Birmingham Strategic Partnership
Friday's meeting of the BSP (erstwhile CSP) was the first meeting that I have been to that seemed to take anything further forward. We are still having a certain amount of Omphaloscopy
, but we did manage to move on to a wider consideration.
Where the Strategic Partnership can achieve a lot is by ensuring there is effective communication between different communities of interest in Birmingham and that we don't have lots of disparate groups of people going off doing random things in isolation. What it can do is actually achieve "partnership working". What it should not try to do from the perspective of philosophical principle is to try to control things in minute details. The next step is to have reports considered that are much much shorter. People feel there is a status in writing long and detailed reports. For something considering a city of a million people long detailed reports will be of no great merit if we want to move things on.
What was particularly nice was that there were a number of good new people along and I was not the only voice arguing that we need to sort out the issues of exactly what principles of governance apply. Someone also declared an interest which was good.
(This was someone whose salary is mainly funded by NRF, who made that clear).
The issue of conflict of interest has been bouncing around Birmingham's media ever since I raised concerns about such conflicts being ignored in an organisation (programme actually) called b:cen.
The "Community Empowerment Networks" have been established across the country to "empower communities". A big mistake was made in Birmingham by creating the cen independently from Birmingham's Association of Neighbourhood Forums (Fora?) (BANF)
A Neighbourhood Forum is a sort of formalised residents association. There is then a citywide association of Neighbourhood Fora called BANF.
If the cen had started out as part of BANF things would have been very different. However, what happened is that it was set up separately. So, in Birmingham we have a load of people already in Neighbourhood Forums working with the City Council and other bodies. Someone is given £2 Million (yes £2 Million pounds a year is given by the government [not the council] to b:cen) to encourage more residents groups and other community networks.
What we now have is something I encountered on Thursday night. BANF are organising groups of Neighbourhood Forums on a District Basis (DANF) to link to the District Strategic Partnerships. b:cen are also organising on a District Basis.
The problem is that whereas BANF and Residents Associations generally have constitutions and annual (ish) general meetings (there is a long story about that as well), b:cen are primarily based upon who turns up and have no proper democratic accountability.
So we now have two residents groups competing on a citywide basis. (with a limited amount of overlap).
The meeting I attended on Thursday was a Yardley District DANF meeting of Forum Executive Members. A long stroppy letter had been written for this meeting by the b:cen Yardley organiser. This is not helping in terms of creating any form of cooperation. Still, we can but try.
The really big stress about b:cen
, however, comes from some of the things that b:cen have been involved in. I had had complaints for some time about things that b:cen had been up to. (including trying to change a £1,000 cheque through the Hall Green Residents Association into cash - I kid you not, the Residents Association refused to do it - however.)
I, therefore, found out who was responsible for b:cen and found out it was the Birmingham Voluntary Services Council (BVSC)
I spoke to the acting Chief Executive on a Monday evening. On the Tuesday Morning I found out all the staff had been suspended. That surprised me as the allegations only really pointed to 1 or 2 of the 16 staff. Still I then passed all my information through to BVSC.
As a consequence of this one of the witnesses I had was harrassed so after that point I refused to pass any more information as to identities of witnesses.
BVSC then appointed Anthony Collins Solicitors
to do a report. I raised concerns about this as Anthony Collins Solicitors have had a lot of public money from Government Office West Midlands (and other Government Offices), but BVSC ignored this.
To cut a long story short, the b:cen staff demonstrated two weeks after suspension, the next day a "preliminary report" was produced, BVSC claimed that this cleared b:cen of all wrongdoing. This was back in November. They have then campaigned against me in various silly ways.
The report has also been circulated in an edited form and is available in that form on the net
I cannot comment as to the contents of the unedited report, but have responded in the council chamber on the edited report.
Specifically dealing with one issue (because dealing with all of them would take too long). A grant was paid to the a Forum for something called "Planning for Real".
a) The grant has been paid for which there is no documentary evidence that it was formally approved
b) The meeting at which the grant is reported to have been approved did not have this particular issue on the agenda
c) The Manager of b:cen attended most meetings of the approval panel and was also a member of the organisation receiving the grant
d) No minutes had been written of this meeting at the time of writing the report
e) The application was granted subject to letters of support being provided, but those letters of support were never provided
The Manager of b:cen is also a member of this Forum.
So whereas questions had been asked as why this Forum got a grant so quickly whilst other Forums have to wait ages it turns out that the conditions for paying the grant were not satisfied and so it shouldn't in fact have been paid.
Now, what we have here is an undeclared conflict of interest. It is a minor corruption. The scheme that has been funded "Planning for Real" is an entirely legitimate use of the money. It is, however, clearly against the rules (para 48 Community Empowerment Fund)
One would expect a recognition that this should not have happened, a slap on the wrist for the Manager and then people would move on tightening up on the practise.
What has happened instead, however, is a cover up. Minutes have now been written which, surprise, surprise include a declaration of a non-pecuniary interest (5 months after the meeting). Even if such a declaration was made at the meeting someone decided to pay the grant when the conditions had not been satisfied.
BVSC have declared themselves satisfied with the cover up.
The problem with this is if people will cover up something which is so minor one has to ask what would they do with something much more important.
The challenge now, however, is how to handle the issue. We asked Government Office West Midlands what they thought about it months ago and haven't yet had a response. People all across the city I talk to continue to encourage me to work on this issue as they are not happy with what has happened. We also need to decide whether or not BVSC's record in terms of probity is acceptable as a body that manages £6 Million of public funds including money from the City Council.
Another story that continues.
The whole issue is intermingled on a national basis with the problems with the majority of the New Deal for Communities Companies and many other government funded projects.