Simon Cottingham, Area Manager, Black Country, Telford & the Wrekin, The Children’s Society in the West Midlands

Devolution is an alluring proposal. More power in our hands, the opportunity to influence and drive change in our area, to exercise control and leadership. For the voluntary and community sector in the West Midlands it brings a tantalising new structure to work with – reinvigorating our drive to develop and maintain our influence. The West Midlands is charging ahead with the notion of devolving power to a City Region (although the main topic of conversation is probably going to be what do we call it – not sure that Greater Birmingham will go down well here!) with the promise of greater prosperity for all.

Also alluring is the notion that we can bring more young people into the debate by lowering the voting age and bringing more young people into the democratic process. More young people able to be the voice of children and young people throughout the West Midlands will increase the political mandate and influence that young people have in our democracy.

The problem, however, is all this devolution talk rather misses the point if you are a vulnerable child or a child who has difficulty communicating or participating. Devolution does give more power to some local people and some voluntary and community sector organisations will do well out of it. But most of the debate about local power is about the ability to develop the local economy and cut taxes, not how we can better support the most vulnerable people in our society, which for most in the sector is what we are, or should be, interested in. The idea of bringing more young people into the democratic process may indeed enfranchise those young people who want to be able to take part in democracy, but they will have even less interest, I would argue, with the plight of the most vulnerable than many adults with more life experience. More young people’s involvement in democracy does nothing, per se, for the vulnerable child. If we are really to listen to the views of vulnerable children then what they say needs to change our approaches, it needs not only to influence policy but change the way in which we spend our money; it needs real commitment and change in the way that society views them.

So the debate for me, therefore, is not whether power should be at a national or local level, be a fully participative democracy or not, but how able are we as a society to ensure that all our children are healthy, happy, safe (but able to take risks) and confident for their future.

In the devolution process that is inexorably moving forward in the West Midlands we should be looking at our ability and commitment as a sector to influence children and young people’s policy. So, in terms of policy impact on vulnerable children and young people if we look at, for example, policing strategy, then I would suggest we need to focus on getting the police to move away from crimes against property to crimes against the person. Child abuse, domestic violence, gun crime, knife crime etc. all affect a child’s life chances and quality of life in a fundamental way.  But if devolution is actually about growing local economies and generating wealth then locally many will argue that crimes against property are more important for the police to focus on. This needs us as a sector to agree and campaign on issues together and not wait for the funding to be able to do this as part of our job.

In 2014 The Children’s Society undertook a survey of young people in Birmingham, called “My life, My Birmingham”. It looked at things like what makes you feel safe, what makes you feel happy and what makes you feel sad. It worked with a mixed age group from infants through to young adults. One of the most striking things that all age groups said, was that they wanted to feel safer in parks and public places. This seems to me to suggest a shift in the way that we need to look at youth work and outdoor spaces, a shift in the way which we invest in infrastructure, seeing public space as a key infrastructure element alongside roads and railways and a shift in the way we view public space as needing to be child friendly. This is against a backdrop of businesses arguing for better transport links, local authorities needing to provide houses and space in the inner cities slowly diminishing.

The sector in the West Midlands, as in most other areas, seems to me to be facing some real dilemmas; on the one hand it has pressure to deliver against ever more unrealistic targets, deliver value for money and collaborate with the notion that efficiency and competition deliver better outcomes for children - and on the other a collective drift away from ideological certainty, watering down values to suit diminishing resources and slowly losing their radicalism. For me this ideological quietism, with its use of management speak, is in danger of colluding with the idea that people can be “managed” out of their abuse or neglect or poverty  without any collective action, that the individual is solely responsible for things that impact on them in their lives. If we look at a child who is being abused, or exploited, or who is witnessing domestic violence or who has mental ill health do we end up tacitly accepting this view that the way to help them is to manage them out of their problems? Does the fact that local people might be in charge of local decisions make us feel any more confident that these children will be helped?

Love is a dirty word nowadays. We can’t talk about loving our service users or hugging them; someone might get the wrong idea. Yet love and hugs is what most children and young people who are abused, exploited or neglected are looking for. They want safe, loving, attachments, just like the rest of us; ones that help them feel happy, safe and confident. If devolution is to mean anything to children and young people who are at the margins of our society, it must deliver real actions to alleviate abuse and neglect and it must offer real hope that they can live in an area where they feel happy and confident. If this happens then maybe devolution will be an important development for our democracy.