Community Chest currently costs Birmingham City Council £2 million a year, but how much of it is really spent on ward priorities?
Transparency. Accountability. Localism.
These words tumble like pearls from the mouths of politicians. But have you ever really put them to the test?
I have – including at recent meetings of Handsworth Wood Ward Committee (HWWC). And the response? Well, it wasn’t encouraging.
At one meeting it ended with a usually composed individual publicly denouncing me as a ’stirrer’, his arm making wild, circular movements, like a witch out of Macbeth.
I had turned up at a meeting on 6 November to follow up a series of unanswered questions I had first asked two months earlier. They concerned grants of almost £10,000 made from the Ward’s Community Chest fund to Handsworth Wood Community Development Trust (HWCDT).
At that previous meeting, on 11 September, one of my four questions had been ‘Does HWCDT exist or is it in the process of being set up?’.
Ken Brown, the Ward Support Officer, had confirmed it did exist and was a registered company.
But nobody present could – or would – explain its structure, who its directors were or how they’d been chosen.
I had seen mention of establishing a CDT in an online report of a Ward conference held in May 2013. I wasn’t able to attend the conference as I was on holiday. I had heard nothing more about the CDT until it resurfaced among the papers for the Ward Committee meeting on 11 September, on a list of successful Community Chest applicants. That evening, unable to get satisfactory answers to my questions at the meeting, I turned to the internet.
I found that HWCDT was registered at Companies House on 22 July 2013 and that it had six directors. Two of the names stood out. One was a Council officer. The other was Cllr Gurdial Singh Atwal, the Chair of the Ward Committee and one of the three local councillors who decides which applicants get Community Chest money.
The Council employee, I now accept, had not realised he was signing up to be a director of HWCDT. He resigned the day after learning of his ‘appointment’. It was never made clear who had approached him and the others to become directors.
So on 6 November I had asked two further questions. Was it right for Cllr Atwal to become a director of an organisation in July and then vote to give it almost £10,000 of Community Chest funds in September? And, had he made it clear to the other two councillors that he was a director of HWCDT at the time they voted to give it this money?
Judging from the response I had touched a raw nerve.
Cllr Atwal was on holiday and the officers present either knew nothing about his directorship or, if they did, weren’t commenting. Cllr Paulette Hamilton made clear that she was unaware Cllr Atwal was a director of HWCDT at the time of the decision. Cllr Narinder Kooner, chairing the meeting in Cllr Atwal’s absence, said that councillors were board members of many organisations that received local authority funding; the implication being that no further explanation was necessary.
In the end – as is often the case in Handsworth Wood – I left the meeting with my questions largely unanswered.
To understand why Community Chest in Handsworth Wood warrants this attention we need to go back to Birmingham City Council’s (BCC) annual budget meeting in February 2013.
This is where whoever happens to be ‘in power’ in the city – currently Labour – sets out its spending plans for the coming financial year, and whoever happens to be in opposition – currently the Conservatives and Lib Dems – present their alternatives.
It’s an important piece of decision-making, especially now that the Council is cutting tens of millions of pounds from key services.
But the debate itself is often stilted.
First, there are keynote speeches by the three party grey-backs: Sir Albert Bore (Lab), Cllr Paul Tilsley MBE (Lib Dem) and Cllr Mike (now Lord) Whitby (Con). Then there’s the debate, centred on a few well-honed amendments reflecting the opposition’s ‘wedge issues’. This year they included the introduction of wheelie bins, the decision to force the city’s unemployed to pay part of their council tax from benefits… and Community Chest.
Community Chest is an annual sum given by BCC to each of the city’s 40 wards to ‘fund schemes that support the priorities of the wards’. While it’s a pittance compared to the city’s overall budget it adds a morsel of meat to the otherwise thin gruel of ‘localism’.
In times of plenty Community Chest was set at £100,000 per ward, and on occasion even included an additional sum for capital projects. But in this year’s budget Labour decided to cut it to £50,000 per ward as part of its ‘reprioritisation’ of council resources. The £2 million saved was used to part-fund a £15 million scheme to help create apprenticeships for young people who had been unemployed for over a year.
The opposition parties criticised the decision. Labour was choking off funding to small community-based organisations, they argued, while undermining its avowed commitment to devolved decision-making. At the Cabinet meeting on 11 February Cllr Robert Alden (Con, Erdington) even argued that much of Community Chest is spent on youth and training provision and that these would suffer as a result of Labour’s cut.
