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Mr Dale’s Diary: Amey sheds light on Birmingham’s heritage

Mr Dale’s Diary: Amey sheds light on Birmingham’s heritage

🕔15.Jan 2013

lampYou might have thought, what with the end of local government as we know it (copyright A. Bore), that city councillors in Birmingham would be ecstatic at the thought of getting new, energy-saving, street lights on their patch.

But this is not necessarily the case for some who retain an inbuilt suspicion of the £2.5 billion contract granted to construction giants Amey to improve and manage the city’s highway’s network.

The fact that thousands of street lights in Birmingham will be replaced, making the council the envy of many other local authorities who tried but failed to conclude PFI deals before George Osborne’s financial Armageddon struck home, cuts no ice with conservation-minded councillors.

They worry that ‘unsuitable’, modern, lighting columns are being placed in Birmingham’s conservation areas, completely out of keeping with Victorian and Georgian architecture.

The issue was raised at a scrutiny committee where executives from Amey were on hand to gently explain that the contract signed with the city does not allow for ‘heritage lamp posts’ for conservation areas unless of course the council is prepared to pay an extra fee, in which case anything is possible.

It turns out that an ordinary lighting column retails at £1,000. A heritage version is about £1,700. So the additional charge in a conservation area requiring, say, 100 columns would be £70,000.

The very nice men from Amey didn’t specify exactly what a heritage lamp post is, but I’m imagining some kind of cod-Edwardian pastiche straight from Mary Poppins. Very tasteful. And for an extra £500 you could probably get someone from Central Casting to extinguish the gas at dawn and shout ‘it’s five o’clock and all’s well’.

One wag, and I’m not going to name names, even suggested the possibility of heritage wheelie bins. But we won’t go there.

Amey’s explanation didn’t satisfy the committee. Members seemed to think it was a bit of a mistake excluding the provision of heritage lamp posts when drawing up the Highways PFI. Of course, if the more expensive heritage columns had been included, the cost to the council would have been that much greater.

Just returning for a second to the end of local government as we know it, Sir Albert Bore has much work to do if he is to convince his troops that Birmingham really is facing a financial crisis of monumental proportions.

The heritage lamp post issue has similarities to the conventions that district committees have been holding, where councillors and members of the public are invited to draw up a wish list of service improvements for their local area. Council officers dutifully write down all of the requests, but it is highly unlikely that there will ever be any money to meet the demands.

                                                                                                                                                                        

THE first time Stewart Stacey appeared before a scrutiny committee to answer questions about his new role as cabinet member for commissioning, contracting and improvement he was sent out of the room with his tail between his legs.

Committee chairman Majid Mahmood took the view that Cllr Stacey’s homework wasn’t sufficient and asked him to return again when he was on top of his brief. His second attempt today wasn’t really very much better.

Asked to describe his responsibilities and explain how his performance could be monitored, Stacey mumbled something about his role being a “new concept in the way cabinet posts are organised” and that it was all about “helping other colleagues to spend their money wisely and putting in place processes to allow that to happen”.

One subject upon which Stacey did impart some interesting information was that of the proposed Charter for Social Responsibility, which will attempt to make sure that all firms supplying the council’s goods and services pay staff at a rate no less than the Living Wage at £7.20 an hour, compared with £6.39 for the minimum wage.

It turns out that this wheeze is occupying the time of m’learned friends, with two sets of lawyers poring over the fine details. The council’s own legal staff are looking at the small print as well as lawyers representing the Living Wage Commission.

It’s emerged that firms the council does business with were so exercised about the proposal that a report on a consultation exercise stretches to 90 pages. The document hasn’t been made public yet. Perhaps the lawyers are going through it to remove unhelpful comments.

Cllr Stacey remains bullish about the idea and brushed aside claims that the council might find itself in the courts facing suppliers who think they are being unfairly treated.

His message to firms thinking about pitching for council contracts is: “It’s about the way we do business in Birmingham. You either take part, or you don’t.

“If you don’t, someone else will do it.”

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