Discovering Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath

Alison Gilchrist

I am currently part of an exciting European Research Area network (ERA-net) funded project, ‘Smart Urban Intermediaries’ with Catherine Durose from INLOGOV, Annika Agger (Roskilde University), Oliver Escobar (University of Edinburgh) and Merlijn van Hulst (University of Tilburg). This transnational co-enquiry project is looking at the role and practices of ‘smart urban intermediaries’; individuals who forge connections between and within communities and formal institutions of urban governance to create social innovation.

We have now selected a dozen people we identify as smart urban intermediaries and “committed over time to making a difference in their neighbourhood, campaigns on a local issue, supports people to act together, works for social change or helps to solve local problems”. We will be working with them and other stakeholders to understand how they operate and how their activities effect regeneration and community initiatives in areas of Birmingham, Glasgow, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Following discussions with our local cooperation partners, Citizens UK and Birmingham Council, we have chosen to focus the research on Balsall Heath and Sparkbrook.

These two areas combine as one political ward on the edge of inner-city Birmingham and are home to around 10,000 residents drawn from all corners of the world. They have been described as a ‘microcosm’ of the city and are renowned for many reasons. We chose them as our anchor neighbourhood because of their reputation as places with a ‘can-do’ attitude, as well as being characterised by both high concentrations of deprivation and ethnic diversity.

Discussions with our two co-operation partners indicated that Sparkbrook and Balsall Heath are vibrant, with lots going on at community level, while facing a number of serious challenges in terms of poor health, low educational attainment, rundown housing and crime, including terrorism-related incidents.

After a couple of hours searching online for information about the various landmarks and organisations operating in the area, I spent a cold and drizzly afternoon on ‘walkabout’ with my camera, strolling round the streets, observing what was going on and dropping in to some of the local projects I had heard about or just happened to pass.

I also attended the Balsall Heath ‘dynamic youth’ awards evening, which was hugely inspiring for its sense of community pride and I got to meet a few of the local characters who had been mentioned to us as potential ‘intermediaries’ as well as introducing myself to some new community entrepreneurs.

My main impression from these two encounters was of the friendliness of the people I met in those few hours. Nearly everyone I spoke to was positive and helpful and I collected lots of leaflets, photographs and contact details along the way. Many of these have formed the foundation for our first round of fieldwork, both in terms of arranging interviews but also providing points of reference in the conversations.

Our team completed 20 formal introductory interviews to choose the dozen individuals who we will be working with over the next year as our ‘smart urban intermediaries’. We feel we have a pretty good gender balance in the sample, and people from a range of ethnic backgrounds as well as practitioners, professionals and activists occupying different roles in the community.

In our initial reflections on these interviews, we have been struck by the passion people feel for the area – their sense of commitment, pride and rooted-ness, often coming from families who have lived in the area for many years or simply because they love the variety of cultures and community connections that are evident in the shops, the inter-faith activities, the streetscapes and languages heard all around. But no-one is under-estimating the severe problems facing the residents or the agencies that serve them. Some of these are long-standing but have been exacerbated by cuts in public services, lack of sustainable funding for core costs, growing inequalities and loss of social cohesion.

Many of the interviews revealed similar worries about the future as well as tensions between some of the organisations. We are currently underway in setting up the first Living Lab to take place on March 19th and have been pleased at the level of enthusiasm for this opportunity for people to come together to share their experiences, find common interests and to learn together about the practices and conditions that support smart ‘connecting’ for social change and innovation.

Alison GilcristAlison Gilchrist is a post-doctoral research fellow at INLOGOV. Alison has substantial experience of working with communities as a community development worker. Her doctoral research investigated the practices of networking and she has a particular interest in strategies for tackling conflict, discrimination and inequalities. You can read more about the project here.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s) and not of INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

Northamptonshire Incompetence or Just the First Domino?

Steve Winterflood

Yesterday, a report ordered by Local Government Secretary Sajid Javid, recommended that Northamptonshire County Council ‘should be scrapped’. But is Northamptonshire’s parlous state due to its own incompetence or is it just the portent of things to come for the future of local government?

Since 2010 local government has been consistent in saying that it has taken a disproportionate reduction in financial support from central government. The Barnet Graph of Doom made it clear that increased demand from adult social services and decreases in central government funding for local government will inevitably lead to disaster unless the issue is addressed, and funding is restored.