Labour’s defence was that prioritising the Jobs Fund was in line with its stated aims of ‘tackling inequality and deprivation’. More surprising was that members of the People’s Panel – a focus group made up of Birmingham residents – had urged it to go further. As the report presented to 11 February Cabinet meeting says: ‘A substantial proportion of the [People’s Panel] supported transferring all £4,000,000 of the Community Chest to the Jobs Fund – thinking its use there would make a bigger contribution to welfare in Birmingham than via the Community Chest.’
Now why would the Peoples Panel think this? Was it simply that the high level of youth unemployment in the city outweighed all other concerns? Or that they felt a single, focused fund could achieve more than a scattering of smaller grants? These factors may have played a part, but I would suggest two others: many members of the Peoples Panel may not have even known of the existence of Community Chest prior to the consultation, or, if they did, they may have felt much of it wasn’t being used for the noble purposes Cllr Alden described.
After all there is no well-funded campaign to advertise the existence of Community Chest, and given the sums involved perhaps that’s not surprising. But as a consequence very few people know it exists or, more importantly, how to access it. Those who do include local groups with some previous fundraising experience and individuals who ‘know how things work’. Then there are the elected councillors, who can point interested parties in the right direction and ‘steer’ them through the application process.
This is particularly important as it is the ward’s three councillors who decide which organisations get the money. Yes, the proposed allocations are reported to Ward Committees, and local residents can ask questions or raise concerns. But Ward Committees are sparsely attended and when all is said and done a determined group of councillors can press on regardless.
So why had my questioning produced such a response? The answer lies in this year’s Community Chest allocations. These were dealt with at two Ward Committee meetings: the first on 24 July and the second on 11 September.
On 24 July, 30 to 40 residents gathered in the hall at Rookery Road School. Listed as item 13 on the Ward Committee agenda was the proposed allocation of £25,000 of the ward’s £50,988 Community Chest Fund. The extra £988 was part of the previous year’s Community Chest allocation which the ward had failed to spend and was therefore carried over into this year.
According to the report 24 groups or organisations had applied for funding. Thirteen of them were ‘not supported’ – a polite way of saying they had been turned down for funding by a majority or all of the three ward councillors. Of the 11 remaining applicants 2 were awarded £17,500, or 70% of the total expenditure agreed at that meeting. Here is the list of the successful applicants with what each asked for, what they were given (as an absolute sum and as a percentage of their request) and the amount they received as a percentage of the total fund. These figures could be ranked in many ways but I have ranked them according to the last column, i.e. how big a slice of the total cake each applicant received.
|ORGANISATION AND/OR PROJECT||Amount asked for||Amount agreed||Amount agreed as % of total fund |
|Vaisakhi Open Air Celebration, BCC Events Team, Alexander Stadium, B42 2LR||£10,000||£10,000 (100%)||19.6%|
|Shaheed Udham Singh Welfare Trust, 346 Soho Rd, B21 9QL||£10,000||£7,500 (75%)||14.7%|
|Nishkam Community IT Workshops, Nishkam Centre, 6 Soho Rd||£3,000||£2,000 (66%)||3.9%|
|Infamous Artsok, Raleigh Ind Estate, B21 8JF||£5,000||£1,500 (30%)||2.9%|
|SimmerDown Festival, The Drum, 144 Potters Lane, B6 4UU||£1,500||£1,000 (66%)||2%|
|Birmingham Carnival, Business Village, Alexandra Rd, B21 0PD||£3,000||£500 (17%)||1%|
|Contact English Classes (ESOL), The Crown Church Trust, B20 2HY||£2,400||£500 (21%)||1%|
|Birmingham EID MELA, BCC Events Team, Alexander Stadium, B42 2LR||£2,000||£500 (25%)||1%|
|Black International Film Festival, BIFF CIC, 178 Dudley Rd, B18 7QX||£1,500||£500 (33%)||1%|
|Youth Engagement, Millfield Rd, B20 1EF||£1,500||£500 (33%)||1%|
|Hamstead Hall Inclusion Project, Hamstead Hall CLC, Craythorne Ave, B20 1HL||£1,000||£500 (50%)||1%|
I know little about the 13 projects that weren’t ‘supported’ except that their brief descriptions suggest many were as deserving as those that were. Often the explanation given for a project being turned down is that it isn’t based in the ward, but neither are many that made it on to this and the subsequent list. Of the 11 projects that were ‘supported’ nine shared a miserly 14.8% of the cake while the remaining two got a mouth-watering 34.3%. Despite the 50% cut in Community Chest, one project asked for and received the same amount as in previous years.
