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2015: A Year of Revolution

2015: A Year of Revolution

🕔22.Dec 2015

2015 was a year of momentous change for Birmingham and the West Midlands. A city council leader was ousted and a new one chosen as the consequences of the Kerslake Review played out; a devolution deal was approved and the election of a metro mayor became a certainty; and Birmingham city centre enjoyed the biggest economic boom for 50 years.

In the first of three special features, Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale looks back at a year of revolution.

It was obvious from the moment Bob Kerslake published his withering analysis of Birmingham city council’s governance capabilities a year ago that the end of Sir Albert Bore’s political career was hurtling down the road like an unstoppable juggernaut.

The Kerslake Review is a damning denunciation of failure. It is a forensic skewering of a council that failed over many years to respond to or even recognise an urgent need to change the way it conducts its business – relying for too long on an arrogant ‘we know best’ attitude and burying its collective head in the sand when it came to taking tough decisions.

As a pivotal figure, the pre-eminent Birmingham politician since 1999 and twice leader of the council, Sir Albert must have recognised that Kerslake’s unpalatable findings were as much a report about his own capabilities – and let’s not forget the Tory leader Mike Whitby between 2004 and 2012 – as they were a criticism of the council as a whole.

His only chance of survival in the short term was to convince the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel imposed on the council by the Government that he fully recognised and accepted Kerslake’s findings and, more importantly, was the only person who could deliver the review’s recommendations.

That would entail persuading the panel as well as Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and his successor Greg Clark that the man who over the years became the embodiment of Birmingham city council could perform a volte-face and run with the Kerslake agenda. Such a transformation never seemed remotely likely or believable.

As a senior Labour local government expert pointed out to Chamberlain Files as soon as the Kerslake Review appeared, leaders of councils where performance is deemed so poor that improvement panels are thought necessary tend not to last for very long in the job. And so it turned out, although Sir Albert did manage to cling on to the wreckage for the best part of a year.

It’s a cliché, but the downfall of Sir Albert Bore really did turn out to be the longest and slowest car crash in the history of Birmingham city council, an episode made all the more morbidly fascinating for onlookers by the sight off-stage of John Clancy readying his team, dusting down his well-thumbed leadership manifesto, and waiting for the right opportunity to pounce.

The reaction of Sir Albert and most of his cabinet to the Kerslake Review can be summed up by the five stages of grief: First, there was denial. Sir Albert and his closest allies were insistent that much of Kerslake’s criticism was exaggerated. Tellingly, in his farewell speech as council leader, Sir Albert insisted the council “has not been run as badly as some people think”.

The second stage of grief, anger, was clear enough as the implications of Kerslake began to sink in. The timing of the review, in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, played into a conspiracy theory that the Tory-Liberal Democrat government had it in for Labour-led Birmingham and wanted to make an example of the council.

The truth, in fact, is that improvement panel chair John Crabtree, a proud Brummie, was determined from the off that the city of his birth would not suffer the humiliation of being run by commissioners, if he could possibly help it.

Both Mr Pickles and Greg Clark went out of their way to avoid making an example of Birmingham and refused to send in commissioners. Greg Clark considered doing so towards the end of the summer of 2015 but drew back and gave the council a little more time to deliver the Kerslake recommendations.

The third stage of the grieving process, bargaining, didn’t last very long as it became obvious the improvement panel would not agree to water down any of Kerslake’s recommendations, in particular the need to establish a Birmingham leadership group which would approve the city plan and hold the council to account for delivering it.

Two panel reports to the Government doubted whether the council leader and others had grasped the scale of culture change required or even believed in the reform process.

The fourth stage, depression, reflected an increasingly gloomy Council House during the second half of 2015 after Mr Clark admitted he would consider taking further steps to intervene in running the council if the pace of change did not quicken.

Finally there came acceptance. Sir Albert announced his intention to step down as leader at the end of October when it became clear he had lost the confidence of most of the cabinet. The final days were sad by any measure, with an ill-advised “I’m going nowhere” interview to the Birmingham Post followed by the final cabinet meeting where his colleagues effectively sacked their leader, with Sir Albert taking part via a conference call from Brussels.

Ironically, as the end approached, Sir Albert was able to reflect on yet another stunning example of the city centre regeneration he spent most of his career promoting, this time completion of the New Street Station refurbishment and construction of Grand Central shopping centre. And in a fateful display of schadenfreude a few days after his resignation was announced Sir Albert was declared top city leader in the Estates Gazette and MIPIM 2015 awards.

The way events played out over 2015 fitted perfectly John Clancy’s long-game approach. He’d challenged Sir Albert four times for the Labour group leadership, coming closer on each occasion but still failing by some way to take the crown.

Clancy had a tried and tested manifesto which he had been fine tuning for the best part of eight years. There were plenty of big ticket items – creating a regional sovereign wealth fund by utilising the value of local authority land and property assets as well as radical scheme to use millions of pounds from the West Midlands local government pension fund to invest in new housing.

Headline pledges included a promise to scrap the ICT contract the council has with Capita-Service Birmingham and hand the work to local firms instead, renegotiate the Amey Highways PFI contract, and give a free hot meal to all children attending council-run infant and primary schools.

Clancy’s campaign slogan – ‘Every Child, Every Citizen, Every Place, Matters’ – highlighted his assertion that Sir Albert spent too much time concentrating on city centre redevelopment and too little time on regenerating Birmingham’s inner city and outlying wards.

There were four other candidates battling for the leadership – deputy council leader Ian Ward, maverick backbencher Barry Henley, veteran Labour stalwart Mike Leddy, and cabinet member Penny Holbrook. Leddy, regarded as the ‘Boreite’ candidate dropped out when it became clear he couldn’t win and backed Cllr Holbrook, who had hardly helped her cause by admitting the leadership wasn’t a job she really wanted or ever thought she could do.

In the end, it could hardly have been closer. Clancy beat Holbrook to win the leadership by just one vote with two spoilt ballot papers.

Afterwards, Clancy admitted “they threw everything including the kitchen sink at me” in an attempt to portray him as an inexperienced novice with the suggestion that a win would result in the Government sending in commissioners straight away.

The first few weeks of Clancy’s administration suggest the opposite is the case.

He has won the backing of Greg Clark, has reportedly made a good impression on the improvement panel, and gone out of his way to get out of the Council House to promote partnership working.

There is a long way to go and much to be done to convince the Communities Secretary that Birmingham ‘gets’ Kerslake. The commissioners have been put on hold, for the time being at any rate.

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