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Armageddon, Bore, Capita, Clancy, Bailey and elections: your handy guide to Birmingham politics 2014

Armageddon, Bore, Capita, Clancy, Bailey and elections: your handy guide to Birmingham politics 2014

🕔02.Jan 2014

The next 12 months will be a crucial period for Birmingham City Council as the UK’s largest local authority faces up to the task of identifying £460 million of savings by 2017-18.

That’s on top of £375 million already found or identified.

Will the much talked about ‘end of local government’ really arrive? Will the council’s new chief executive make a difference? Can council leader Sir Albert Bore hold together the Labour group in the face of unprecedented cuts to public services, or might the pretender to the throne John Clancy finally persuade enough of his colleagues that he is the person to take the council forward?

Paul Dale looks at the issues that are likely to shape 2014:

Elections

Birmingham City Council elections in May will certainly not produce a change of political control. With a third of seats being contested, Labour’s huge majority is unassailable.

As the parties stand, there are 77 Labour councillors, 28 Conservative and 15 Liberal Democrats.

It is possible that the Labour Party’s grip on power may get stronger. A Chamberlain Files analysis of voting trends suggests four Tory-held seats and three Liberal Democrat-held seats are vulnerable.

But it may not be all one way traffic. Some Labour councillors won by narrow margins when these seats were last contested four years ago. Cabinet member Steve Bedser and former scrutiny committee chairman Ian Cruise, for example, are defending slim majorities.

The 2014 elections are more likely to be notable for political manoeuvring in the days after the results are declared. Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore seems certain to face a leadership challenge from backbencher John Clancy – the third attempt by Clancy to seize the crown.

Clancy went down by 51 votes to 23 in 2013, but the scale of support for the challenger was surprising. Since then, Clancy, backed by Aston University Professor David Bailey, has maintained relentless criticism of the tactics used by Sir Albert in addressing the council’s £825 million cuts crisis.

Rumours abound of a joint leadership challenge in May 2014 with Cllr Clancy taking on Sir Albert and an as yet unidentified Labour councillor joining him to challenge deputy council leader Ian Ward. Clancy’s co-conspirator is said to be a prominent Asian councillor, who may or may not be able to deliver the supposed block vote of Asian and black Labour councillors in order to tip the balance and oust Sir Albert.

Perhaps Cllr Ward should not be too concerned. An Asian running mate for Clancy was described as a near certainty in 2013, but the person concerned pulled out at the last minute.

Some of Clancy’s policies, dubbed Clancynomics by Chamberlain Files, may be gaining traction nationally with Labour, including proposals for councils to replenish their finances by issuing bonds. His insistence that the city council raise money by disposing of assets including the NEC and Birmingham Airport is likely to emerge as a major issue in 2014 and appears to have tentative backing from the District Auditor. Clancy’s campaign to slash the £120 million a year cost to the council of its Service Birmingham contract with Capita will also be a significant issue this year.

During the course of 2013, the Capita debate shifted significantly within the Labour group from a position of ‘we could save some money by renegotiating’ to one of ‘’we might be better off cancelling the contract completely’. Ideas for replacing Service Birmingham include awarding the IT contract to a consortium of local firms, or bringing it back in-house.

The possibility of saying good-bye to Capita was until fairly recently treated with disdain by Sir Albert and Cllr Ward. But the end of 2013 saw an important shift in thinking, with Cllr Ward openly admitting that cancelling the contract is an option and that work is taking place to estimate the cost of doing so.

The departure of Steven Hughes, a firm supporter of the Service Birmingham venture, and the arrival of new council chief executive Mark Rogers could provide an opportunity to start afresh on the IT front, perhaps without Capita on board.

As Chamberlain Files has reported, Prof Bailey is behind an internet petition campaign on the council website demanding that the city’s contract with Capita be made public. If this were to happen, most people in Birmingham might be surprised by the financial arrangements that exist between the council and Capita.

It will be worth keeping an eye on the annual contest to re-elect scrutiny committee chairmen. The Clancy camp gained a few surprise victories in 2013 and will hope to do so again. Sir Albert, who has control over selecting cabinet and regulatory committee chairmen, is under pressure to promote more women and BME councillors. A mini cabinet reshuffle should not be discounted.

Labour isn’t the only political party with leadership issues. Mike Whitby, leader of the Tory group of councillors since 2003, is retiring from the council in order to concentrate on life as a working peer in London. True to form, Lord Whitby insisted on remaining leader until May 2014, leaving the Conservatives to fight the civic elections without Tory councillors or voters knowing who will lead them afterwards.

Deputy Tory group leader Robert Alden appears to be the clear favourite for the top job, although he must first be re-elected in Erdington. On paper, with a 1,500 majority in 2010, this should not be a problem. However, nagging away at the back Alden’s mind must surely be the troublesome fact that until fairly recently Erdington was rock-solid Labour territory.

If not Alden as leader, then who? It is rumoured in Tory circles that former councillor Ken Wood, who is returning to the fold in 2014 in Sutton Coldfield, fancies his chances. It would be unwise also to rule out combative Bartley Green councillor John Lines, who by next May will be free from deputy lord mayor duties, and don’t bet against Northfield councillor Randal Brew as a compromise candidate.

Room at the Top

Will the arrival of a new chief executive herald a culture change for Birmingham City Council? Mark Rogers, who joins from Solihull Council in March, has a background in children’s social services, which is helpful given the council’s current difficulties but does not appear to fit easily with the job description drawn up for the £180,000-a-year post.

A restructure of the council’s top management team announced last September paved the way for chief executive Stephen Hughes to retire early in 2014. Five directorates were to be transformed into three with working titles of People, Place, and Economy.

