A few weeks ago I suggested that common sense had prevailed with the announcement that some of the council’s newly empowered district committees could meet in the areas they serve.
Initially the plan, devised by Labour leader and devolution champion Sir Albert Bore, was that meetings would be very business-like and held in the Victoria Square Council House during the working day to minimise disruption to senior council officers and keep the cost of meeting rooms down.
After some protests Tory-controlled Sutton Coldfield District and Lib Dem-run Yardley District were permitted to flex their devolved muscles and hold their inaugural meetings on their patch during the early evening – when it was hoped interested locals would attend.
Admittedly there is not a great record of attendance at many local meetings, but with additional powers over bin collections, leisure facilities and housing perhaps this audience might have grown.
And this week came the news that the Labour administration wants to lead the devolution agenda to a place where Birmingham’s 10 districts are providing 80 per cent of the council’s services, each tailor-made for the distinct areas they serve.
But now, in a paper being tabled at Monday’s Cabinet meeting, it appears the council constitution is being amended so that the district meeting must take place at the Council House – due to the cost of outside venues.
Quite how a council owned library or Sutton Coldfield Town Hall incurs an additional cost is unknown at this stage – but the council tells me it is working on an answer.
I am unofficially informed evening hire of an outside venue incurs a paper charge from one council department to another – a similar charge is not levied for use of the Council House for democratic meetings. There is also an argument over travel time and expenses for officials, but this must be offset by travel for district-based staff and councillors.
Not only does it seem wrong, it is also an open goal for opposition councillors who can use it to discredit the laudable devolution agenda.
Tory deputy leader Robert Alden said: “Two districts Labour do not control both decided in consultation with local residents that in Yardley and Sutton Coldfield the meeting would be held in the local area. This is devolution at work, giving local people what they want locally. This council does much crowing about devolution yet is now expecting local areas to obey orders from the centre imposed without local consultation and against there wishes. I would hardly call this devolution.”
There has been much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the role the city council’s new Labour administration’s political press officer David Hallam may, or may not, have played in a budget black hole press release issued a couple of weeks back.
Cheery Mr Hallam, a former Euro-MP and Labour Party official, has been buzzing around the Council House a few days a week acting primarily as a liaison between leader Sir Albert Bore and his cabinet and the city’s Labour MPs – most notably Jack Dromey.
Opposition Liberal Democrat group leader Paul Tilsley has christened him the ‘Commissar’ and accuses Mr Hallam of overt political interference in the council press office – an organisation which frequently has to tread a fine line between pushing the council line and being partisan.
In fact a complaint has gone in to chief executive Stephen Hughes.