Richard Burden backs more power for local communities in Birmingham


Local communities in Birmingham should be given more power to decide the priorities for their areas. I am calling on Birmingham City Council and other agencies to do more to help them do so.

I recently published a paper responding to a City consultation on the future of devolution and localisation in the city – through the development of what Birmingham City Council calls ‘Vibrant Urban Villages’.

Northfield has pioneered a number of devolution projects over the last ten years. Many have been associated with redevelopment projects in the area and in response to crises at Longbridge in 2000 and 2005. Northfield also has Birmingham’s first Urban Parish Council in Frankley. It has a successful constituency strategic partnership which brings together City Council departments with other agencies such as the Police, Job Centre Plus and the Primary Care Trust, and representatives of the voluntary sector to promote joint work to combat worklessness, improve health, increase community safety and promote regeneration in the Northfield area.

Drawing on evidence from various case studies in Northfield shows that devolution and neighbourhood working can make local services more responsive and help bring communities together. I welcome the support given to this by the Council in its Green Paper. However, the City Council and other agencies must be more consistent in promoting this approach. They have to learn to ‘let go’ and accept that local people may well choose forms of organisation that may be different from the City Council’s own preferred ways of working at the centre. It’s no good one minute telling local people you want them to have a bigger say in shaping local services and then the next telling them they have to do as they are told.

A strong, confident and independent voluntary sector at constituency and neighbourhood levels in Birmingham will be a key driver of successful community-led regeneration in areas like Northfield. It will also help elected politicians to stay in touch and to hold them to account. Until now the infrastructure to support such developments in areas like Northfield has been very weak. Statutory bodies such as the City Council have an important role to play in resourcing and building up this infrastructure – without dominating it or stifling local creativity. National initiatives such as the Big Lottery and the Government’s Change Up programme must also make sure that funding gets through to local level.

There also needs to be improvements in the way local needs are identified when allocating resources. Too often City, regional or national programmes look at local government wards when they try to identify areas of deprivation and allocate resources. That may work in towns where the population of a ward is about seven or eight thousand people. In Birmingham however, wards are nearer to 20,000 people. Where you have areas which are relatively affluent close to areas of extreme poverty, the statistics average each other out and the poor areas end up missing out on their fair share of resources. The trouble is that all too often regeneration initiatives don’t look at how deprived a community is but how close it is to another one that is wealthier.

This is a long standing problem in outer-city areas such as Birmingham’s South West suburbs. South West Birmingham faces big challenges following the collapse of MG Rover. The area has large numbers of people on incapacity benefit; there is a high rate of teenage pregnancies, and; large numbers of young people in the area are not in employment, education or training. Nevertheless, a ‘City Strategy’ to tackle worklessness – recently drawn up by Birmingham City Council, other local authorities and agencies in the West Midlands, and agreed with the Government – only targets one of Northfield’s four local government wards for attention, even missing out Longbridge itself. Ward level statistics and programmes may be administratively or politically convenient but they give a distorted picture of what is happening on the ground and lead to real unfairness in the allocation of resources.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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