Birmingham is England’s largest single tier local authority – serving more than a million people in ten districts covering more than 130 distinct neighbourhoods. The cuts in funding the city’s Council faces led its leader, Albert Bore, to declare this time last year ‘the end of local government as we have known it’. A year on, and the Council is looking at how it needs to change so Birmingham’s neighbourhoods can prosper despite the cuts. Chamberlain Forum has been supporting the City Council’s Challenge Unit to put together a Neighbourhood Strategy that builds on what communities can do for themselves through ‘neighbourhood working’.
The Forum’s Director, Paul Slatter, explains: “We helped the City Council to run a Summer of Dialogue involving residents in each of the city’s districts. And we’ve put together the results – we’ve seen it as an ‘experiment in crowdsourcing policy’. That is, it is an attempt to build public policy by, and through, many individual insights gathered through a process of structured dialogue.
“The approach was distinct from normal ‘council consultation’ with which many residents and officers are already familiar to the point of disillusionment. The district-based dialogue sessions were not led by questions posed by the Council. Participants were instead asked four main sorts of question based on Chamberlain Forum’s Structured Dialogue Method approach. The starting point was participants’ own experiences of neighbourhoods and of working to make them better.
- WHAT – in your experience is a neighbourhood and what are the benefits and risks of ‘neighbourhood working’ in practice?
- WHY – do neighbourhoods and neighbourhood working make a difference?
- SO WHAT happens when someone has a good idea for making things work better in their neighbourhood? What help do they get – and what gets in the way?
- NOW WHAT – practical things – can we change, or try out, to make it easier for neighbourhood working to be successful?
“Right at the end of each session we focused down on practical things the Council (and others) could do. Through the rest of the process we followed the lead of participants as to how important they felt public services are as in ingredient in making ‘successful’ neighbourhoods. We didn’t define success either in terms of service outputs or levels of ‘deprivation’ (the main two ways the City Council tends to define success in relation to neighbourhoods). We left the door open to participants to define ‘successful’ neighbourhoods and neighbourhood working in whatever terms made most sense to them in practice.”
About 200 people took part in the dialogue sessions during the summer. Others participated online via the Challenge Unit’s website and twitter account and by submitting photographs of their neighbourhoods. Participants covered a wide range: residents and councillors; council officers and businesspeople; representatives of other public services and community and voluntary groups. Their insights were grouped and related under headings which formed the structure of the policy report. Its content was formed by Chamberlain Forum from the insights recorded at the sessions.
The result? Well, it’s a document that says what people want from the Council and its Neighbourhood Strategy – straight-talking; no bullshit; and a serious plan for cutting both bureaucracy and the proliferation of ‘council initiatives’. People want to see an enabling strategy – not one which imposes a form of localism from the centre. They want it based on the idea that communities are an asset, not a liability: an end to mapping places only in terms of how deprived they are.
Brummies want to see that the Council, other public services and voluntary groups are able to admit to – and learn from – the mistakes of the past. And in future? Realistic long-term plans that may be supported across the political spectrum, not grandiose wishlists made up of ‘pet projects’. Birmingham wants to see its youth and diversity (the city has the youngest age profile in Europe and is one of the most diverse) treated as strengths: a more ‘street wise’ approach from its Council. The solutions to Birmingham’s problems have to come from the young people and the mix of communities that share it – we can’t expect the panacea to be ‘parachuted in’ from elsewhere.
Birmingham’s Neighbourhood Strategy should aim to make a city of diverse neighbourhoods which fit together to foster success and attract investment. Rather than trying to make Birmingham neighbourhoods conform to a standard, the strategy should celebrate their differences and aim to help each to be fit for function. There are still important jobs for the centre to do in this new localism: to help neighbourhoods take opportunities to better themselves; and to ensure they are able to join together coherently to make a city that is economically more successful, skilful, socially just and environmentally thriving. That means, for example, working out the deal whereby savings made through preventative work in one neighbourhood are shared between that neighbourhood and the city as a whole (and its other neighbourhoods).
Social capital – relationships between people – gets a prominence in the report which is not often reflected in council strategies. It puts forward the importance of neighbourhood hubs; ‘3 Steps to Power’ – a people-based approach to social inclusion; and the idea of more co-operative Council. This, the report suggests, can be expressed in very practical ways which the Council, or the Council together with Government can make happen:
- local extensions of Neighbourhood Planning and the Community Right to Challenge contained in the government’s Localism Act
- a community right to access facilities including schools which the public has funded
- a council-underwritten deal on public liability insurance for community groups, like neighbourhood forums and ‘friends of parks’ groups
- the encouragement and engagement of the city council in Timebanking – following the lead of several neighbourhood timebanks that have recently set up in the city
- better use of social media – including by officers and councillors (the Social Media Surgery movement started in Birmingham)
- action on unused and underused assets – spaces and buildings
- a more coordinated approach to technical aid
- advice and encouragement for ‘Friends of’ groups
- less monitoring of personal information by the council
- recognition of an independent social innovation forum and process for the city.
The Chamberlain Forum draft report on Birmingham’s ‘Summer of Dialogue’ led by the City Council’s Challenge Unit can be downloaded here as a Word document