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2014: annus horribilis for Birmingham city council

2014: annus horribilis for Birmingham city council

🕔23.Dec 2014

Birmingham city council began 2014 in much the same position as any other large English metropolitan authority – desperately seeking to cope with Government grant cuts, but managing somehow to hold public services together in the hope that good times might be on the horizon.

Twelve months later, the very future of Birmingham as a single council is far from certain, the Government has imposed commissioners to oversee children’s social services and education, whilst the council must work with a Whitehall-approved improvement board to deliver fundamental change. On a school report basis, D-minus and ‘could do better’ hardly covers it, writes Paul Dale in the first of a two part review of 2014.

The Trojan Horse Affair exposing how city leaders turned a blind eye to militant Islamic infiltration of schools for fear of being dubbed racist, and the subsequent Kerslake Review into the council’s governance and leadership capabilities, marked an annus horribilis of epic proportions for Birmingham.

Even the new Library of Birmingham, a striking £188 million building in Centenary Square that was supposed to symbolise the city’s resilience by architecturally sticking two fingers up at the age of austerity, ended the year in severe financial difficulties with its opening hours to be cut almost in half and 100 members of staff losing their jobs.

The only slight sliver of good news is the arrival of HS2 and the probability that Birmingham will at last join forces with the Black Country and Solihull to establish a combined authority, at some future point benefit from devolved tax-raising and spending powers.

However, that day of independence from Whitehall is unlikely to arrive unless and until Birmingham City Council can convince the Government that it is fit for purpose.

Mark Rogers, who joined Birmingham council as chief executive in March 2014, has certainly had a baptism of fire and it seems highly unlikely that 2015 will be any easier as he attempts to oversee a much needed culture change at an organisation in turmoil where jobs are disappearing at the rate of about 1,500 a year.

There have been signs recently that Mr Rogers is reaching out for informal influence and advice in an attempt to devise a strategy to transform the city council from an paternalistic organisation which, as Kerslake puts it, has an attitude of “if it’s worth doing, the council should do it” to body that is prepared to listen to and work with others.

A review into children’s social services led by Professor Julian Le Grand at the behest of the then Education Secretary Michael Grove got the year off to a challenging start.

Children’s social care in Birmingham has been inadequate since 2008 and in the summer of 2013 a Department for Education review found the service to be in a “fragile and unsafe state, with high numbers of vacant posts in key positions and at the front-line, apparently excessive workloads, a lack of trust in the results of the recent reorganisation, poor internal communication, and poor working practices”.

Le Grand’s conclusions at the start of 2014 have an ominous similarity to the findings of the Kerslake Review at the end of the year. Both reports identify a lack of leadership at the top of the council, a failure to take difficult decisions, poor relations between the council and its partners and years of under investment in the case of children’s services.

The Labour party regained control of the council in the summer of 2012, under the leadership of Sir Albert Bore, who previously led the council from 1999 to 2004. Most of the Kerslake and Le Grand criticism applies just as much, if not more, to the performance of the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition which ran Birmingham from 2004 to 2012. But Labour cannot distance itself from Le Grand’s finding that a new children’s social care improvement plan, written on Sir Albert’s watch, is incoherent.

Le Grand noted: “Perhaps most worryingly, the Panel did not see one plan that coherently and accessibly laid out how the drive for improvement specifically in children’s social care was to be structured, organised and delivered.

“In terms of improved practice at the interface with children and families, no clear or consistent evidence was provided to show what improvements had taken place. Ironically, we saw evidence to suggest that a critical core service improvement plan may exist to a reasonably well developed state in the heads of some of the senior management, but we found it frustrating that it has not yet been set out clearly as a route map for staff and front-line managers. This is not a bureaucratic nicety but a fundamental requirement.”

The appointment of the first of Birmingham’s commissioners, Lord Norman Warner, followed on from publication of the Le Grand report. The second commissioner, Peter Clarke, a former Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism commander, was appointed to investigate the way the council dealt with Trojan Horse. He was replaced by former Ofsted chief Sir Mike Tomlinson, who has a wide-ranging brief to work with the council to improve the standard schools across the city.

Publication of the Kerslake Review will go down as one of Birmingham city council’s darkest moments. For all of the not very good attempts by the council leadership to sanitise or even ignore the report, Sir Bob Kerslake’s team of local government experts painted a devastating picture of under-performance across many levels.

Having begun his summary with the expected acknowledgement that Birmingham is a great city with a proud past, Kerslake cut to the quick. The Birmingham economy underperforms similar cities and regions, the skills base among school leavers and adults is shockingly poor, the council has a long history of failing to take the big decisions, preferring to “kick the can down the road”, and has too many councillors who behave like officers and officers who behave like councillors.

The review concluded: “Birmingham city council must do better. The overwhelming consensus of those we have spoken to is that the council cannot carry on any longer as it is.

“The initial response to governance problems in the city’s schools was symptomatic of a culture, under successive administrations, that has too often swept deep rooted problems under the carpet rather than addressed them.”

Having spoken to many councillors, Kerslake found that council officers have in the past simply refused to deliver change. He described this, in a cutting phrase, as “organisational disobedience”.

If that wasn’t enough, Kerslake’s recommendations could change the shape of the council. A Local Government Boundary Commission review to re-draw ward boundaries and reduce the size of the council from 120 councillors to 100 as well as a move to re-elect all councillors once every four years rather than a third at a time will re-draw the political landscape.

The very last paragraph of the Kerslake Review contains a direct threat:  “For the council to improve it needs fundamental change, or the same questions about the size and structure of the council will continue to be asked. This process must start now and there must be demonstrable improvement over the next year or the panel will also need to decide whether further consideration is needed to establish the relative benefits and disbenefits of breaking the authority up.”

Part 2 of Paul Dale’s review will be published on Christmas Eve. Next week, we look ahead to what is shaping up to be the most unpredictable year in recent British political and electoral history.

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