it will enable local objectives to be met more easily, in 2018-19

§  Require councillors in every ward to develop a Ward Plan, working in partnership with citizens and organisations in the local area. These will provide the means for planning and delivering on the local priorities identified by local residents, in 2018-19

§  Use innovative ways to involve residents and local organisations, for example to create and update the ward plans ensuring they are built with citizens and reflect genuine local priorities. Our aim will be to make sure the “quiet voices” in every community are heard, not just those who are already engaged, including better mechanisms for engaging council tenants, in 2018-19 and beyond. (pp3-4)

Parish, Town and Neighbourhood Councils

The ‘Working together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’ document is largely concerned with options for further local devolution through setting up parish, town or neighbourhood councils. That’s also the subject of four of the five questions in the online survey. (At present there is a Town Council in Sutton Coldfield and a Parish Council in Frankley.)  This would be a matter of choice for local residents to make if they wished. If they did, the city council would formalise relations with them through a local Framework or Charter. So for example ‘A Neighbourhood Charter would set out the rights and responsibilities of the City Council, local organisations and residents in terms of the services and activities in their neighbourhood.’ (p12).

‘Localism in Birmingham: A Framework for Future Policy’ proposes a yet further possible stage of local devolution (which is not mentioned in the consultation statement), ‘Locality “devo deals”’:

Where strong governance and accountability is in place, such as a parish or town council that is operating effectively and inclusively and engaging the whole community, then we recognise that there may be a wish to go further and to operate appropriate services at a more local level. So, we will make local organisations a new offer: a Local Devolution Deal. The aim will be to unleash creativity and ideas in our communities and early local ‘devolution deals’ could become pilots for the rest of the city.

We will:

§  Develop a Local Devolution Deal process and work with communities to identify ways of strengthening local democracy and services, in 2018-19 and beyond. (p4)

Is this Participatory Democracy?

The council states that its proposals are based on a fundamental principle of democratic governance:

Elected councillors (be they city councillors or parish councillors) and the City Council’s decision making system are the core of our system of “representative democracy”. But a healthy local democracy also requires “participatory democracy” – ways in which local residents can get directly involved in decision making and in activities that improve the city and our local services. These two forms of democracy need to be well balanced and work well together. (‘Working together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’ p5)

Will local residents want to ‘get directly involved in decision-making and in activities that improve the city and our local services’? Some, perhaps already active citizens locally, will want to seize the opportunity. But the council’s history of a bureaucratic top-down culture has left many cynical about yet more promises of local empowerment that in the past have meant little in practice. Furthermore, many will suspect that the council’s real motive is to get local residents and organisations to take over responsibility for providing services, directly or indirectly, that the council can no longer provide because of government cuts in its budget. That in effect it’s uncomfortably like Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ under another name.

We need participation at the top, not just at ward level

There is one further and fundamental reason to question the council’s commitment to “participatory democracy”.  The council’s two papers are solely about participation at the level of the ward. They say nothing at all about participation by citizens in the strategic decision-making process at Council House level. Yet this distinction between “local issues”, mainly consisting of service delivery, and city-wide strategic policy issues is a false one, because so-called local issues are largely affected by, if not the result of, strategic decisions by the Cabinet and the council and require top-level actions by them to address.

There is currently no citizen participation at that level, and there is nothing in the council’s two papers about enabling local communities to feed concerns and proposals upwards from ward level to the decision-makers. Local citizens are entirely reliant on their councillor or councillors doing so on their behalf.  Ward meetings have no power to mandate councillors to raise issues and demands on their behalf, and neither will the new Ward Forums, so local citizens are entirely dependent on councillors’ willingness to do so, which they may well choose not to do – and even if they do, it depends on their capability to do so, including whether they can gain access to the Cabinet member who holds the power or to the relevant Scrutiny Committee. The result is that there is little or no citizen input, via their councillors, into Council policy-making on these vital strategic issues.

At present the flow of strategic policy-making is one-way, downwards from Cabinet to wards. That downward flow needs to be complemented by upwards flows of ideas and proposals from citizens to the centre. What is needed is some new process, some new structure, which will enable citizens themselves to feed their views directly from the local ward level to the top level. How could this be done?

The city is now divided into 69 wards, and while links and joint meetings may be established between neighbouring wards there are no city-wide structures and procedures by which those with an issue of concern in one ward – take any example – can discuss it with those in other wards across the city who have a similar concern. The result is a deeply geographically fragmented body politic – and one that tends to reinforce divisions of social class and ethnicity. It is literally a system of divide and rule.

For issue-based City-Wide Forums

The solution is the creation of City-Wide Forums, each Forum dealing with a specific policy area such as housing, social care, education, employment etc, and meeting regularly. They would enable that vital horizontal connection between all the areas of the city, bringing communities together, creating a rich fabric of shared experiences, knowledge and ideas for improvement and helping to overcome social divisions. It is extraordinary to think that no such opportunity currently exists in the city. Participants could then feed back the discussions to their Ward Forums, creating an ongoing dialogue across the city.

