Labour expects to regain control of Birmingham City Council in under two years and has laid down its first policy objective upon taking power.
Group leader Sir Albert Bore said he was “putting senior council officers on notice” that any move by the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to abandon the council’s devolution and localisation programme would be reversed.
The Tory-led cabinet is consulting on changes that could see 10 constituency committees replaced by a smaller number of area committees.
Services run at the moment by local councillors in the constituencies – refuse collection, sports and leisure, highways services – could be brought back under central control in the Council House, leaving the committees with only an advisory role.
The pledge is the first sign that Labour is laying plans for the end of opposition, having lost power to the Tory-Lib Dem coalition six years ago. With 41 out of 120 seats in the council chamber, Labour is the second largest group behind the Conservatives, who have 45. The Liberal Democrats have 31 seats and there are three Respect councillors.
Labour requires 20 more councillors to gain control, a target in line with the party’s success in this year’s civic elections, putting Sir Albert on course to become either council leader or elected mayor of Birmingham in May 2012.
According to the coalition devolution is too costly and upwards of 1,000 meetings a year held by ward and constituency committees has hardly produced dynamic government.
Centralisation could produce savings in excess of £2 million a year, it is claimed. However, the devolution issue has proved a troublesome topic among both sides of the council coalition.
A significant proportion of Lib Dem and Conservative backbenchers would like to see more powers rolled out to the constituencies. Cabinet members, faced with finding £330 million of spending cuts over the next four years, wish to regain direct control over devolved services. Sir Albert (Lab Ladywood) said any attempt to dilute devolution would send the wrong message at a time when the Government is promoting the Big Society, which focuses on shifting delivery of local services to communities and neighbourhoods.
Devolution was introduced by Sir Albert in 2004 in the dying days of the last city council Labour administration.
Sir Albert said: “When we began the devolution programme we were criticised by the Liberal Democrats for not going far enough or fast enough. Now they are sitting on their hands and allowing the Conservatives, who have always been lukewarm on the issue, to dismantle localised services.”
He is committing Labour to go much further with localisation by devolving more services to constituency committees. These would include housing management, community safety, the youth service, neighbourhood regeneration, residents’ parking schemes, parking enforcement and pre-school provision.
The move would be paid for by cutting out the duplication of senior management jobs and effectively dismantling the administrative core and executive board of Be Birmingham, the city strategic partnership, saving about £2.2 million a year.
Sir Albert added: “This is a clear indication to officers of the city council that when we take control we will be looking to implement these measures.’’
A Labour policy document says that people become passionate about politics when given a real opportunity to play a role.
The paper goes on: “People want control over their own neighbourhood and over the problems that confront them when they step outside their front door. Issues like litter, graffiti, anti-social behaviour, better street lighting and CCTV systems. People need a forum where their ideas for improving their neighbourhoods can be taken up. That is why we introduced constituency committees with devolved budgets.
“In our model of the Big Society, local government and service provision would be brought closer to local people to ensure more effective action at neighbourhood level.”