THE M6 motorway slices through Birmingham - Britain's second largest city past 'spaghetti junction' and on through the continuous urban sprawl to Walsall. It is raining and the grey facade of the Victorian town hall turns black. This is the 'West Midlands Kremlin'. And here, according to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a two-year-old Labour Council is threatening an end to democracy.
Walsall has a Town Hall with a difference. The 'Council House' as Midlands people like to call the seat of local government, has been de-centralised. Traditional bureaucratic empires base been broken up and 34 neighbourhood offices have been built, staffed and opened up at a cost of over 53 million. The swish downtown offices of the housing department are now three-quarters empty: 150 staff have moved out into prefabricated, open-plan Neighbourhood Offices. It is, the Council claims, the most dramatic local government revolution in Europe.
The official write up, Walsall's Haul to Democracy, makes impressive claims for the new system: decentralisation means an end to remote local government staffed by 'faceless bureaucrats', more knowledge and control for the local community, plus increased confidence to get involved. Many residents seem convinced of the first part at least. A women living two streets away comes into the Blakenhall office clutching a red-printed gas bill that demands payment she has already made. 'Hello Ian' she says, sitting down opposite one of the Assistant Neighbourhood Officers, 'It's the gas.'
Twelve months ago the same enquiry would base meant a 60 cent bus ride to the city centre, an uncertain wait in a shuffling queue and a brief encounter through a plate-glass screen.
The Neighbourhood offices all sport a pair of computer terminals linked to the Town Hall which can display information on any of the 42,000 council-owned houses showing, in vivid green type, repairs needed, rent in arrears or individual placing on the elsewhere notorious housing waiting list. And there is more to come. Soon the computer will have a benefits programme designed to give welfare claimants a completely foolproof rundown of their entitlements. It will even print out a completed claim form for them to sign. No more haggling with unsympathetic officials, explains Council leader Brian Powell. 'You just go into the office, poke it under their nose and say "pay that".'
This much would seem to make sense for any local government. There would be plenty of support for a Walsall-style scheme in other towns. So why all the fuss? Before it folded, James Goldsmith's weekly magazine Now dubbed Walsall's Council 'a Socialist steamroller' while the local press had renamed Brian Powell 'the Ayatollah'. The heart of Now's argument with Powell was his commitment to election promises: 'Walsall is doing what few local councils and certainly no British political party has ever done before - it is literally implementing its election manifesto.'
Walsall hit the national headlines in a scandal over 'jobs for the boy's when sympathetic' outsiders were recruited as Neighbourhood Officers. Powell's 'Stalin' image was completed by a closed shop agreement with the Unions, new appointments for trusted supporters and a no-nonsense approach to committee procedures. The Chief Executive had predicted it would take three years to set up one Neighbourhood Office. Powells administration opened 34 in 12 months.
'The trouble with Brian', says one of his more friendly critics, 'is not so much what he does, but the way he does it'. According to Powell, however, there is method in the madness.
He sees the traditional town hall bureaucracy as a barrier to radical change. Neighbourhood Offices are motivated 'by political ideals not administrative processes'. Hence the need for sympathetic Officers. 'It is only people who are aware of the ideals on which Socialism is based who can grasp the structural changes that are necessary here.' quoted Now magazine gleefully. 'We are Socialists implementing Socialist policies'. So out the window goes the peculiarly British idea of a 'non-political' civil service.
Powell and his Tribune Group which controls the Labour Council have pushed through their decentralisation plans by dint of tough, centralised control. Powell, a dapper dresser in his mid forties, gave up his job in the printing industry to work full time in politics. His wife supports him and their four children. 'I decided to do it properly,' he says. 'Other council chairmen do a job in the day, get here at five for a briefing from the executive officers and chair the meeting at six. It just doesn't work.' Steve Johnson, Powell supporter and newly-appointed Neighbourhood Development Officer, explains, 'you need to spend every hour, even when you're in the pub smoking and drinking, talking about what you need to do next otherwise the staff get the initiative'.
Powell describes himself and his inner circle of supporters as 'puritanical socialists'. The puritanism is not in the drinking and smoking and good-humoured swearing that goes on in the Saloon Bar of the Bakers Arms (surprisingly overlooked by Now magazine as Powell's politburo). It is a sort of ideological puritanism. Community action is dismissed as a 'trendy bandwaggon', with a fragile unity constructed around single issues, that falls apart when the shouting stops. Women and blacks ('ethnic minorities') have a place in the struggle but, like university-educated socialists, are prey to what Powell terms social anarchism. Trade Unions are bit suspect too: 'There's only one useful union at the end of the day,' argues Powell. 'That's socialism.' The result is a dogged single-minded approach to change, with a tendency to view privilege as something to be wrested from the middle class - affectionately known as 'those rich bastards'.
To an outsider like one of Walsall's handful of ultra-left intellectuals (whose earring is like a badge of social anarchism) Powell's Tribune group is a 'humourless mob' and those in it are 'a bit macho'. Powell's answer is that change is a serious business and fighting for it is hard work. 'What we're trying to do is reverse the capitalist system he says, 'and it's been there for a sodding thousand years'.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7