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Andy Howell slams council’s ‘shocking’ partnership record and ‘disgraceful’ refusal to debate Kerslake Review

Andy Howell slams council’s ‘shocking’ partnership record and ‘disgraceful’ refusal to debate Kerslake Review

🕔23.Feb 2015

Twelve years after he ceased to be deputy leader of Birmingham city council Andy Howell returned to the chamber he once graced with a few home truths for former colleagues about how criticism in the Kerslake Review “sadly rings true”, writes Paul Dale.

Birmingham city council’s serial failure to work in partnership with stakeholders and community groups is “shocking” and refusing hold a debate on the damning Kerslake Review is a “disgrace”.

The council thinks it knows best and because of this does not learn from others and as a result has ended up with senior officers who are not as effective as those in Manchester and Leeds.

In a short but effective speech at a public meeting called to discuss the Kerslake Review Andy Howell did not once mention Sir Albert Bore. What he had to say amounted to a devastating skewering of Council House administrations past and present.

In 1999 when Sir Albert won the leadership by defeating Theresa Stewart, the Bore-Howell combination had been trumpeted as the “dream team” by Labour supporters, but relations between the pair quickly went downhill.

Twelve years ago Howell, then deputy to Sir Albert, broke ranks and challenged his boss for leadership of the Labour group and of the council.

I paraphrase, but the case against Sir Albert back then was pretty much the case that has always been put by his opponents – that he is insular and dictatorial, ignores the Labour group, acts more like an elected mayor than the leader of 70-odd councillors, obsesses about regenerating the city centre at the expense of the suburbs, and spends too much time on European Union business.

An ill-tempered contest saw Sir Albert run out the winner by 45 votes to 21, and Howell’s career as a city councillor was abruptly terminated.

Had this happened in the Soviet Union, or even in Mr Putin’s Russia, one suspects Howell would have been despatched to a far-flung gulag for political re-education and never heard of again.

In the event he was deselected by the Labour party in Moseley and kicked out of front line politics.

Howell has reinvented himself since 2003 as a respected and successful local government consultant working to help councils across the country facing similar poor performance issues to Birmingham. He is also now strategic director of the Birmingham Arts Partnership.

He will hate being described as one of Labour’s big beasts, still less an elder statesman whose years of experience could and should be channelled into helping today’s council leaders. It remains, though, a matter of regret for many in the Birmingham Labour movement that Howell’s talents have been lost to the city council for a decade or more.

As the son of Denis Howell, the former Birmingham MP and cabinet member in the 1970s, Andy Howell is firmly entrenched in the Labour tribe and chairs his local ward party. He has not sought revenge for what happened to him in 2003 and generally avoids publicly criticising the city council.

The Kerslake Review, which exposed the council’s poor leadership, lack of a shared vision for the future and a habit of sweeping difficult problems under the carpet, prompted Howell to break his silence at a public meeting in the council chamber organised by the News in Brum website.

Howell told the meeting: “Birmingham is light years behind other local authorities. I am lucky enough to work with public agencies and councils in different parts of the country and the sad reality is that Birmingham’s shocking history of partnerships means it has not secured the resources it could have done and isn’t employing the wide range of skill and talent in this city to deal with the problems we have.”

He said the council under successive administrations had been too insular and did not go out and look to learn from other places.

All too often Birmingham takes the view that we are the biggest council in the country so we don’t have to learn from smaller councils. That is just not true.

Howell apologised for being controversial and went on to suggest that many of the senior officers at Birmingham city council below chief executive rank are not up to the job when compared with officials at other local authorities. He said:

When you look at the quality of some of our leading strategic planners and managers in this city I don’t believe you would find people like that in Leeds and Manchester and other cities.

We have failed dismally across a range of administrations to attract the talent that understands what happens elsewhere and has the imagination to put things right.

Just not good enough in terms of the outcomes it provides for its people. We have to strive to try not to be so insular and to be determined that we are going to provide a better platform for all the residents of the city and not just the few who shout louder than anyone else.

And finally, in an attack on the decision not to stage a public debate on Kerslake, Howell said:

There is an arrogance and insularity about the way we do things. The notion that a report as challenging, significant and controversial as this hasn’t been tabled for proper discussion in the council and the governance of the city is in my view a disgrace.

If this meeting calls time on that kind of behaviour then we will not have wasted our evening.

The Kerslake Review was critical of the city’s poor record on forming partnerships:

The council has an attitude to partnerships of if it’s worth doing, the council should do it. This paternalism alienates partners, means the council is failing to reconfigure services effectively, and is missing opportunities to work with partners and communities to deliver the services people need.

By far BCC’s most important partnerships are with the residents it serves, and yet despite the recent progress the council has made we have found many communities feel unable to raise issues, nor have a route to engage or have their voices heard.

It is essential that Birmingham should adopt a one-city approach, and that the council needs to gain the strong support of partners and communities to improve.

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