The area panel meeting of 9th October 2008, at St Catherine’s School on Roe Lane, was unusual in having a Lib-Dem councillor present: Councillor David Baker had come to present the plans for the new regime of community assemblies. It was not well received.
Members of the public and local councillors made clear that Burngreave Area Panel had “been carefully built up over a long time” and praised area officers’ “diligent work to break down barriers.” None of the public present supported the plans and were unconvinced when David Baker’s assistant claimed that a change in staff from 6 to 4 was not a cut.
Although this was a “consultation”, Councillor Baker made it clear the community assembly boundaries were “not negotiable”.
First the area panels …
The council is first transferring £50,000 of existing city-wide budgets to each area panel. This allows the panel to move resources between libraries, street cleaning and parks but, of course, an increase in one service means a cut in another. At the October meeting, Burngreave councillors made a firm decision not to make any cuts. In contrast, Councillor Paul Scriven’s own area panel (Broomhill, Central and Nether Edge) decided to increase resources for street-cleaning by cutting library hours – despite the apparent opposition of Green councillors in Central ward, all the people present at the meeting, 200 people who presented a petition and the majority of those who responded to the council’s own library users survey.
Then the assembly
From May 2009, the plan is to abolish the 12 area panels altogether and replace them with 7 “community assemblies”. Community assemblies will each cover 4 electoral wards – so should have roughly the same population in each. Each assembly will have a staff of 4, compared to the current 2 officers for each area panel. The three area panels for Burngreave, Southey & Owlerton and Brightside & Shiregreen will disappear to create a single assembly area of 84,000 people, significantly larger than some other assemblies of only 70,000. Overall, 4 workers will replace the current 6.
This is a central plank of the Lib-Dems’ attack on Labour’s “favoured areas” – moving resources from areas like Burngreave to suburbs like Dore, which will see a net increase in staff resources.
Councillor Baker told the meeting that assemblies would mean a greater voice for residents, greater participation and more control by local councillors instead of officers.
Unsurprisingly, questioners at the area panel had a lot to ask. Who would want to attend a meeting so far away – whether it's people from Burngreave travelling to Shiregreen for a “local” meeting or vice versa? How relevant would it be to the local area? How would less vocal people cope with a much bigger meeting? Wouldn’t councillors all be fighting for their own patches?
In reply, Councillor Baker expected that far fewer people would come to the community assembly meetings so they wouldn’t be any bigger than a single area panel. The audience became bemused as his assistant, Evelyn Milne, argued with councillors that the reduction of 6 staff to 4 was not a cut
The Lib-Dems seem to realise Burngreave has done well with its area panel but are perhaps less understanding of the reason for it.
Milton Graham, well-known for his years of work with the Firshill community, praised Burngreave councillors and area officers for their “diligent work to break down barriers.” He echoed the sentiment in the room that the area panel in Burngreave worked well and did not need to change. Curiously, Councillor Baker agreed but said, “I believe it will be well worth losing.”
Another community stalwart, Pauline West, told him straight,
“you said it’s from the grassroots up; all I hear is from the top down – all you’re going to do is destroy communities.”
The main complaint was that the current system seems to work at least as well as what is proposed and the community assembly area is far to big to function as a single community.
The success of Burngreave area panel has been in its coverage of the ward. With 84,000 people in the proposed community assembly area, fewer workers would be left to support many people, including many vulnerable people without a voice. It was hard to see how this could lead to greater participation in local decision-making, as the Lib-Dems claimed. Was greater consultation and participation really the aim?
Councillor Baker told the meeting, “I’m consulting now,” though he soon had to concede that the size of the assembly area was “not negotiable”. “I believe it is efficient,” he added.
Councillor Ibrar Hussain pointed out that we have a very diverse and mixed community and one that is very different from other areas. Councillor Steve Jones gave examples of the area panel’s work “Don’t throw it away,” he pleaded, “because it’s been carefully built up over a long time.”
Without a single supporter in the public, Councillor Baker and his assistant gave apologies after an hour and left for another appointment. Realising he had convinced no-one, he said,
“I’ve taken nothing personally. It’s my job to take the hits.”
He wasn’t trying to pretend any more.