City councillors are being urged to put a halt to rambling presentations – because they are putting people off politics.
An inquiry into the council’s ward committee set-up found they are failing to engage citizens and often ignore or brush over issues of local interest, instead dealing with ‘long-winded’ reports from council officers.
The city’s 40 ward committees each meet six times a year to discuss local issues but too often, the inquiry heard, residents felt like spectators to a meeting between three councillors.
Attendance is also varied with, at the bottom end, just 30 people attending Tyburn ward meetings between May 2012 and September 2013, and at the top 311 attending Longbridge ward over the same period.
The report found few residents knew of the existence of ward committees or their schedule of meetings or what issues can and cannot be discussed at them.
It also concluded: “Not all councillors use the ward committees to their full potential as vital tools of communication. Councillors need to explain and demonstrate why citizens should attend.”
There has been criticism that a shake-up of committees under the Labour administration since 2012 has left the more senior district committees, which meet in the city centre, with all the power and the ward committees, which were designed as the main forum for residents to raise issues, a talking shop with little direct link between the two.
Coun Waseem Zaffar (Lab, East Handsworth and Lozells), who chaired the inquiry, said the engagement offered by councillors and ward committees varies greatly across the city and different areas need to learn from each other.
The report recommends several ways for residents and neighbourhood groups to become more involved.
He said: “Volunteers in the community who are members of residents’ groups need to be recognised for their role in giving local citizens a voice. We suggest ward committee agendas need to have feedback from community groups.
“It is important that citizens understand the purpose of the meetings and their rights within these. Whilst we acknowledge that many wards are engaging well, we thought it important to set out some minimum entitlements.”
He added that local councillors could use technology, such as live streaming meetings, to increase their visibility in the community.
“The city council has been radical in its online engagement. We need to now go that extra mile and explore web-streaming of ward committees too, learning from the West Midlands Police who have been piloting live streaming and receiving questions on twitter at Neighbourhood Tasking Groups in south Birmingham. Technology should also be used to find a better way to update citizens and partners with real time updates of local priorities and actions.”
Publication of the inquiry report, Are Ward Committees Fit For Purpose?, comes two weeks after the Government inquiry Sir Bob Kerslake accused the city council of failing to listen to residents and saying their local committees were failing.
Sir Bob’s report said: “There is a lack of space in formal district and ward meetings for more general conversations so the council is not able to hear what people want and to be able to react.”
He recommended ward committees should be more like general community forums where wide ranging issues about the neighbourhood and local services could be raised, not just those for which the council is directly responsible.