Birmingham is to be one of the pilot areas for the government’s new ‘Total Place’ initiative . This is, by all accounts, a Big Deal, with the council calling it ‘perhaps the most significant initiative for local areas and local government for some time’ and the Communities Secretary John Denham seeing the project as ‘potentially a chance to rewrite the future of public services’.
Over £7.5bn of public money came into Birmingham last year and the aim of Total Place is to identify where and how this money could be spent more effectively. It asks the question ‘can we do better for less’? And given the huge sum of money we’re talking about, the answer has got to be ‘yes’. With the project in Birmingham focusing on how various bodies deal with mental health problems, drug and alcohol misuse and ‘guns and gangs’ - we need to make sure that ‘we do better for less’ not just in order to save money, but also to ensure we’re providing the best service we can to some of the most vulnerable people in the city.
Whether the involvement of a non-directly elected body like Be Birmingham - and the bureaucracy and time constraints of ‘yet another government initiative’ – is the best way of achieving this, remains to be seen. And the only way we’ll have a chance of knowing if it’s worked will be if Be Birmingham publishes realistic targets – over which it has direct control – and an outside body gets to scrutinise its performance.
The government’s ‘Strengthening local democracy’ consultation paper, which includes the concept of Total Place, talks about enhancing the power and scope of councillors’ scrutiny role:
Councillors, on behalf of their citizens, should be able to scrutinise public spending provision, influence decision making and hold other service providers to account’.
Unfortunately, however,this is all happening the wrong way round. The unelected quangos have already got the power, and they’ve had it for some time. Yet only now is the consultation beginning on how to keep this power in check. And given the ongoing concern over the running of the Multi Area Agreement in Birmingham, it’s interesting to read in the consultation paper that ‘as sub-regional structures grow in power and influence, it is important that greater power is matched by clear, democratic and accountable leadership‘. It states that ‘these existing and planned sub-regional structures derive democratic legitimacy through elected councillors from their member local authorities controlling their activities‘. Not so in Birmingham, of course, where there are no elected members sitting on the Board set up to administer the MAA.
The consultation goes on to suggest that ‘committee meetings should be open to the public’ and that the council should be able to ‘scrutinise the activity of local authorities working together at the sub-regional level’.
All eminently sensible stuff, and let’s hope the government means it. Unfortunately the conversation about how to best scrutinise the unelected should have begun a long time ago.