x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Abu Dhabi looks to Birmingham for local government

The capital's residents may have local members to represent them on a governing body based on a blueprint from the UK's second city.

Birmingham and its Big City plan pipped Abu Dhabi and its 2030 vision in a masterplan competition.
Birmingham and its Big City plan pipped Abu Dhabi and its 2030 vision in a masterplan competition.

ABU DHABI // The capital's residents may have local council members to represent them on a governing body based on a blueprint from the British Midlands.

Officials are studying the possibility of restructuring Abu Dhabi's municipal government along the lines of Birmingham city council.

Greater public involvement in decision-making and representative bodies are among options being presented to the Department of Municipal Affairs (DMA) by governance experts from the UK's second city.

The move is part of a continuing exchange of ideas between the two cities. The exchange was formally enshrined with the signing last month of a memorandum of understanding.

Local council areas in the UK are split into wards, each represented on the council and its various committees by elected members of a political party.

Denis Burke, the DMA executive director of governance, said the members of any potential council in Abu Dhabi would initially be appointed.

"We are using the experience of Birmingham council to strengthen our governance processes," Mr Burke said. "It's an excellent example of a city which has good plans for modernisation."

The western region has for several years been running a trial council that could be adapted and applied throughout the emirate, Mr Burke said. His task was largely to arrange a proposal. He stressed that the decision would rest with local officials.

"Should the government decide to move in the direction of introducing councils, we would be ready to implement that immediately," he said.

Birmingham has one of the largest civic authorities in Europe, with 120 councillors representing 1.1 million people living in 40 different wards. The urban population of Abu Dhabi emirate is also about 1.1 million, and a further 500,000 live in rural areas. The cities are also similar in terms of the level of ethnic diversity. About 55 per cent of the Birmingham population is of non-British descent, while the capital's population is largely expatriate.

It is unclear how much participation expatriates would have in the process under the possible restructuring of Abu Dhabi's local government.

Birmingham "has a long history of municipal government in a multi-cultural society", Rashid Mubarak al Hajeri, the DMA chairman, said after the memorandum's signing on October 26. "This proven approach is one we are keen to hear more about."

The link between the two cities dates back to 2008, when both entered their respective master plans in an international awards competition. Birmingham won that competition for its Big City plan and Abu Dhabi came a close second for its 2030 vision. Officials from the two municipalities have kept in regular contact since then in an exchange of information and ideas.

A delegation from Abu Dhabi came to Birmingham this year to “capture the culture of working in the city”, the city council leader Mike Whitby said. A team of British urban regeneration and planning officials will visit the capital next year to advise on drawing up development rules to promote cohesive expansion, he said.

The skills exchange has been on a “generous” commercial basis, Mr Burke said, without disclosing a figure.

The DMA has also forged links with the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Local Government Studies. Ian Briggs, a senior fellow at the institute, said that “a range of workable alternatives” is being sent for the consideration of the authority.

“These involve a different model of localised decision making than is currently in place,” he said, without giving specifics. “However, the decision rests with the government and whatever they choose has to be appropriate for Abu Dhabi.”

Mr Burke said: “It’s a new concept. It would depend on the success of the project. It is the government’s decision ultimately. The first step is simply to appoint a board which is more responsive to the community.”

mcroucher@thenational.ae


* With additional reporting by Jen Thomas