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Birmingham 2020 Vision: ‘It’s a great life for all’ – but is it really achievable?

Birmingham 2020 Vision: ‘It’s a great life for all’ – but is it really achievable?

🕔13.Nov 2015

The much anticipated 2020 Vision setting out Birmingham city council’s journey over the next five years has been released. As with motherhood and apple pie you really couldn’t argue against it, but is the incredible journey mapped out in the document remotely achievable, asks Paul Dale.

A draft version of the latest in a long list of road maps to success, drawn up by the cabinet, says the aim is for all in Birmingham to have a happy and healthy life, to live in a decent and affordable home, have a good job and a “great school” with extra help for their children if they need it.

The rather breathless narrative goes on to paint an almost utopian picture of perfection.

Every young person will have a “fantastic” childhood and the best preparation for adult life.

Every school in the city will be rated good with families and children receiving targeted help as early as possible to overcome “whatever issues are in their way”, with a team of “great” social workers and specialists to help the child and their family further.

Birmingham will have a strong economy with successful communities and thriving neighbourhoods and a modern council working with all people, partners and organisations across the city.

Everyone will have an affordable and decent home and enjoy a high quality of health and same life expectancy irrespective of where they live. The elderly and infirm will feel safe and live with dignity and independence and have access to fully integrated health and social care services to maintain their independence.

In fact, Birmingham will have a “seamless” health and social care provision so people can get the service they require or the correct information and advice in one place, with people who need services able to access the services they need irrespective of who the provider is.

There is of course a catch, as well there might be.

When times were good, when the economy was booming and jobs were two a penny, even in the days when governments didn’t think twice about throwing shed loads of money at cities like Birmingham, even when everyone naturally assumed town halls should provide for all our needs, this vision for the future as dreamt up by council leaders was never remotely achievable.

And to be fair, the 2020 Vision makes the point that Birmingham city council is facing “our biggest challenge yet” as the Chancellor’s austerity budget cuts continue to bite.

Between the period 2010 and 2020 the council will have had to reduce spending by about £900 million, effectively cutting the annual revenue budget in half. Staffing levels will have fallen from about 17,000 to 7,000.

It is clear that a traditional public sector approach where councils run everything and raise revenue as and when they need it can no longer apply. As the vision document candidly admits “big challenges need partnership solutions because no one organisation has the power to address them alone”.

There is a lot of talk in this document about empowering people to achieve their goals and focusing on “helping people to address their own needs”.

Birmingham is on a journey to the Big Society where communities and families help those in need and there is far less reliance on state intervention. The 2020 vision doesn’t quite spell it out, but the relentless and seemingly unstoppable downsizing of local government makes it inevitable that the 2020s will be the decade of self-help, or no help at all.

The document warns that all public services in Birmingham will have to “actively manage demand rather than passively responding to it” and this will mean commissioning service delivery from other organisations, including the private sector, will be the norm rather than an exception.

The 2020 Vision suggests that because the council will be far smaller it must act strategically, relying far more on partners:

The cuts will necessitate a significantly reduced workforce. This workforce will need to be agile and use technology to enable and facilitate mobile working.

Where appropriate we will still directly deliver quality services, but commissioning services from others will be an increasingly important part of our ability to help people meet their needs. We will prioritise direct spend and delivery in areas of need, low skill levels and high deprivation.

The focus will be on services not buildings. There is no assumption that activities will be based in current buildings. The location and ownership of buildings will be bespoke to each neighbourhood. We will rationalise office space further and co-locate with others, with all strategic functions being delivered in just one or two locations.

The vision document lists several “big shifts” in council culture that will be required over the next five years. These include:

  • From an all-purpose council to a strategic council, working with others to deliver fewer, predominantly targeted services.
  • From big to medium size employer – fewer staff (and fewer councillors).
  • From fixing problems later to earlier targeted prevention.
  • From running services to influencing service provision – from service provider to service gateway.
  • From council-led to partnership-led.
  • From top down service management to arms-length, citizen-focused and responsive services.
  • From small numbers of big providers to a diverse network of providers.
  • From investment in internal capacity to investment in community capacity.

The 2020 Vision, which can be read here, is an odd document that shows every sign of having been written by a committee. The first part sets out what Birmingham would be like if everyone’s dreams somehow came true. There is nothing wrong with having high ambitions. But this is more of a wish list than a vision.

The second part of the document lists the many obstacles standing in the way of ever achieving the incredible nirvana set out in the first part. Some of these obstacles are financial, but many involve the culture change demanded of the council as it addresses the Kerslake Review and moves from a ‘we know best’ default to a leaner, strategic, organisation comfortable with partnership working.

The problem with setting the visionary bar too high, as laudable as aspiring to great jobs, affordable housing and healthy lives for everyone may be, is that when many of the targets go unmet in 2020 the point of the exercise will be called into question.

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