Britain Geographical Green New Deal Housing and Building Just Transition Labour Party Local government Sustainability Trade Unions Transport

We need Democracy Driven Governance for climate action by Birmingham Council

From Birmingham Against the Cuts

This is the beginning of the new Council year, when Birmingham Cabinet members announce their policies and priorities and the Council leadership sets the agenda of issues for the Overview and Scrutiny Committees to address. What does this mean for the Council’s policies to tackle the climate emergency over the coming 12 months?

Why climate activists need to engage with and challenge local Councils

But before we look at that there is another question – why does it matter? There are some in the climate movement who aren’t interested in what the Council does or in demanding it does more. But ‘System Change not Climate Change’ should not be an excuse for ducking out of the responsibility of challenging the local state – whether local Councils or the Combined Authorities – to bring in real reforms, for two reasons. One is that they can make a real difference today to people’s lives, for example those who are suffering from fuel poverty and need their homes urgently retrofitted.

The second reason why getting involved with local politics matters is that it is a vital part of building the popular movement for radical system change that we need. That is the lesson of large-scale social movements in towns and cities in many countries – Barcelona, Madrid, Lisbon, Nantes, Toronto, to name just a few – where activists have built powerful popular movements through local campaigns for reforms, including on climate-related issues, that matter to local people. Campaigns for meaningful system changes at the local level – their successes and their limitations – are a vital process in building the national and global movement for fundamental change of the capitalist system to end the climate emergency.

That’s why we need to take account of the latest developments in Birmingham City Council.

Birmingham’s Cabinet members

There is no Cabinet Member for Climate issues. There is a Cabinet Member for Environment, Cllr Majid Mahmood. His responsibilities include

‘Climate change: Engaging in proactive citywide and national policy development to tackle the causes and consequences of climate change’ and ‘Green city: Working with partners to develop a strategy for sustainability, liveability, and environmental improvement for the city’.

But – like all the other Cabinet Members – there is no regular and easily accessible report which citizens (including those in Bromford & Hodge Hill Ward who have elected him) can read to find out what he is doing. (His Facebook page consists mainly of information about Mobile Household Recycling, accompanied by his photo.)

Of course, the climate emergency also includes housing issues, principally about retrofit. Housing is the responsibility of the Cabinet Member for Housing & Homelessness, Cllr Jayne Francis, who has just transferred from being Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Families.

And the climate emergency also includes transport issues, which are the responsibility of the Cabinet Member for Transport, Cllr Liz Clements.

So the first question is: how is the Cabinet’s work on the climate emergency coordinated between these three Councillors? We need to know what structures and processes are in place to ensure that they work together.

The Overview and Scrutiny Committees

The work of the Council is supposed to be overseen by the 8 Overview and Scrutiny Committees: Economy and Skills; Education, Children and Young People; Finance and Resources; Health and Adult Social Care; Homes; Neighbourhoods; Sustainability and Transport; and the Co-ordinating Overview and Scrutiny Committee, which includes the chairs of all the other Scrutiny Committees.

There is a Cabinet Member for Environment, Cllr Majid Mahmood, but there is no Scrutiny Committee specifically for Environment issues. What is the explanation for this absence?

The Scrutiny Committee with the broadest brief for climate is Sustainability and Transport. The membership of the Committee for 2023-4 is: Labour (5): Councillors Lee Marsham (Chair), Saima Ahmed, David Barker, Martin Brooks and Waseem Zaffar. Conservative (2): Councillors Timothy Huxtable and Richard Parkin. Liberal Democrat (1): Councillor Colin Green. Lee Marsham became a Councillor in May last year.

The Terms of Reference for the Sustainability and Transport Scrutiny Committee for 2023-4 (see minutes of 14 June meeting) are ‘any policies, services and activities relating to:

– sustainable transportation policy and programmes, projects and initiatives

– strategic highways matters

– maintenance of roads and streets, traffic management and car parks and enforcing rights of way

– cooperation with the WMCA and Mayor in relation to the key route network

– an Air Quality Strategy for Birmingham

– a financially and environmentally sustainable waste strategy

– a robust re-use and recycle strategy

– a strategy for sustainability, liveability and environmental improvements

– city-wide and national policy development to tackle the causes and consequences of climate change.’