The financial collapse of a county council in England is unprecedented. That is the big story. Northamptonshire has historically levied a very low precept and because of the continuation of rate capping it has only limited opportunities to increase its own income. It may have been slow to react to the age of austerity. It may have missed opportunities to reduce costs and increase locally sourced income, but the origin of this disaster is as much in Westminster as it is in Northampton.

Local government has made a valiant attempt to maintain public services in the face of the most stringent cuts the sector has ever experienced. Northamptonshire is not the scandal, it is the disproportionate attack by central government on local government funding that needs to be examined, questioned and ultimately reversed before other democratically elected public bodies fail because of lack of finance and too much central government dictate.

The attack by central government on Northampton might have been more palatable if that part of the governance of England had received the same level of cuts and a similar reduction in staffing but that is not the case.

Who will defend Northamptonshire?

stev winterflood

Steve Winterflood is a PhD student at INLOGOV, researching measures of local government authority. Steve worked for many years in local government and is former Chief Executive of South Staffordshire Council.  




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s) and not of INLOGOV or the University of Birmingham.

Governance of the Smart Mobility Transition – A Window of Opportunity

Louise Reardon and Greg Marsden

smart mobility book coverRapid changes are underway in mobility systems worldwide, including the introduction of shared mobility solutions, Mobility as a Service and the testing of automated vehicles. These changes are driven by the development and application of ‘smart’ technologies such as smart phone platforms and real-time data sensors embedded in infrastructure. Transitions to these technologies present significant opportunities for countries, cities and rural areas alike, offering the tempting prospect of economic benefit whilst resolving today’s safety, congestion, and pollution problems.

Yet while there is a wealth of research considering how these new technologies may impact on travel behaviour, improve safety and help the environment, there is a dearth of research exploring the key governance questions that the transition to these technologies pose in their disruption of the status quo, and changes to governance that may be required for the achievement of positive social outcomes.

Our new edited collection, published this week, aims to step into this void and in doing so presents an agenda for future research and policy action. The book brings together a collection of internationally recognised scholars, drawing on case studies from around the world, to critically reflect on three primary governance considerations:

  • The changing role of the state both during and post-transition:

It is clear that smart mobility is bringing a new set of actors to the transport arena. These actors include global technology companies like Google and Apple; (transport) service aggregators such as Uber and Lyft; and firms specialising in artificial intelligence, automation and robotics who are working with incumbent providers to change the nature of existing goods and services (for example, BMWs partnership with Mobileye). This expanded and increasingly complicated multi-level network of actors has the potential to change the nature of the state’s role as a provider of services, but also challenges its existing relationships and position in transport governance networks more broadly.

  • The voices shaping the smart mobility discourse:

There inevitably exist asymmetries of power within governance networks; not all members are equally reliant on the resources of others to achieve their goals, and therefore not all voices receive equal attention. The question of who gets to participate is therefore critical to understanding how agendas surrounding smart mobility, its implementation, and outcomes will emerge.

  • The implications for the state’s capacity to steer networks and outcomes as a result of these transitions:

Transitions have the potential to challenge or change forms of state capacity; the ability of the state to exercise its power within a network of actors in order to ‘set the rules of the game’ and steer policies towards chosen outcomes. For example, the smart mobility transition has developed during a period of significant fiscal re-adjustment following the global financial crisis of 2008. As Gardner (2017, 158) notes, such pressures have led to ‘market-driven approaches to co-ordination…growing in importance in comparison to state-driven models’. It is within this context then that we have to understand where within government there is the capacity to steer the mobility transition and what factors contribute to building rather than eroding that capacity.

On focusing on these three areas, the book concludes that governance is, and will, play a critical role in shaping the outcomes of smart mobility transitions, and argues that at present there exists a critical window of opportunity for researchers and practitioners to shape what these governance mechanisms should look like, and that this opportunity must be seized upon before it is too late.

Governance of the Smart Mobility Transition is edited by Greg Marsden and Louise Reardon and was published by Emerald this week. To get a 30% discount on purchase, use the code: EMERALD30 

Reardon_Pass Photo 2017Louise Reardon is a lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham. Louise’s research focuses on a range of governance and public policy issues and questions; including dynamics of agenda setting, policy change, policy implementation, multi-level governance, depoliticization, and on the politics and policy of wellbeing. As co-chair of the WCTRS Special Interest Group on Governance and Decision-Making Processes, she is keen to grow the community of scholars critically engaged in understanding and challenging the status quo of transport policymaking.

Greg MarsdenGreg Marsden is Professor of Transport Governance at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds. He has researched issues surrounding the design and implementation of new policies for over 15 years covering a range of issues. He is the Secretary General of the World Conference on Transport Research Society and the co-Chair of the Special Interest Group on Governance and Decision-Making. He has served as an advisor to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee and regularly advises national and international governments.

