Can collaborative economics see Birmingham return to its glory days?

chamberlain square small
Chamberlain Square, Birmingham. Photo by Andrew Bloomfield

Birmingham is broadening its vision of good local government with a more collaborative, bottom-up approach. Can local economics in the region be similarly expanded through a shared vision of the common good?

It’s hard to avoid Joseph Chamberlain as you travel through Birmingham. From the Joseph Chamberlain College in Highgate to the Chamberlain clock in the city’s Jewellery Quarter, his legacy endures more than one hundred years after his death.

But as the city and its regions undergo a transformation of their economies similar to that seen during the reign of its famous mayor, it is ‘civil’ power rather than ‘civic’ control that is at the forefront.

As the city’s mayor from 1873-1876, Joseph Chamberlain took over the gas and water works and funded libraries, parks, art galleries and housing for the new industrial classes. In today’s era of austerity the region’s leaders are forging a new partnership with their citizens, and shaking off paternalism in favour of collaborative and collective leadership of services and places.

‘We don’t need a new age of Chamberlain and the mythologies are holding us back and making us more civic than we need to be’, Birmingham Council’s chief executive Mark Rogers told New Start. ‘If Chamberlain was an arch-exponent of local government, we now need an arch exponent of civil government.’

Civil – not civic – government

What ‘civil government’ looks like in the city is gradually emerging as Birmingham council sets out its plans in the wake of the government’s damning report into its operations. Sir Bob Kerslake was asked by the Department for Communities and Local Government to conduct a review of the council after a series of problems from the Trojan Horse affair to mis-managed finances and poor performance of children’s services. The underperformance of the city’s economy was also criticised; as Europe’s largest borough, Birmingham punches way below its weight economically and is home to a low skilled population and the highest child poverty levels in the country.

Indeed, the city’s heat map of poverty has barely changed in thirty years: more than one in three children in the city – 84,000 – live in poverty and youth unemployment is almost double the national average.

We don’t need a new age of Chamberlain

and the mythologies are holding us back’

The Kerslake Review – unveiled in December 2014 – didn’t hold back, criticising the council for investing in city centre projects while residents in out of town neighbourhoods were left without jobs or skills, shutting out local partners and maintaining a culture of ‘the council knows best’.

The city’s leaders have embraced Kerslake’s criticism as a wake-up call. Rogers wants to preside over the emergence of enabling council, one that devolves power to its local communities and that works with – not against – the city’s strong civil sector.

A raft of new initiatives is aimed at shifting the balance of power. Through the Stand Up for Birmingham programme, community conversations have taken place across the city around how citizens, businesses and charities can play a bigger role in their local areas.

A number of Social Innovation Zones are being planned, which will facilitate innovative approaches to public services and regeneration within a designated area, and a whole city approach to time banking is being unveiled.

Clare Goff is editor of New Start magazine
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