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Bins, buses and home rule for Sutton Coldfield: welcome to Birmingham, Sir Bob

Bins, buses and home rule for Sutton Coldfield: welcome to Birmingham, Sir Bob

🕔29.Oct 2014

Sir Bob Kerslake, Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, who is leading a review into the governance capabilities of Birmingham city council, began a public meeting by proclaiming that this was an opportunity for Brummies “to get your point of view across”.

Ninety minutes later Sir Bob could have been in no doubt about the issues most people in the room felt were important. That is to say, bins, garden waste, the ‘garden waste tax’, buses, poor public transport generally and independence for Sutton Coldfield.

Further down the agenda were concerns about unemployment, social deprivation and children’s safeguarding services. None of these areas had improved much in the past 30 years, it was pointed out, which rather neatly encapsulates the real issue facing the Kerslake Review.

Five of the first 20 contributions from the audience were about the council’s refuse collection service, specifically comments about the imposition of a £35 annual fee to collect and dispose of green waste.

Views were wide and varied, although most speakers were opposed to the charge. One man said he had a very small garden and resented the fact that people with huge gardens paid the same £35 fee. This meant that poorer households were subsidising richer households.

Buses, over which Birmingham city council has no control, featured heavily with a general consensus that services were far better in the good old days before Mrs Thatcher de-regulated bus services and left passengers to the tender mercies of the free market.

One contributor reminisced that 30 years ago “buses were wonderful” and Birmingham was highly regarded for its bus services. Indeed, it is said that the main argument put forward in the 1970s for Sutton Coldfield becoming part of Birmingham was that Sutton folk would benefit from Birmingham’s buses.

This was a public meeting in the proper sense of the word. Unusually in this day and age there had been, or at least there did not appear to have been, any attempt to fill the room with the council’s loyal stooges.

With a maximum capacity of about 60 in a room at the Library of Birmingham the meeting was arranged on a first-come first-served basis with advance booking for seats a necessity.

And it became clear there were two factions present – Conservative supporters from Northfield who had come to lambast the council’s green bin tax, and people from Sutton Coldfield who want Sutton’s ties with Birmingham to be broken.

Sir Bob’s review was set up following the Trojan Horse affair, although it is not dealing specifically with issues arising from the alleged Islamification of Birmingham schools. The review is looking at broader issues including the structure and size of the city council, the clarity of strategic leadership and direction, managerial capacity and the council’s approach to partnership.

Sir Bob summed up the purpose of his review: “It is about how Birmingham is run. What the issues are in the city and the council. What’s good and also what needs improving. What are the strengths and what does Birmingham need to do differently?”

He will publish recommendations to the Government at the end of December. One possibility is to split Birmingham into three or four separate authorities or, the council leadership’s preferred option of four quadrants to run local services overseen by a city-wide strategic board of councillors perhaps led by an elected mayor.

The merest mention of the elected mayor issue is toxic. Former Lord Mayor Mike Leddy reminded Sir Bob that the people of Birmingham had voted in 2012 decisively against an elected mayor and he hoped the issue was now dead and buried. He was also opposed to a plan apparently being pushed by former Perry Barr MP Lord Rooker that would see Birmingham broken up into three separate boroughs.

Cllr Leddy did not make it clear why he was against this, but in common with most people in the room he appeared instinctively opposed to change unless of course change meant reverting backwards rather than forwards to a golden past when the buses always ran on time, councils did not tax garden waste collection and Sutton Coldfield was part of Warwickshire.

Research compiled for Sir Bob’s review addresses the issue of whether Birmingham is too big. A city of 1.1 million people is clearly a very large entity, but in local government terms the size is unprecedented. No other council in the country comes anywhere near to Birmingham’s size.

An easy way to get a better understanding of this is to examine the size of Birmingham’s parliamentary constituencies and district committees.

There are 130,000 people living in Ladywood alone, which is comparable to the size of a small district council. Ladywood is in fact larger than the cities of Cambridge and Worcester. Birmingham’s council wards are also vast. Fifteen of the 20 largest council wards in the country are in Birmingham.

All of this tends to confirm the view that Birmingham, as a single local authority, is far too big to be administered effectively and that rearrangement of some kind is required. The question Sir Bob must grapple with is: what does an efficient Birmingham local government structure look like?

Good luck with that one, Sir Bob.

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