Council leader Sir Albert Bore made it clear then that the Economy directorate, combining development and culture and corporate resources, “has a very large
leadership role in how to deliver policy priorities and a balanced budget, in addition to the management of services”.

Sir Albert added: “There is also a need for a statutory Head of Paid Service. Therefore, we are proposing that the management of this directorate be strengthened with a combined Lead Officer and Director of Economy, which can support the strategic direction of the city. You may interpret this post as a Chief Executive. The proposal is also for a Deputy Lead Officer and for these two officers to have complementary skills.”

The council leader went on to explain his intention to appoint Peter Hay as head of the People directorate with a remit to sort out Birmingham’s failing children’s social services department.  Sir Albert added: “A strong, focused service leadership is also required to win the loyalty and respect from staff and give confidence to the political leadership. We believe we have in Peter Hay, who has been asked to manage the service in the interim, such a person.”

Three months later, Sir Albert summed up the qualities possessed by Mr Rogers, whose appointment as Birmingham council chief executive was confirmed: “I found Mark full of ideas. He has had demonstrable achievements across his career in local government, and has a successful track record of building effective relationships with key stakeholders and partners. He is a reflective and innovative individual who will support me and my cabinet team to drive the city forward.”

He added that Mark’s background as a former Director of Children’s Services would be of great value in steering real improvement in the safeguarding of children in Birmingham.

An obvious question arises from this appointment. What happens now to Mark Barrow, the strategic director for development and culture, whose department is to be abolished in the restructure? Many had tipped Mr Barrow to become chief executive, based on his expertise in regeneration and economic development. Mr Barrow may become lead officer in the Place directorate, or he could become deputy to Mr Rogers as Director of the Economy directorate.

The reshuffle is complicated by the presence of Paul Dransfield, strategic director of resources, whose department is also disappearing. Mr Dransfield, effectively the council’s chief financial director, might have been a front runner for the chief executive job, but clearly missed out to Mr Rogers.

One thing seems certain. With the combination of Mr Hay and Mr Rogers, Birmingham City Council can truthfully say that it has never before had such expertise in children’s social services at such a high officer level, which is just as well since the three experts appointed by the Government to investigate the state of services for vulnerable children arrive in Birmingham on January 6.

Devolution

Sir Albert Bore has been pushing devolution in Birmingham for almost 15 years, and the signs are that rolling out service delivery from the central Council House to 10 District Committees will quicken if anything. The budget consultation booklet for 2014-15 makes it clear that the districts are expected to play a significant role in ‘neighbourhood service delivery, leaving the cabinet to get on with blue sky thinking and developing important strategy.

But with power comes responsibility, and inevitably political tension. The district committees saw their budgets cut by about £50 million in 2013-14 and face further reductions in 2014-15 as the council battles to cope with huge cuts in government grant. At the same time, the list of responsibilities transferred to the districts is growing and now covers almost all local service delivery, from housing to libraries and parks.

The cabinet sets the district committee budgets and broad city-wide policy, and then it is a matter for councillors at the sharp end to decide on priorities, and to identify services for cuts or even closure. This has come as something of a shock to some district committee members who complain about cabinet members shoving difficult decisions in their direction.

The districts are often limited in what they can do, with a range of important services such as refuse collection, street cleaning and grounds maintenance subject to city-wide service agreement contracts. It is difficult, if not impossible, for the districts to deliver significant changes to the way these services are run. That leaves the districts in charge of more minor, but highly politically sensitive, services like swimming pools and community libraries.

District committees will be expected to drive forward neighbourhood management arrangements by integrating libraries, health centres, neighbourhood offices, police stations and community centres into single buildings, or hubs. Community facilities in better off parts of Birmingham may be transferred to the private or voluntary sector to run.

An early source of tension may involve the future of community libraries against the new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square. The council’s financial projections indicate a shortfall in 2014-15 of £1.6 million in the running costs of the LoB.

We should expect several battles in 2014, not least because the budgets and spending plans for the district committees must at the end of the day meet with Sir Albert’s approval. There will be devolution, of sorts, but no one should be in any doubt as to where the buck stops….and it’s not with the district committee chairmen.

It’s worth watching out for fireworks from the three district committees not under Labour control – Tory Edgbaston and Sutton Coldfield and Liberal Democrat Yardley. Will their budget plans meet with Sir Albert’s approval? As it happens, the council leader has established a type of reconciliation committee to make sure the devolved districts don’t step out of line.

Jaws of Doom

The jaws on Sir Albert Bore’s graph depicting Birmingham city council’s projected cash crisis have widened so much in the past year that they must surely snap before long. The impact of the chancellor’s austerity programme in terms of government grant cuts and demand for adult social services was estimated at about £615 million 12 months ago, and now stands at £840 million.

This is the amount of money the council says it has to cut from its budgets between 2010-11 and 2017-18, leaving Sir Albert to talk about the end of local government and ‘Armageddon’. He’s warned persistently that the day will arrive soon when non-statutory public services have to be decommissioned – that is to say, scrapped – because the council simply won’t have the money to run them.

The unanswerable question is: when is Armageddon scheduled for?

Decommissioning services was to have begun in 2014-15, but a series of exhausting Labour group meetings in the run-up to Christmas 2013 failed to make much headway. Sir Albert announced that decommissioning will not now take place until 2015-16, which means that firm plans to axe service provision will have to be drawn up towards the end of 2014.

Sir Albert’s main challenger, Cllr John Clancy, insists that attempting to predict government spending cuts three to four years in advance is a waste of time, and possibly dangerous. Sir Albert says he is simply being practical and it would be irresponsible not to prepare for the inevitable.

One thing is certain. As outlined above, the district committees are likely to be drawn more and more into the messy business of decommissioning services. And it won’t be a pretty sight.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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