When I raised my concerns about how the money had been allocated the response of the Chair, Cllr Atwal, was revealing. In response to a point about why Vaisakhi wasn’t bearing some portion of the 50% cut in funding he countered that BCC centrally funded the biennial Birmingham Carnival far in excess of Vaisakhi. The implication was obvious: Handsworth Wood’s Community Chest was being used to redress a perceived ‘injustice’ in the direct financial support Birmingham City Council gives to these two events. As I explained to Cllr Atwal at the time, if that was the case he should campaign in the Labour Group for greater central funding for Vaisakhi and not use Community Chest to right this wrong.
Seven weeks later the Ward Committee met again, this time at Hamstead Hall School. At item 7 on the agenda was the approval of a further seven Community Chest grants totalling £25,988. Two applications were turned down. Here is a list of the successful ones.
|ORGANISATION AND/OR PROJECT||Amount asked for||Amount agreed||Agreed amount as % of total fund |
|Youth Activities Fund/Community Sport & Physical Activity Network (CSPAN)||£10,000||£5,000 (50%)||9.8%|
|Women’s Employment Support Project/The Women’s Help Centre||£7,500||£5,000 (66%)||9.8%|
|CDT Community Hub/ Community Development Trust||£4,988||£4,988 (100%)||9.8%|
|CDT Funding Profile/ Community Development Trust ||£4,975||£4,975 (100%)||9.8%|
|Ward Conference, Neighbourhood Forum||£2,750||£2,025 (74%)||4%|
|Job Club, Neighbourhood Forum||£2,670||£2,000 (75%)||3.9%|
|Nash Dom Consultancy Bureau, Elite House, 70 Warwick St, Digbeth B12 0NL||£2,242||£2,000 (89%)||3.9%|
When I saw this list I detected some signs that the previous questioning had borne fruit. I wasn’t entirely surprised as I knew my concerns had been raised elsewhere. CSPAN, for example, is a well-established network of sports clubs and organisations operating across the Perry Barr constituency. My understanding is that it was among those applicants considered before the 24 July meeting but a decision on whether or not to fund it was deferred. The Women’s Employment Support Project is run by The Women’s Help Centre on Rookery Rd, a long-established, Asian-run community organisation. Nash Dom, a project working with recently arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe, who now constitute a growing minority within Handsworth Wood Ward, received £2,000, the only sum directly targeted at this section of the community. However, as mentioned earlier, this still left almost £10,000 earmarked for HWCDT, which I and many other residents knew little or nothing about, and just over £4,000 for two initiatives – a Ward Conference and a Jobs Club – proposed by two of the ward’s three neighbourhood forums. An application from the third was among the two that was turned down.
I knew that the proposal for one of these initiatives – the Jobs Club – had come from West Handsworth Neighbourhood Forum (WHNF). I knew this because I am a member of its Executive Committee (EC) and the application was fleetingly mentioned at the end of an EC meeting held on 10 September, the day before the application went through and long after it had been submitted. When I asked the Chair of WHNF for the details of the application I was told that none were available. When I suggested that normal procedure would require an application for Community Chest money to be tabled, discussed and agreed by the EC before it was submitted I was told I was being over formal. As the air around me thickened I left the meeting still not knowing who had written and submitted the application on our behalf or how the proposed budget of £2,670 had been agreed. I later learnt that almost three-quarters of this sum (£1,920) was earmarked for wages and salaries.
I raised my concerns about this opaque procedure at the Ward Committee the following evening and Ken Brown said he too was surprised that I didn’t know about the application prior to its submission but that I should take this matter up with the forum itself. At the following WHNF EC meeting I was criticised by the Chair for raising the matter at the ward committee after having already raised it at the neighbourhood forum.
At a further Ward Committee meeting held at Hamstead Hall Secondary School on 18 December 2013 an effort was made to tidy up the loose ends of the Community Chest/CDT debacle. At the beginning of the meeting Cllr Atwal was heard to mutter some sort of acknowledgement that he may have forgotten to declare an interest prior to voting on Community Chest funding for HWCDT. It was hard to hear precisely what was said as 30-40 residents protesting at a proposal to make Laurel Rd Sports Centre available for Community Asset Transfer were entering the hall at the time and despite my best efforts I couldn’t persuade Cllr Atwal to repeat his remarks. I’ve no doubt the precise wording will be in the minutes of the meeting when they are made available at the next Ward Committee meeting (26 February 2014).