Would these City-Wide Forums be open so that anyone could attend, or would they be constituted by elected representatives from Ward Forums? That needs further discussion, and organisational matters such as how often they would meet should be left to the Forums themselves. The key point now is to establish the principle: the right of the citizens of Birmingham to come together to discuss common concerns.

For elected representatives of each Forum on the relevant Overview and Scrutiny Committee

The purpose of the Forums would not just be to enable city-wide discussions. They would not be just talking-shops. The principle of participatory democracy means that the Forums must be able to feed into and influence the city’s policy-making processes. How could this be achieved? The ideal situation would be for the council to revert to a committee model of governance, where each sector had its own committee of councillors. Each committee could then have additional co-opted members, perhaps in an advisory role, elected by the relevant City-Wide Forum. (Although the committee model was largely abolished by Tony Blair, councils are still allowed to retain it, and some do.)

But there is a way forward right now that would be a big step in the right direction. Each Forum should be able to elect representatives to the relevant Overview and Scrutiny Committee, with the right to speak, to put items on the agenda, and to have access to relevant documentation. Should they also have a vote? It’s a matter for discussion, but there is a precedent: the Learning, Culture and Physical Activity Overview and Scrutiny Committee has one Church of England and one Roman Catholic Diocese Representative and two Parent Governor Representatives, all with votes.

A new combination of representative and participatory democracy for Birmingham

The combination of active and participatory Ward Forums, City-Wide Forums on the key issues bringing together citizens from the wards, and elected representatives from them on the Scrutiny Committees feeding in their ideas and expertise and reporting back to the City-Wide Forums and through them the Ward Forums, would be a ground-breaking innovation in genuine participatory democracy, complementing existing representative democracy in the governance of Birmingham. Of course increasing active citizen involvement is a process over time, but engagement will grow as people and communities have positive collective experiences of having an influence on council policies and thus the policies that affect their lives.

Will there be ‘a wide ranging debate that gives everyone the chance to have their say’?

In her Introduction to ‘Working together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’ Cllr Sharon Thompson, Cabinet Member for Homes and Neighbourhoods, says ‘We intend to engage stakeholders widely as the statement is developed during 2018, with a view to publishing a further update (a “white paper”) in the autumn.’

We want this paper to be the start of a wide ranging debate that gives everyone the chance to have their say on how their neighbourhood is run. Later in the year, we will be announcing details of a “summer of engagement” which will lead to a final policy statement in September. This will provide more information about the options available to each ward. (p15)

An online consultation survey on the Council’s BeHeard website started on 23 July and closes on 28 September. According to an email from Karen Cheney, Citywide Head of Service – Neighbourhood Development and Support Unit (NDSU):

There will also be more informal local conversations at the new Ward Forum Meetings throughout August and September.

In addition the Neighbourhood Development and Support Unit (NDSU) is organising a number of city-wide Information Sessions on the consultation for Community Organisations. These will hopefully have a 2 fold purpose to enable those groups who come along

To be informed and to respond

To be informed and to cascade – we hope to encourage community organisations to run their own sessions locally (Some support costs for room hire and/or refreshments may be available)

The two sessions already arranged are as follows:-

§  Stirchley Baths Community Hub – Thursday August 16 Time 6.30pm-8pm, 2-4 Bournville Lane, Stirchley

§  Alexander Stadium – Wednesday September 5 Time 6.30pm-8pm, Walsall Road, Perry Barr

We are also hoping to organise a third session in East Birmingham in September – awaiting confirmation of date and venue.

If you would like to come along to either of the sessions please confirm back to

And a cross-party working group of councillors is being set up.

This is a rushed consultation process which contradicts the aim of citizen engagement that the council policy claims to stand for

These arrangements are completely inadequate to enable a serious consultation process about the council’s plans. ‘Working together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’ was published in July. It promises that ‘we will be announcing details of a “summer of engagement” which will lead to a final policy statement in September. What are these plans? The chance to discuss the proposals at a ward meeting in September. But the ‘final policy statement’ will be published in September, so how can it take on board the ward discussions, let alone the BeHeard survey, which doesn’t close till 28 September? As for the consultation meetings, just two are arranged, with the possibility of a third, and they are apparently only for ‘Community Organisations’.

In short, the process is ill thought-out and as a result the whole ambitious policy is being steamrollered through. It is the very opposite of the aim of citizen engagement that it claims to be standing for. What is needed now to rescue it is the publication of an interim report of the online survey, ward meetings and the consultation meetings in October, followed by a further period of informed consultation based principally on actual discussions in ward meetings and public meetings and written contributions.

Richard Hatcher

17 August 2018



 ‘Working together in Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods’

‘Localism in Birmingham: A Framework for Future Policy’.






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