The Power of Community Organising: Reflecting on Citizens UK: Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games Assembly

Catherine Durose

Diverse, joyful, inspiring and hopeful are not words that I would usually associate with meetings, but they are wholly appropriate to describe my experience of being involved as Co-Chair of Citizens UK: Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games Assembly.

A chapter of a national organisation, Citizens UK: Birmingham is a diverse civil society alliance bringing together over 25 member institutions, including education, community, trade union and faith-based organisations from across the city-region. They are committed to using community organising to generate collective power for social change and convene a series of local campaigns on issues of social justice. In Birmingham’s Town Hall on 7 March 2018, Citizens UK brought together nearly a thousand people from communities across the city to celebrate that Birmingham is now confirmed as the host of the Commonwealth Games in 2022.

Amidst the celebration, Citizens UK sought pledges from the head of the organising committee on a set of citizen’s guarantees to ensure community benefit from the Games. These guarantees focus attention on the once in a lifetime opportunity offered by the Games for a catalyst and a legacy of social change for the city. Citizens UK called for a working relationship to deliver a living wage games with a legacy of opportunity for children and young people from across all our communities in Birmingham, ranging from paid work experience to access to sports facilities to permanently affordable social housing.

The Assembly was a celebratory occasion, full of music, performance and laughter. But it was also an important political event. Assemblies are a form of political theatre, highly choreographed and intending to take the audience on a journey. The songs sung by school choirs, performances from diasporic community groups and the powerful testimony from often least represented voices in our society speaking truth to power about their own lives are all deeply emotional experiences and deliberately so. It is easy to be cynical about politics and democracy, particularly in the current climate, but this event offered an important starting point for a different kind of political conversation.

Assemblies fulfil a series of important political functions. Assemblies are designed to be about political accountability, a public holding to account of those with formal decision-making power, a forging of a relationship beyond the ballot box between voters and those they elected. Assemblies demonstrate a different kind of political power, a power generated by organising and mobilising. Assemblies provide a political education, a new kind of political training ground, inspiring active citizens and forging the political leaders of tomorrow. Assemblies are also about political efficacy, building the hope and belief that not only is social change possible, but showing people that they have an active role to play in achieving it. As a fellow Leader noted at the Assembly; whilst people often think that action comes from hope, it’s the other way round, hope comes from action.

I was at the Assembly as part Citizens UK: Birmingham’s Leadership Group and a member of the Citizens UK National Council, representing the University of Birmingham’s College of Social Sciences, which have been a Principal Partner in this alliance since March 2015. Why would a university be involved in community organising? The answer is that there is a need for universities to be actively engaged with their local communities. We have a role and moreover a responsibility to work locally as well as globally to improve the conditions and opportunities for our local communities.

Community organising also recognises self-interest, being part of this civil society alliance helps us to build capacity for civic engagement in our research, teaching and impact. I was joined on Wednesday by over sixty colleagues and students from the University of Birmingham, ranging from final year students working with Citizens UK on placement as part of their Professional Development module to members of a recent Senior Leader’s cohort who have worked with Citizens UK on a project developing new modes of research access and engagement, to a Professor using community organising to pioneer inclusive business support for minority ethnic entrepreneurs. Civic engagement of this kind is crucial to what we are as a College.

To get involved:

On 6 June, we will be holding the second in our annual CoSS Citizens UK lecture series where Professor Guy Standing (SOAS) will be talking on the subject of universal basic income. The lecture will be followed the next day by a Civic Academy, where civil society leaders will be discussing how to take action on this issue in the city. As a precursor we are screening the film, ‘Free Lunch Society’ on Wednesday 25 April on the University of Birmingham’s campus. If you want to register for any of these events, please email me at

Catherine Durose 2017Dr Catherine Durose is a Reader in Policy Sciences at INLOGOV. She undertakes research, teaching and impact work on urban governance and public services, with particular interests in participation, intermediation and co-production. She is part of Citizens UK: Birmingham’s Leadership Group and a member of Citizens UK National Council.

Home Care – the challenge

Cllr Ketan Sheth

“For every complex problem, there’s a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong,” wrote the American journalist Harry Mencken. It is an aphorism which is now often quoted by organisational thinkers.

Well, home care is just such a complex problem. Having chaired Brent Council’s overview and scrutiny task group on home care, I learned something of the difficulty of finding solutions to the problems facing the provision of this service.