On the issues surrounding the CDT the minutes of the 6 November meeting record the following response to the points I raised:
‘During a considerable discussion a representative of the CDT explained the process to invite Directors for the CDT. An open invitation had been sent for residents to express their interest in joining the Board of the CDT and opportunities would also come up in the future. Representatives included residents from the Neighbourhood Forum, Local Authority representatives, key local school representatives and people from Third Sector organisations.’
Unfortunately these three short sentences merely lay bare all that is wrong with the ‘launch’ of HWCDT. For example, the speaker in question (who it so happens is the same individual who branded me a ‘stirrer’) never identified himself as ‘a representative of the CDT’. In fact I interrupted him as he began to speak to ask why he was speaking on behalf of the CDT as I knew he wasn’t one of its six directors. My question was never answered. What these minutes suggest however is that he may have been instrumental in approaching those who agreed to become directors and in registering the CDT at Companies House. As for an open invitation being ‘sent for residents to express their interests in joining the Board of the CDT’, sent by whom and to whom? Why not make a copy of this invitation and a list of recipients available at the next Ward Committee meeting? Similarly let’s have copies of the invitations sent to the Neighbourhood Forums, the local authority, local schools and third sector organisations with the details of how the ‘representatives’ of these three groups were subsequently chosen.
The events in Handsworth Wood raise important questions about Community Chest and the disbursement of millions of pounds of public money.
First, Ward Committees are among the few occasions between elections when residents can question councillors about their actions and priorities. For long-time activists like myself being publicly branded a ‘stirrer’ for doing so is no less than I expect. But the message it sends out to others shouldn’t be ignored. Verbal abuse is designed to cower critics and discourage anyone who would look or question too closely. It’s the stick with which to beat those who take too seriously all that talk of ‘transparency’, ‘accountability’ and ‘localism’. And of course it doesn’t end there. I have seen an outspoken, white-haired lady in her mid-70s trembling as she was verbally assailed at the end of a Ward Committee meeting by a much younger man who took issue with what she said. That’s why the Code of Conduct for Ward Committees empowers the Chair of the meeting to ensure such abuse doesn’t take place. But that assumes the Chair is prepared to act.
Second, there is the future of Community Chest. I don’t know if what happens in Handsworth Wood Ward is typical of what happens in the other 39 wards in the city. All I do know is that my experience here has led me to revise my initial view of the decision to halve this year’s fund. I now see why many on the People’s Panel were quite happy to see Community Chest ‘reprioritised’ out of existence. As the city faces yet more cuts in the coming year tough decisions will need to be made about where the axe should fall. At a recent consultation meeting held at the Nishkam Centre, Cllr Ian Ward (BCC’s Deputy Leader) told residents that the city’s 10 District Committees would be expected to find £7.2 million in savings as part of the 2014-15 budget. He couldn’t say how much of that would have to come from Perry Barr District, which includes the Handsworth Wood and Lozells & East Handsworth wards. However, among the proposals outlined in the Local Services Directorate Factsheet distributed at the meeting is the suggestion that District Committees consider ’The use of Community Chest to invest in front line community services’. Diverting substantial sums of public money away from frontline services into initiatives like Community Chest can only be justified if such initiatives enjoy broad support, based on genuine transparency and accountability. Sadly, these are lacking in Handsworth Wood. For many who live here Community Chest is seen as nothing more than a grace-and-favour fund.
Third, according to BCC officers at 6 November meeting the Council ’is supportive of CDTs and how they could work with communities to deliver services’, but I have yet to find any guidance on the Council’s website or elsewhere on what procedure to follow when setting them up. What national guidance there is suggests that the process of registering a limited company is often a lengthy one, typically taking 12 months, as trust is built among all community-based organisations and issues of representation are dealt with equitably. What should never occur is that one individual or group of individuals take it upon themselves to set up a CDT on behalf of the community, as this gives them control over the CDT’s income, expenditure and appointments. Hypothetically, this fast-track registration could culminate in an individual selecting a CDT’s directors who then return the favour by appointing him or her as its Chief Executive. This is especially worrying if the CDT then becomes the repository of substantial public funds… such as all or part of the Section 106 money attached to Sainsbury’s recent successful planning application to build a new store in Handsworth Wood.
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