On Friday 21st September, at the end of my second week as Campaigns Support Worker, I went along to the Third Sector Assembly meeting, in order to be part of the inaugrial meeting of it’s environment network  The Third Sector Assembly is the umbrella organisation that represents all volunteering charity sector organisations in Birmingham, with networks for different types of organisations. 

However, up until now, there had not been one for environmental third sector organisations, and nor, with the demise of the Birmingham Environmental Partnership, was there any network representing environmental groups in the city.  With the new Green Commission only having two representatives from the third sector, it was clear that there was a vacuum, one that could possibly be filled at the event.

The morning of the event started with an address by Council Leader Sir Albert Bore, who outlined the financial constraints that the council were facing even before the impact of the austerity cuts, and the need for a logical and systemic approach to cuts.  It wasn’t a very different speech to the speeches a lot of political leaders have been giving in the times of austerity. 

What was slightly more interesting, certainly from my perspective as someone who has been away from Birmingham for a year, was his devolution and localism agenda.  This included devolving responsibility for 80% of council services to district committees that will be made up of the 12 councillors in each constituency.  While I generally support devolving power as much as possible, we’ll have to see if these district committees are given the clout to actually make these decisions.

The rest of the morning involved speakers talking about a variety of topics including, lottery funding bids, how the new planning regulations can benefit community organisations, and how organisations can bid for services.  After an excellent buffet lunch it was time for the main reason I had come, the environment network meeting.

However, before we started discussing our new network we listened to a few words from Councillor James Mckay, Cabinet Member for Green and Smart City.  Councillor McKay started by talking about the contraversial Green Commission, which currently only has one representative from the third sector.  Reassuring his audience that it was still a work in progress and that even if organisations weren’t on the commision, other avenues of consultation are open. He also stated that the new network would have a seat on the Green Commission.

He then discussed his environmental ambitions for the city, reminding everyone about the target he’d been set by Council Leader Sir Albert Bore; for Birmingham to be able to launch a credible bid for European Green Capital in 10 years time.

Councillor McKay then went on to talk about a number of specific areas.  These included getting Birmingham’s recycling rates up from 32% to at least 50%, and finding a way to refit the 300,000 homes that wont be covered by the Birmingham Energy Savers scheme.  He also talked about the proposed improvements to cycling infrastructure along the Bristol Road and the concentration on commuter rather leisure cycling, both welcome developments.

Then James McKay also mentioned the dreaded A word, austerity.  Outlining how any spending on environmental projects in the new climate had to save the council money, and that a more hollistic view of environmental spending wasn’t really possible anymore. Something we will have to bear in mind as campaigners when making demands on the council. 

After James McKay left, we had a very positive and productive first meeting of the new environment network.  We agreed to have the network under auspices of the Third Sector Assembly, meeting four times a year and using their meeting space, and for someone to represent the network on  the Green Commission on a temporary basis, until we elected a representative. We also decided that the network should be a space to share ideas and information, but also take positions and be a campaigning force if there is something that it can influence.

All in all it was a very interesting and productive day, and in terms of the environmental network a very positive development. We’ll have to watch this space to see how it all goes from here!