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Birmingham carries on despite Bore’s ‘woe, woe, thrice woe’ prophecy

Birmingham carries on despite Bore’s ‘woe, woe, thrice woe’ prophecy

🕔17.Sep 2014

Yesterday, Council leader Sir Albert Bore announced the loss of 6,000 jobs – almost half the workforce. Chief blogger Paul Dale examines, as there was nothing very new in the statement, what was the political reason for the media briefing and big announcement to the full Council. 

The trouble with Sir Albert Bore’s ‘this is the end of local government as we know it’ mantra is that we have heard it all before. Many times. Perhaps too many times for any good that it is doing.

Birmingham’s Labour leader first produced his doom-laden prophecy, I think, in late 2012 when he also unveiled the infamous Jaws of Doom graph depicting how Government grant and soaring demand for expensive social services would eventually bankrupt the city council.

And since then Sir Albert has continued somewhat in the manner of Up Pompeii’s Cassandra – woe, woe and thrice woe!

Yesterday he briefed the media on the continuing financial crisis.

The truth is that Sir Albert had nothing very new to say. His headline figures, that budget cuts of about £200 million are needed next year and that some 6,000 council jobs will disappear over the next couple of years, were already in the public domain.

Ian Ward, his deputy, addressed a meeting of the main scrutiny committee earlier this month, which was streamed live on the web, and revealed exactly the same figures – a fall in the workforce from 13,000 to 7,000 and the need to identify £200 million of savings.

So, two questions arise. The first is why did Sir Albert decide to make a big thing of this with a sombre statement to the full council, and the second is when will the end of local government as we know it actually materialise?

There are several possible answers to the first question.

It may be that Sir Albert wanted to get the issue aired in the run-up to the Tory conference in Birmingham at the end of the month. Or perhaps he wished to soften up Labour councillors who will soon be presented with the results of ‘service reviews’ and, it is claimed, will have to decide which services to dump.

The second question is more problematic. Despite all of the financial hardship thrown at the city council, with over £460 million already cut from budgets since 2010-11, there is no sign that services are falling apart (with the exception of children’s social care which has been a basket case for years). The council is performing as well, or as poorly, as it has ever done.

True, in many respects Birmingham is a challenging place. But it is not all bad news and it is fair to say that adult social care, housing and school exam grades in particular have shown dramatic improvement over the past 15 years.

Yesterday, even as Sir Albert was preparing to tell the media that job losses would send a “seismic shock” through the council, his officials were engaged in launching exciting plans to improve the core retail area to make Birmingham a “shopping destination of choice”.

The council leader’s problem is quite simply this: one-third of the council workforce has disappeared in the space of three years with the loss of 7,000 jobs, but the local authority continues to function and is not even remotely close to falling apart.

While giving his briefing Sir Albert strayed into the world of economics, although far from convincingly. He welcomed a stronger than expected return to growth and noted that Birmingham was on the cusp of a revival in manufacturing. Yet, he claimed, it was a “tragedy” that cuts to council services were coming about at a time of great promise for Birmingham. Surely, though, fewer public services are required when economic growth is strong, or have I missed something?

One can imagine the reaction of combative Tory Communities Secretary Eric Pickles to yet another pronouncement about the end of local government in Birmingham. Pickles will see it as proof of his contention that councils are bloated and that Birmingham can shed so many jobs and still carry on.

There is a similar story to be told in other large cities where cuts in funding have also led to a scaling down of the municipal workforce. Are these cities falling apart? Are public services collapsing? There is no evidence that this is the case.

For most people lucky enough to have a job and not to come into contact with social services, Mr Pickles’ assault on local government will go unnoticed. Only when the bins aren’t emptied or the streets go un-swept might there be a groundswell of reaction. It was significant that, as soon as the council began to receive complaints about litter-strewn pavements in Birmingham city centre, Cllr Ward decided to reverse a £1.5 million cut in the street cleansing service.

None of the above should be taken as an indication that Birmingham city council does not have acute financial problems. Of course it does and any organisation would struggle to cope with losing half of its revenue budget in the space of three or four years.

What’s required is a radical examination of priorities for public services going forward. There appears to be growing acknowledgement that councils must continue at pace to move from the role of providers to that of enablers. This in itself will be a huge cultural challenge for local government, which has always seen itself as the provider of cradle to grave services.

The long-awaited result of Birmingham council’s service reviews will give an indication of whether Sir Albert and his colleagues have truly grasped the scale of the change that is required. Let’s not forget that service reviews conducted last year that were supposed to have been the start of the end of local government as we know it turned out to be pretty much the same old salami slicing.

Sir Albert yesterday repeated something he has been saying since 2012, and that is that Birmingham must redefine its priorities and decide what services it simply has to continue to deliver. It must also decide what services it can afford to continue to deliver, which may throw up some very unsavoury answers indeed.

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