These, and especially the last clause, cover everything the Council does regarding climate issues. The 14 June meeting of the Committee also established its priorities, drafted by officers, for its monthly meetings in 2023-4:

Transport & Connectivity

  • Supporting the update to the Birmingham Road Safety Strategy (public consultation Autumn 2023)
  • Regular Updates on Birmingham Transport Plan Delivery Plan (Autumn 2023 onwards)
  • Evolution of the Cycle Revolution (from early 2024)Transport Funding – opportunities and  challenges
  • Transport Project Delivery – update and challenges
  • School Streets Programme
  • Clean Air Strategy / CAZ – update and challenges
  • International Comparators eg. Brussels – to look at their schemes


  • Flood Risk Management
  • Highway Works Programme
  • Street Works Permit Scheme
  • Highways PFI Contract
  • Find and Fix/Potholes
  • Approach to Parking and Enforcement
  • Local Engineering Service – Awareness Raising
  • Pilot Review of Signal Timings and Prioritisation

Climate issues and Housing

Of course, there are other key climate issues which are not included in the agenda of the Sustainability and Transport Scrutiny Committee. One obvious one is Housing, and specifically retrofit to reduce homes’ energy consumption and reduce their emissions. The Homes Overview and Scrutiny Committee membership for 2023-4 comprises: Labour (5): Cllrs Mohammed Idrees (Chair), Ziaul Islam, Saqib Khan, Lauren Rainbow and Rinkal Shergill. Conservative (2): Cllrs Ron Storer and Ken Wood. Liberal Democrat (1): Cllr Penny Wagg.

There is a long list of Directorate delivery priorities for 2023-24 that are relevant to the remit of the Homes Overview and Scrutiny Committee, but only one refers to retrofit:

300 Home Retrofit Pilot

  • The project will implement an innovative Whole House Retrofit Pilot to help to deliver carbon reduction for the city, economic growth, supply chain development, reduced energy costs, and health and wellbeing benefits to residents.

This refers to the retrofit pilot in East Birmingham that was first proposed in 2021. It is very surprising that there is no mention here at all of the Council’s ‘3 Cities’ project with Coventry and Wolverhampton Councils, launched in 2022, which aims to attract large-scale private investment in home retrofit, though no progress has yet to be announced.

The new Cabinet Member for Housing & Homelessness is Cllr Jayne Francis, who has just moved to this role from being Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Families. The agenda for the Homes Overview and Scrutiny Committee of 22 June 2023 includes a list of ‘Cabinet Member Priorities and Forthcoming Decisions’ for 2023-4. Of the 7 issues only one is climate-related: ‘Deliver the whole house retrofit pilot, including evaluation and lessons learned’. This ‘whole house retrofit pilot’ relates not to the East Birmingham pilot but to the 27 June 2023 Cabinet Report entitled ‘Three Cities Whole House Retrofit Pilot – Interim Progress’. However, Item 10 of the same Scrutiny meeting, ‘Appendix 3 Performance & Improvement Summary’, does contain the Council’s two retrofit initiatives:

“a whole housing retrofit programme, as part of the “3 cities retrofit” across the West Midlands. First phase by December 23”

“Complete the 300 home retrofit pilot in East Birmingham, take forward the SHDF round 2 programme to retrofit 2,000 homes and the Sustainable Warmth and Home Grants funding programmes”

The Coordinating Overview and Scrutiny Committee

The Coordinating Overview and Scrutiny Committee consists of: Labour (8): Cllr Sir Albert Bore (Chair), Cllr Akhlaq Ahmed, Cllr Mick Brown, Cllr Jack Deakin, Cllr Shabrana Hussain, Cllr Mohamed Idrees, Cllr Kerry Jenkins and Cllr Lee Marsham. Conservative (3): Cllr Ewan Mackey, Cllr Darius Sandhu and Cllr Alex Yip. Liberal Democrats (1): Cllr Morriam Jan.

