Kerslake is wrong

The reframing of Local Authorities and its impact on Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) ecosystem

This is the first in a series of blogposts concerning the reframing of Local Authorities and the impact it will have on Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) ecosystem.

Subsequent posts will address the history of local governance and our potential ‘romantic view’ of Councils capability to deliver local services as well as exploring the future of the VCS within combined authorities.

In this post I explore why I believe Sir Bob Kerslake is wrong in his recommendations concerning Birmingham City Council. While he may have addressed some fundamental issues of service failure, identifying capacity and operational issues for members and officers, I believe that his inappropriate use of the term ‘community leader’ as well as mixing the terminology ‘civic / community / resident’ has the potential to undermine the importance of VCS organisations in the future.

The Kerslake report is having a fundamental impact on local governance and democracy in Birmingham. Whilst having to deliver some of the most ruthless public sector cuts, the City has to deal with national government insisting that how Councillors represent and make decisions concerning services is not working and that it needs a significant overhaul.

The proposal to reduce the Council from 120 to 100 Councillors will, Kerslake argues, enable Councillors to provide greater representation to those they serve. (ref1)

Kerslake makes a number of references to engaging and representing communities. He argues that Wards are too big (15 of them being the largest in the country (ref2)). Increasing the number of wards and decreasing the number of Councillors would increase representation from 13,413 to 10,730 per Councillor. This he argues will enable Councillors to concentrate on regular, direct engagement with the people and organisations in their wards and role as community leaders (ref3)

Kerslake believes that this change will enable the council to fulfil one of its principal functions, “to represent the views of citizens and enable them to participate in the decisions that affect them and their local communities. Their democratic mandate gives councillors and councils the opportunity to act as community leaders.” (ref4).

Additionally, Kerslake questions the format of devolution in Birmingham, stating it doesn’t work, and that “It urgently needs a new model of devolution that enables services to be delivered within the resources available and provides more powerful community engagement.”(ref5)

While I may agree with some of Kerslake’s arguments, especially the part about the Council believing that if something should be done, it (the Council), should do it. I’m not too sure that his belief that the changes and the ‘shake up’ of devolution will enable councillors and the Council to represent the views of citizens and enable them to participate in the decisions that affect them and their local communities. I believe that Kerslake’s belief that “their [Councillors] democratic mandate gives councillors and councils the opportunity to act as community leaders” to be wrong and seriously flawed.

Councillors are civically elected leaders of Birmingham. The mandate that the democratic process gives them is to make decisions on how to run, and deliver, services that legislation requires and expects, and services that are devolved to a Local Authority. This mandate and the legislative role do not make them Community Leaders.

The terms ‘civic’ and ‘community’ accompanied by the term ‘leadership’, together with the terms ‘resident’,’ VCS’ and ‘communities’ seem to used as interchangeable terms, with no accompanying glossary of definitions by Kerslake, within the document.

I would question the use of the term ‘community leader’, used to describe the relationship between councillor and ‘constituent’ / ward residents, and how a councillor represents those needs within a democratic structure – this is not community / civic leadership.

There is however a significant difference between Councillors as democratically mandated representatives, and as community leaders. Councillors represent ALL people within a geographic area, a ward. Community leaders represent groups that have a common bond – of geography, interest, culture (including in this definition, ethnicity, disability, gender etc. ) and/or of faith. Such groups make up communities within and across wards, and will have leaders who speak for them and their needs.

These community leaders may have a different mandate and a different remit to Councillors. Community needs are fluid, and representation will respond to that fluidity. Communities within a geographic area change, and therefore the leadership may change. A Councillor’s duty of representation, together with their duty of governance, is different to community representation.

Duty of governance is a responsibility, dictated by legislation and enacted by national government. Community leader are not restrained by such legislation – the restrictions outlined through charity and company legislation only relates to operational activity. Therefore, community leaders can represent their constituents / members in any way they feel appropriate, something not available to Councillors.

Clarity is required as to what Kerslake means by Councillors being ‘community leaders’ as well as his use of the terms ‘civic leadership’ and ‘community representatives’. Where, in the whole process of partnership, leadership and delivery does he see the role for the rag bag of groups that form the Civic, Community, Voluntary and Third Sector?

The wide range of VCS organisations within the City represents their ‘constituent communities’. Surely it is the role of Councillors not to act as ‘leaders’ of these communities, but to corporately represent their voice to develop and deliver services appropriate to need, advised and supported by officers, within budget and legislative governance?

Much of the document focuses on the Council’s inability to act strategically, manage its structures of delivery and work in partnership. Kerslake criticises the council for its belief that “if it’s worth doing, the Council should do it.” (ref6) While he offers guidance on how the relationship between officers and members should be developed, he restricts the development of how strategic decisions are taken with partners to the public realm. Having promoted Councillors to ‘Community Leaders’, he makes passing reference to ‘residents’ and ‘communities’ as an interchangeable concept.

While I may agree with him that the Council should produce, with their partners, a clear statement of partnership values, such as openness, transparency, learning and collaborating (ref7), the creation of an environment for safe and constructive challenges will not be brought about if Councillors see themselves as ‘Community Leaders’ in the way Kerslake seems to be advocating.

VCS organisations should be able to lobby and argue for services within a ‘safe and constructive’ environment, engaging Councillors, and subsequently officers, in developing projects, programmes and services to address identified and agreed needs. Parameters for discussion and lobbying need to be clear from the start. Single community groups need to be aware of the strategic picture as much as they are aware of their own needs.

These discussions can be undertaken at a variety of levels – community, interest, cultural and/or faith and can be developed within a ‘whole city’ strategic framework. Councillors can make their decisions, as Civic Leaders, within legislative boundaries, based on this consultation.
While Kerslake is intent on restructuring the Council, he is too vague in how residents, communities and civic leaders will participate in this change, aside from voting for a whole council every four years. He acknowledges that the Council, officers and members, need to recognise that there may be other ways of delivering activities other than the Council ‘doing everything’, but at that point he stops.

I would support Kerslake in his assertion that “the Council need to clarify its roles (ref8), responsibilities, behaviours and ways of working of the Leader, Cabinet, councillors, Chief Executive and officers” but I would add that VCS organisations need to play a full and active role in that clarification.

In developing a new structure and clarity, the Council needs to recognise the breadth of representation for civic/voluntary /community organisations, and identify ordered and appropriate methods for engaging and harnessing such enthusiasm. From a VCS perspective, the Council cannot adopt a whole city approach and focus partnership development on one single organisation which, in a city the size of Birmingham, cannot hope to fully represent the diverse breadth of organisations.

So, is Kerslake wrong?

Yes, in two aspects and omissions:

  • identifying Councillors as ‘Community leaders’ without fully clarifying the definition of those terms
  • not being specific about VCS consultation as a partner in developing services

These two omissions can, and probably will, cause hours of debate and discussion which could have been avoided had Bob Kerslake been a little more precise in his submission and recommendations.

1 The way forward: an independent review of the governance and organisational capabilities of Birmingham City Council, Sir Bob Kerslake, 2014, page 15
2 Ibid. Page 26
3 Ibid. Recommendation (7e) Page 12
4 Ibid. Page 16
5 Ibid. Page 15
6 Ibid. Recommendation (8), page 12
7 Ibid. Recommendation (9), page 12
8 Ibid. Point 15, page 35