Home care, also called domiciliary care, is a vital service in the lives of many older people as well as adults with physical and learning disabilities, who without it would struggle to live independently. The service allows them to do day-to-day tasks with the help of a care worker, meaning that they can stay in their own homes instead of going into residential care. For me, this assistance to our most vulnerable residents is the essence of local government and public service values.

We are all familiar with the perfect storm which is heading towards adult social care as demand continues to rise while central funding for local government is reduced. In Brent, this situation is particularly severe. The pressures on adult social care budgets are extreme even though home care, unlike healthcare, is not free at the point of access and many people are assessed as having to contribute towards their care.

Brent Council, like many local authorities, commissions home care externally rather than providing it directly in-house. So, there is a marketplace and we are dependent on agencies to whom we pay an hourly rate. In turn, they recruit and pay their workforce who delivers the front-line service. This means that there is a complex chain of commissioning and contracts at the end of which are some of the borough’s most vulnerable residents. Furthermore, all of this is being provided in the midst of the biggest financial crisis for local government in a generation and national concerns about the sustainability of the home care market.

Having reviewed the existing home care provision, it is clear that there are no simple answers, but there are some solutions we should explore to help improve the service. One such solution my task group explored and recommended to Brent Council’s cabinet is that in future the commissioning should ensure an incremental introduction of the London Living Wage for the local home care workforce. This will of course be difficult financially and we estimate that it will result in an extra £5.3million in costs for the council over a period of three years, but in the long run we think that it is part of the solution to the local sector’s issues.

Our home care workers, who are largely women and from black and ethnic minority communities, typically earn above the national legal minimum wage, but too few are paid the London Living Wage. These are people who do demanding, caring and skilful roles to look after our vulnerable residents. We found that agencies too often experience a high turnover of staff, meaning that provision is often disrupted. Undoubtedly, poor pay is at the heart of this problem, as workers move between agencies in search of better terms and conditions. If all the agencies in Brent were paying the living wage for London, it would reduce this disruptive turnover of staff. Consequently, I am convinced that productivity would increase and employers’ recruitment and retention costs would fall. Paying the living wage for London would help to stabilise the local market and support this dedicated workforce. It is what they thoroughly deserve.

It may be simple, but it’s not wrong.

To read the home care task group report here


Cllr. Ketan Sheth is a Councillor for Tokyngton, Wembley in the London Borough of Brent. Ketan has been a councillor since 2010 and was appointed as Brent Council’s Chair of the Community and Wellbeing Scrutiny Committee in May 2016. Before his current appointment in 2016, he was the Chair of Planning, of Standards, and of the Licensing Committees. Ketan is a lawyer by profession and sits on a number of public bodies, including as the Lead Governor of Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust.

A World Mayor Prize for women mayors only? Bring it on!

Chris Game

Any teaching academic will recognise it – the feeling of relief when your lecture-ending “Any questions?” produces one that could have been quite tricky, but which luck has decreed you’ve had a chance to consider.  My most recent example came following a lecture on devolution to international students – from, interestingly, a young Japanese woman.  What did I think of the City Mayors Foundation (CMF), the internet-based urban affairs think tank, restricting its biennial World Mayor Prize in 2018 to women mayors only?  International Women’s Day seemed an appropriate moment to reflect on my answer.

I should explain that the CMF is nowadays but one of a plethora of what I label BMT organisations. Not Business Management Training, although that may sometimes be a sub-plot, but simply Bringing-Mayors-Together.  Over the past two decades, as ever more countries in both Western and post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe turned to a model of governance once associated mainly with the US, Latin America, France and Southern Europe, these BMT organisations have similarly mushroomed.

There are now mayoral world conferences, covenants, summits, forums and most notably (in my view, anyway) the Global Parliament of Mayors, founded by the distinguished and sadly missed Dr Benjamin Barber, author of If Mayors Ruled the World, and due to meet, if Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees can pin down the funding, in his city this October.

I should also mention probably the newest BMT event – “the first ever international metro mayors summit” held last December at London’s tallest building, The Shard, and part-organised by the independent think tank, Centre for Cities. Its timing suggested that, international aspirations notwithstanding, it was custom-designed for our new Combined Authority mayors – elected only last May, and so possibly uncertain which, if any, of the other get-togethers they qualified for.  And its advance publicity reinforced that impression – featuring a block set of their six headshots.

