Once again Birmingham City Council seeks the views of the public on how it should develop its work.
The Community Cohesion Strategy for Birmingham Green Paper (Forward together to build a fair and inclusive city for everyone) provides eight guiding principles within which the Council will develop it’s Cohesion Strategy. It wants to know are these are “fit for purpose and what do you think we [the Council] require to complement our frontline work or personal experiences?”
My major issue with the document is that it relates to Council services and not community or Neighbourhood development, so here are my responses to the eight principles as well to other questions posed in the document.
Mainstreaming community cohesion
The green paper starts from the principle that community cohesion should be imbedded in council policy and practice, which it should. That it should be influence practice and design of services, which it should. What this ‘mainstreaming agenda misses is that communities exist outside the Council’s structure and operation.
The engagement of Neighbourhoods is ‘accommodated’ in another consultation. So while cohesion needs to be acknowledged as an important component in the development of services within Wards and Constituencies (Districts) these ‘border constructs’ restrict development within and between communities that are self-determining and not necessarily Ward or District focused.i.e the Council isn’t Community
Connecting places, people and communities to share knowledge, exchange ideas and drive local innovation.
The link between this consultation and the Neighbourhood Engagement (Working Together In Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods) is never closer than in this objective. Mainstreaming cohesion must acknowledge the role of communities and neighbourhoods in discussing and resolving their issues. Enabling and encouraging them to identify what is good in their community / neighbourhood, what works and what needs improving. If you are to develop cohesion you need to connect to people, and not just selected, or a selection of, representatives. If you are to connect to people, it needs to be in their community / neighbourhood. If you start conversations with neighbourhoods concerning service provision the conversations will focus on service provision, if you focus on services in Wards / constituency the conversation and activity will focus on services, cohesion becomes a secondary issue.
Connecting and exchanging ideas that promote cohesion and mobilise social action, Connecting places …critical in building confidence and tackling local challenges together.
Connecting people must start with their community / neighbourhood and not the constructed administrative ‘borders’.
Borders change and people may not relate to the Ward / Constituency.
One part of the Ward / Constituency may have stronger community links / groups and therefore tend to dominate conversation / consultation. Focusing on community / neighbourhoods enables individuals to develop skills and confidence in participation.
There are more Neighbourhoods in this City than Wards and some of our Wards are so big one end of the Ward may not have a ‘relationship’, and may have different issues, than the other end.
Nurturing and supporting aspiration of young people, Young people from all social backgrounds should realise their ambitions
Engaging young people within the consultation is crucial if we are to build the next generation of community activists.
They cannot, however be expected to take part in current / traditional consultation which tends to be ‘boring’ and full of established community egos and leaders.
There are models of youth participation and consultation that should be adopted. Not all youth groups have been closed and the remnants of the youth service needs to lead on the engagement and consultation of young people. They need to be listened to and suggestions acted upon, within an ongoing consultation process.
Tradition shows that the concerns of young people and ‘established’ community groups are not dissimilar. At some point in the future the groups can come together to discuss their issues, they will want to come together to discuss their issues, and that’s when community activism really takes off.
A city where everyone has a strong sense and understanding of their rights and responsibilities:
Rights and responsibilities are two different concepts, developing people’s responsibilities involves listening to them and ensuring that they are valued. Encouraging people, as citizens, to become active and not assume that the ‘City / Council’ will take responsibility.
This assumption is a ‘hangover’ from bygone era when the Council had money and behaved in a paternalistic manner. It is the biggest hurdle to developing responsibilities, and the appreciation of rights, as the paternalistic behaviour deskilled people and ‘obliged’ them to see the Council as a resolver of problems and a provider of services. Re energising deskilled communities is not easy and will take time, it needs to be done one step at a time, small steps and in partnership with other communities.
I’m not sure what they meant by “tackle issues that exist within and between communities and promote understanding of our diverse communities” Some communities resolve their own issues without Council intervention. In these cases, the Council needs to listen and learn not control or lead or mainstream. The skills within Neighbourhoods and Communities needs to be acknowledged and built on, engagement leads to recognition and inclusion.
Eliminate all forms of inequality in Birmingham. Challenge practices and social norms
Birmingham City Council cannot eliminate inequality. It can however provide services that encourage actions that begin to form an ‘united whole’, a unity and togetherness of citizens. It can encourage communities to engage together to resolve issues, local and inter community, without it, the Council, and its officers, taking a leadership role.
There can be guidelines and milestones for Council engagement and involvement in activities ensuring officers and community groups comply with such practices in an operational sense and not just writing it on paper policy and processes.
