Analysis: From ‘civic’ to ‘civil’ society

Now, post-Kerslake however, there is the scent of something different. Partly, the standard of councillors in Birmingham has been improving noticeably at all levels. In the Cabinet, councillors like Penny Holbrook, Lisa Trickett and James McKay seem a world away from the old school that dominated the city in 2005 when Judge Richard Mawrey described Birmingham as operating ‘like a banana republic’.

The city’s district committee chairs and vice-chairs include some outstanding local representatives, getting a practical training in executive decision-making. The sharp reduction in the number of officers employed by the city council has hurt; but at the same time is pushing managers to new ways of working. The city council’s new chief executive, Mark Rogers, is an energetic and intelligent reformer with very considerable charisma and ability. The council leader Albert Bore launched a campaign ‘Standing up for Birmingham’ with cross-party support in 2013 aimed at finding ways of council and communities working together to make better public services.

There is a chance, if Birmingham can be more brave and less bureaucratic, that the city might start to benefit from something like a genuine strategic partnership – between civic and civil society. The signs to watch for include:

  • Replacement of the city’s ward committees with a patchwork of different approaches ahead of the move to single member wards in 2018. The test is whether the council is able to come to terms with a diversity of structures based on what works best locally – something which, historically, it has been very bad at.
  • Continuation, without watering-down, of Birmingham’s successful approach to Community Asset Transfer based on an objective calculation of social value added by having land and buildings in community leasehold ownership (in spite of the pressure on budgets that government cuts have made).
  • Evidence of benefits created by more assertive shaping and leadership at district level including, for example, through developing co-operative council approaches in Selly Oak and Hall Green and the use of the city’s new Social Innovation Zones, which Chamberlain Forum has helped to devise, in Erdington, Selly Oak and Hall Green.
  • Agreement and implementation of incentives for social innovation – the ability for a fraction of money saved through social innovation to be retained locally and re-invested by, for example, neighbourhood joint-venture companies or development trusts.
  • A non-bureaucratic approach to reducing ‘red tape’, e.g. adopting the ‘citizen’s right to challenge bureaucracy’ proposed by Standing Up for Birmingham.
  • Joint venture organisations and initiatives that increase the permeability and reach of the council via civil society participation and leadership. The jointly-owned Birmingham Timebanks structure which is aiming to support timebanking in the city is an example of this.
  • Replacement of the city council’s ‘Be Heard!’ consultation paraphernalia with systematic council participation in (and learning from) the ongoing city-wide conversation that characterises its civil society.

Underpinning these signs should be a presumption in favour of making more of existing structures (including community hubs and networks, neighbourhood forums and faith groups) rather than creating and imposing new structures for devolving power. This would reflect more fundamental shifts towards common civic values rather than standardised civic structures, and toward seeing communities as assets.

Time will tell whether Birmingham – the birthplace, and spectacular success-story, of 19th century municipalism – can overcome centralism to become a model of how, in the 21st century, citizens and their councils can make cities work better together.

Paul Slatter is the director of the Chamberlain Forum, the Birmingham-based non-profit neighbourhood think/do-tank which helps large organisations and communities work together to make better places to live. He tweets @paulgslatter
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