Response to consultation on future of Community AssembliesPosted: January 30, 2013
The following is a copy of our response to Sheffield City Council’s consultation on the future of the seven local Community Assemblies.
1. What do you think will be the impact of the Community Assemblies structure being replaced with a Ward-based Model/Area based infrastructure?
We are aware that Communities Assemblies have been of mixed effectiveness, and our view is that a structure at ward-level is likely to be more effective – indeed, for local involvement, likely to be the highest level at which community allegiance can be effectively harnessed to decision making. A good number of the existing ward forums work well, but in some, there are no such forums, so they would need to be developed, or to find some way (as with some currently) to coordinate the opinions of various local groups (tenants, friends of park etc). Ward-based forums could potentially involve more people as they are seen as more relevant, closer, to a locality , but the massive reduction in support staff would mean (presumably) fewer meetings, so less continuity and engagement if (say) they can only meet 2 or 3 times a year.
However, we are of the view that there needs to be something between Cabinet and Ward Forums. If the Ward Forum comes up with a shopping list of priorities, where does that go for decision? Obviously our elected representatives have a role here but we would like to see some kind of scrutiny function, including some from the Forums, with maybe a “Sheffield 100 Forum” or “Citizens’ Panel” being re-visited.
What we fear is the loss of the knowledge of how the system works and who to contact about what, as happened when Community Assemblies took over from Area Panels. And for how long might the new structure continue before being itself reorganised. A commitment to the long term would be welcomed; constant change rather than gradual evolution of structures, is debilitating of effort and knowledge. But it would mean the different political parties pulling together; if this could be achieved, it would be a huge step forwards.
The constitutional framework of any structure that replaces the Community Assemblies must be put in place, so that it does not end up with Ward Forums suggesting things that the Cabinet then turns down, to the frustration of all.
2. What do you think might be the impact of the discretionary grants budget being reduced?
Our view is that some of the money goes towards supporting small and sometimes informal organisations and projects where there would be a dramatic effect, including a collapse, without it, and in other cases, goes to enhancing the existing work in a way that is not crucial to the survival of that organisation or project. We would like to see an emphasis on support for those organisations that would otherwise not survive.
3. What is your view about the grants being allocated to wards, targeting areas with the most disadvantage?
All wards should have a minimum grant level. Some of the most deprived areas can already access additional funds, from City Council, Government, or Europe, but have to know how to apply, to be able to keep clear records and to be formally accountable. Many small organisations do not have the resources to be able to do so, and we would support small amounts of money, in addition to the minimum grant, being made available in these wards proportionate to the level of disadvantage.
4. What are your views about the abolition of the current 7 Community Assembly Support Teams and replacing this with a smaller centrally managed Officer Support Team?
We regret the loss of the local teams, some of which are excellent and have served their neighbourhoods well, being responsive to their needs, and have highly skilled community managers who have formed good links with their communities, and have kept their communities informed of what is happening. However, we recognise the financial straits the Council is working within, and understand the rationale for moving to one central support team. We understand that this is likely to mean a more restricted ability to organise meetings and to follow up contacts and even decisions, which will be a loss. Also for those active in their communities, there will be a loss of expertise and effectiveness as they have to re-learn who to contact for what, and also to scale down their expectations of what is possible.
5. Are there any other comments you would like to make about the proposals?
To reiterate points we have made previously about not wanting to see the future of Community Assemblies and Ward Forums become a political football. New proposals should be widely discussed and consensus sought, with real attempts to include all councillors including those of the opposition parties, with a commitment not to change them year after year, to the frustration of both staff and communities. We are expressing our interest in participating in the further consultation planned from April when our above suggestions could be discussed in more detail.
This is a response to the consultation from “Sheffield for Democracy” c/o Vicky Seddon. We note that there is no space on your Page 3 for organisations like ourselves to identify themselves, giving the impression that our views are not welcome. This is a weakness of this consultation, and given that there is no other space to include our identification, I am doing it here.