If the Council is to be a catalyst for change “practices and social norms” of some Council officers and members need to be challenged and addressed. eg. Selecting ‘favoured’ groups to consult with [regular suspects syndrome] or deliver activities. Some previous practices have caused division in communities, this needs to be acknowledged and addressed if cohesion is to be achieved and inequality challenged.
Communities need to be trusted and listened to, activities, peer learning and communication facilitated and not led, actions developed and delivered in communities by communities.
Benefits of economic growth should be shared and accessible to everyone. Working with partners at a local, regional and national level will seek to ensure that economic strategies are inclusive and impact locally; addressing the distinctly social, economic and cultural challenges and opportunities
If this is to happen the ‘City’ and Council needs to stop focusing on the City Centre development and attracting London firms to new office blocks at the expense of other areas of the City.
Major industries have closed or left the City. Estates that were built to accommodate these factories remain with many residents detached from major development.
Our education system is stifled by externally imposed antiquated objectives; regurgitating knowledge in tests and exams with little consideration as to what are basic skills for the 21st Century, literacy and numeracy remain crucial but how do we teach IT skills in establishments whose IT is not as contemporary as that in the student’s pocket or home.
If the economic strategies are to encourage more building in the City Centre what is being offered to those in the City who live an hour away by public transport or whose skills are not ‘fit for purpose’.
If the economic strategy is identifying the skills gap what is being done to address the skills that are missing. Is this issue really one of cohesion or is it that we need to be asking different questions and proposing different, radical solutions?
Does the Commonwealth Games 2022 and HS2 address these issues?
What are the inequalities we face and what are the solutions needed to address them.
Imbedded historical activity in deprived areas that has not achieved progression. Some of the Wards / areas that were poor 20/30 years ago remain poor in spite of millions of pounds of public realm programmes being delivered in the area.
Programmes that aimed to resolve immediate but not imbedded issues; providing some skills development but not raising aspirations and overall achievement.
Public realm programmes that have not and do not develop appropriate and sustainable skills in individuals from those communities. Therefore, the circulation of money is very short, public money spent in the community, leaves the community, the public realm ‘Pound’ circulation is less in these areas than in others.
What mechanisms or systems do we need to improve our current methods of addressing inequalities?
This consultation is very similar in the questions it asks, although it is much shorter, to the Working Together In Birmingham’s Neighbourhoods consultation.
This is another example of the silo mentality of Council delivery. You cannot separate some of the issues raised in this consultation to those of governance, locality, neighbourhood engagement and service development discussed in the Working with Neighbourhood Consultation.
How will the two consultations, and subsequent reports, be presented and how will any decision be implemented?
Any comments you wish to express regarding the paper that we need to include.
‘Vision Wheel’, p5
Much of what was Council services have now been outsourced or provided by other organisations; Academies, Children’s Centres etc. that are outside the Council’s control.
While contracts can include cohesion aspirations how easy are they to enforce and can / will the council remove or cancel a contract if targets for engagement are met but cohesion is not improved?
This impotence of enforcement, entrenched into core policy development, ensures that the Council cannot meet its objectives regarding cohesion.
If, however, the Council focused on the ‘making it happen’, element of the ‘Vision’ it could concentrate on cohesion objectives that are not related to service development facilitating community engagement, development and learning.
This wheel could have been written 20 years ago. For those of us who can remember Council document and policy that far back there is little difference between objectives in this document and in the 1990’s.
Over the years the terms have changed; hard to reach, disenfranchised, poor skills , etc. These problems still exist, we still have poor communities, the same poor communities as identified throughout the 1980’s and 90’s. Council and public realm funding programmes, equality and cohesion activity has failed, and it can’t all be blamed on the post 2010 recession.
New questions, honest answers are required.
“Annual Stocktake Summit” p5
Why isn’t the Council considering utilising crowdsourcing data and opinion as part of its ‘trawl’ of what is going on and not relying on traditional conferences, restricted public realm data, officer interpretation and reporting process to develop new (old and regurgitated) programmes to address the issues.
“Community: The voluntary, community and faith sector organisations are well placed to provide leadership in identifying and supporting community-based solutions. Local Councillors in their community leadership role will deliver on Localism by working with communities and local organisations to design place-based approaches that shapes council policy and practice.”p6
Local Councillors are not community leaders, although some see themselves as such.
Councillors cannot deliver localism only residents and citizens can do that.
Councillors need to encourage engagement from the various communities and organisations in their Ward, they need to facilitate such engagement and listen to the needs, however their involvement only relates to service provision. Any development outside that should be undertaken by encouraging communities to identify and resolve issues through their own skills and knowledge.