Friday, 7 October 2011

Power To The People? Unlikely.

On Monday 3rd October, Birmingham City Council/Birmingham Environmental Partnership held a Sustainability Forum at the Council House from 6pm to 8.45pm. The theme of the evening was: “The Future of Our Streets?”. Rather than finding answers or solutions however, we were left asking a number of questions.
A number of groups turned up by 5.30pm, some of which set up stalls (among those present were Grease Lightening/CSV environment, Localise West Midlands, local allotment plotholders, West Midlands police, the Co-operative Society, Smurfitt Kappa, councillors, Sustainable Moseley); people mingled over soup until around 6.30pm (very nice, thank you BCC); and then we all withdrew to the other side of the room for presentations on waste, renewables, food security and transport.
David Bull from BCC took on transport, Kevin Mitchell talked about the forthcoming Municipal Waste Review and related issues, John Boyle from the WM Co-op covered food security, and Phil Beardmore from Localise WM gave an in-depth presentation on anaerobic digesters.
We then got to discuss these issues and made posters expressing our views and ideas on how to make Birmingham more sustainable. The forum itself was billed as an opportunity to “make a real difference by voicing your views” and this is where I am somewhat unconvinced, despite the many positive things to come out of it.
On the plus side:
+ It certainly was a good opportunity to network. The Council clearly caters for that very well.

+ The speakers themselves were for the most part clear, articulate and informative during their presentations, and certainly provided us with some good anecdotes.

+ Importantly, it was a demonstration of the Council's willingness to engage with, and listen to the ideas of, different groups in society.

On the negative side;
- It would have been nice, however, to have a more diverse, representative picture/take on the current situation and best-fit practices in the presentations. The speakers were either speaking for their department of the council or for other organisations, so it seemed we were talked at, rather than engaged with. Also, they didn't really seem to stick to the topic if there was one (the cooperative may be a good organisation, but we heard very little about food security).

- There wasn't nearly as much time as we would have liked to discuss the issues and even get further information. “Q&;A” with the panel consisted of a couple of minutes of answering 2 questions, most of which were only superficially covered or dodged completely. It was like watching David Beckham in that press conference after the allegations about Rebecca Loos. Except that this perhaps was slightly less glamorous.

- The feedback time (moment to 'make a difference') was less than an hour, regrettably, meaning people didn't have a chance to go into much detail, have a truly meaningful debate, and give considered, innovative, original responses. The responses that were given, were recorded, but we are not sure what will be done with it. I contacted the forum's organiser, Lorraine Cookson, for information about how our input would be used, whether we would get any feedback from the Council and where I could get access to copies of the four presentations given. I have yet to receive a reply, but local organisations such as ours and the others represented last week have a unique perspective on how things are on the ground, what work needs to be done to change people's behaviour and how best to go about doing it. They can give vital insight into how to make Birmingham more sustainable in a real, practical sense; some council decisions and plans, whilst good on paper, might be ineffective, inappropriate or impracticable in reality. Listening to the experiences and suggestions of grassroots organisations brings the Council closer to the real world, so we hope there will be reporting on what they do with the feedback from the forum, or they will struggle to attract people to come along in future.
To sum up then, my suggestions are that there should be some kind of formal record of our input, which is distributed among participants; information should be given to us on specific upcoming projects (and who is involved in them), planning- and decision-making dates and outcomes, and contact details for the main policy-making groups or individuals. That way we can assess the democratic process and monitor progress.
In order for these events not just to be considered talking shops that give the impression that the council is listening to our opinions, they should be more focussed and the aims and methods of achieving these aims be made clearer. Then it would be a really worthwhile exercise, which would hopefully result in a larger audience, too.

>>>>>>>>>>>  THIS IS AN EDITED VERSION OF THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE I WROTE.  The original was edited by Joe Peacock and included comments on Andrew Mitchell.  I cannot say for sure which bits I wrote and what has been changed, but would like the record to show and for people to know that this is not entirely my work and not the original work.
Gergana (4th October 2012)

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