All the Labour members except the chair are the chairs of the Scrutiny Committees. Cllr Bore is a past Leader of the Council. The Committee, as its name suggests, exercises something of a supervisory role over the 7 issue-based Scrutiny Committees. At the 16 June meeting of the Committee the 2023-4 Action Tracker lists the 9 issues and actions covered in the 5 meetings of the Coordinating Committee since September 2022. There is no mention at all of any climate-related issues.

What is the relationship between Birmingham Council and the WMCA on Climate Issues?

Many of the Council’s policies, actions and funding arrangements are connected to those of the WMCA – for example, on retrofit and transport. So you’d expect that the Council documents referred to above explain how the Council and the WMCA will collaborate together on climate issues. Astonishingly, the opposite is the case. They make little and often no mention of the WMCA and how the Council’s activities relate to the CA’s. There isn’t room here to explore this further but see

‘The erosion of democracy in local government: Birmingham and the WMCA’ on the Birmingham Against The Cuts website, April 13 2023.

A failing system

It is clear from all the above that Birmingham Council’s current internal structures and procedures are not fit for purpose. In short, they are shambolic. This has just been actually admitted by the Council itself. The 22 June 2023 Homes Overview and Scrutiny Committee’s ‘Appendix 1: A More Flexible, Effective Scrutiny Function For 2023-24’ says ‘For some years, Overview & Scrutiny has pursued very few issues that have contributed significantly to the thinking and actions of the Council’s Cabinet and the Chief Executives senior management team.’

This is a devastating admission of long-term fundamental failure. What is the solution? That is too big a question to answer here, though some of the much needed reforms are obvious from this article. But underpinning them is one fundamental change that is needed: citizens must be brought into every part of the local governance process.

‘Citizens must have seat at table to make devolution work’

That’s the headline in the Local Government Chronicle 22 May 2023. ‘Actively engaging residents is necessary to build trust and mobilise communities’, writes Courtney Stephenson, a researcher at Demos.

‘Scrutiny from people the public don’t trust, of something they don’t understand, will not build trust in politics. Our research has shown this is what people crave – they want more say in how priorities are established and decisions are made, and have ideas for how this can be achieved in practice. The next step in the devolution process should prioritise embedding structures for community governance to allow them to do this.’

Democracy Driven Governance should be the policy of Birmingham Council and of every local authority. What forms it should take should be the subject of discussions with citizens, starting now. What we don’t want is more top-down meetings run by officers and Councillors, with them setting the agendas, controlling the meetings and ignoring the proposals. One obvious first step towards genuine Participatory Democracy would be the inclusion of citizens, with links to local forums, assemblies and campaigns, in every Scrutiny Committee. In addition, each Cabinet Member should hold regular and frequent open meetings with citizens on the issues they are responsible for.

Could Birmingham Council’s climate campaign be a first step?

Ellie Horwich-Smith is BCC’s Assistant Director of Route to Zero. She has started publishing the ‘Bolder Greener Bulletin’, and the March 2023 issue has a section on ‘Net Zero Engagement Update – Post-it notes from a workshop on engagement’. It admits that it’s clear from the responses to the survey on the Community Assembly meetings last year that “the old format of events was not creating a space for meaningful involvement”.

“Since then, we have shared this feedback with cabinet members and officers at the council, run workshops on public engagement, spoken to other councils about their engagement programmes, and explored a range of different ideas. We want to make sure that the public are at the heart of our work, and to achieve this, public involvement in policy making needs to be genuinely meaningful and purpose driven, whilst also engaging diverse parts of the population. With this in mind, we are working on a Net Zero Engagement Strategy and progressing some proposals to political representatives. We plan to make this strategy open to all and will soon be inviting you to participate in its production.”

This needs to be a step-change towards genuine and effective empowerment of citizen participation in the Council’s climate policy, and in every other key policy area too.

Richard Hatcher

22 June 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.