CA Mayors

I’ve no idea if this latter helped boost attendance, but I do know, because I regularly use a near-identical powerpoint slide, the immediate impression it inevitably conveys: that, if you don’t happen to be a white, 50s-ish, jacket-and-tie-wearing male, then maybe these new, exciting-sounding governmental roles aren’t for you.

Which is unfortunate, and obviously not their fault. Virtually no one predicted the six elections would split 4-2 to the Conservatives.  If they hadn’t, one of the six, or nearly 17%, would almost certainly have been female, which isn’t that shy of the 23.5% for our existing mayors – four out of a grand total of 17.

For us, clearly, mayoral government, launched nearly 20 years ago in the still sunlit days of New Labour, has been the slowest of burners, and, as we turn to the international stage, it’s worth adding some statistical context. Such is the humungous scale of what we still for tradition’s sake call our ‘local’ government that, had the new Government done what some mayorists proposed and required, rather than invited, all English districts/municipalities with populations over, say, 50,000 to switch from their longstanding committee systems to elected mayoral government, we’d still have only about 320 mayors – compared to France’s 36,000, Germany’s 11,000, Italy’s 8,000, Hungary’s 3,000, and so on. True, many of these are indirectly elected or even appointed, but all will be prominent figures and have significant powers in their respective communities, and all presumably are available for Mayoral Get-Togethers – should that happen to be their socialisation mode of choice.

Which leads easily, in my mind anyway, back to the question of what fraction of these thousands are women, and back therefore to the City Mayors Foundation. It’s not primarily a research body and doesn’t do precise number counts, but its estimate is that only 20% of the world’s mayors are women. And its detailed data about individual countries’ local governments enable at least some examination of the proposition that, even where significant numbers of women are elected as mayors, it’s only rarely in their countries’ biggest cities. It is a rough examination – Birmingham, for a start, being confused with the West Midlands – but overall the CMF’s most recent figures are hard to argue with: one woman mayor in the world’s 50 largest cities, five in the 100 largest, and 26 (8.7%) in the 300 largest, which equates to populations of over 500,000.

Women mayors table

My table, based on some of the CMF’s studies of the largest cities in individual countries – most, obviously, way under 500,000 – amplifies these figures in the right-hand columns, but also highlights some of the exceptions. And not least, as my Japanese questioner was well aware, the remarkable achievement of Yuriko Koike’s 2016 election as Governor (the equivalent of Mayor) of Tokyo, recorded at the time in these columns.

So what I was being asked was: if, even in a country with Japan’s still conservative gender role attitudes, a woman can be elected to the top local government post, isn’t a World Mayor Prize open to only a fifth of the world’s mayors, both unnecessary and somewhat patronising?  I admit that, when I first read about it, I myself was rather surprised. I also recalled a Scottish National Gallery exhibition of Modern Scottish Women Painters and Sculptors a couple of years ago that I’d rather enjoyed, but that attracted rather more than just artistically critical attention.  I needed the security of some more directly relevant data.

If these things worked perfectly, the CMF’s estimate of 20% women mayors would mean than the eight rounds of World Mayor Prizes to date – each awarding a main prize and two runners-up Commendations – would have produced two women prize winners and perhaps three commendations. Rather remarkably, they have. The 2005 Award went to Athens Mayor, Dora Bakoyannis – helped by the successful staging of the 2004 Olympics, but also for her fight against the terrorist organisations that in 1989 had assassinated her parliamentarian husband. Winner in 2008 was Helen Zille, Cape Town Mayor, leader of South Africa’s opposition Democratic Alliance, and within a year Premier of Western Cape Province.

That’s the good news, though. The less good is that those two winners plus one runner-up came in the first four rounds, with women taking just two commendations in the four rounds since 2008. If the organisers were getting concerned, they had two options. Fiddle the next contest: possible, in a year-long election conducted entirely through a CMF dedicated website, with readers doing all the nominating and voting, but the organisers all the short-listing and counting. Or, how much nicer, fix the outcome.

This wasn’t quite how I responded to my Japanese questioner. I did, though, indicate that, for essentially the same reasons as I have long supported electoral gender quotas to increase women’s representation in national parliaments, the idea at this time of restricting for one year a World Mayor Prize to women mayors seemed acceptable: regrettable that it was felt necessary, but acceptable.

My only personal condition would be that the CMF urgently consider at least side-lining, this time round, the Prize awarded to the winner – about the most masculin sculpture imaginable: an unambiguously male figure being inspired or overwhelmed by three massive cubes, squares of squares, clearly referencing the male symbol in any genogram or family tree. It makes me wince.

World Mayor Prize sculpture

chris gameChris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.