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Birmingham city council could be 12 weeks away from Government takeover

Birmingham city council could be 12 weeks away from Government takeover

🕔20.Jul 2015

Birmingham city council has three months to save itself, but the prospects of Britain’s largest public body delivering the radical governance reforms demanded by the Government are not bright, writes Paul Dale.

There are plenty of warning shots about the slow pace of change at the council in the letter from the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel to Communities Secretary Greg Clark.

Phrases like “the so far unmet task”, “failing to provide consistent political leadership” and “less progress than expected” immediately catch the eye and leap from the pages.

But as is often the case with such documents, the killer sentence is to be found at the end:

In view of our concerns about the council’s rate of progress in implementing its improvement plans we will report to you again in early autumn, as well as in December.

An autumn report so soon after the summer report had not been expected. The fact that the panel feels the need to re-assess the council’s performance in about 12 weeks’ time is significant.

Mr Clark will have a big call to make in October and if Birmingham’s response to recommendations set out in the Kerslake Review has not gathered pace significantly a third pessimistic report from the improvement panel could force the Communities Secretary to intervene directly.

A team of local government commissioners may already be on stand-by to take over the running of Birmingham city council for all we know. This still seems unlikely, given the sheer size of Birmingham, but it cannot be discounted entirely.

History tells us that very little of any significance happens at the city council between July and September where holidays mean that staff and cabinet members are often away. Stepping up the pace of change over the next couple of months will be difficult. It may prove to be impossible.

The letter to Mr Clark is nuanced, as might be expected from the hand of the panel chairman, John Crabtree, a former senior partner at the lawyers Wragge & Co. But you do not have to be an expert in deciphering cryptic clues to appreciate an increasing sense of frustration.

In March, Mr Crabtree wrote to the then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles setting out concerns about the slow pace of change and although noting some green shoots of progress he also underlined areas of concern.

These included a lack of senior management capacity, development of the council’s long-term financial strategy, a failure to provide consistent political leadership, the absence of a proactive communications strategy, and slow progress in bringing together an independent city-wide partnership group to hold the council to account.

Three months later, with the exception of financial planning where good work is underway, the panel remains concerned about the very same issues that were raised in March.

The panel, by all accounts, has not been overly impressed by the city’s political leadership which it fears simply does not understand the scale of change required. And by “political leadership” the panel does not just have in mind Sir Albert Bore, the Labour council leader, but also some cabinet members and senior figures in the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups.

Although this is not referred to directly in the letter, Chamberlain Files understands that panel vice-chair Frances Done has spent time interviewing cabinet members as well as key opposition councillors and has not formed an entirely favourable opinion of all of their capabilities.

It should be noted that some cabinet members – notably those who are newer and female – are seen as ‘getting it.’ Deputy leader Ian Ward is increasingly left to provide leadership on responding to the Kerslake recommendations and see through the Future Council plan, including working across party lines, but can often have his efforts diluted.

This is what the letter has to say about the behaviour of some of the elected members:

We continue to observe a council where the politicians with most influence are focusing too much on the inner political workings of the authority rather than engaging widely and enthusiastically with external partners and the communities of Birmingham.

There are many very able and committed councillors and staff who welcome the potential for radical change. The so far unmet task is for the council to consistently provide the kind of political leadership that actively encourages challenge, innovation, energy and enthusiasm – a form of leadership that will enable all staff and councillors to take forward the change programme at pace, in a way that unifies everyone across the council and throughout the city.

The fact that top councillors are focussing too much on the inner workings of the authority is a sore running through the Kerslake report. Kerslake found that boundaries between elected members and council officers were blurred, with council leaders straying far from their role of setting policy by attempting to micro-manage very senior council officials.

The letter continues:

While elements of the plan are on track there are a number of key areas where there has been less progress than expected.

While the panel commends the energy and commitment demonstrated by the chief executive and his team, there remain questions about whether the senior political leadership of the council fully understands the scale of change required.

We are not yet seeing the radical shifts necessary to address the starkest of Lord Kerslake’s criticisms relating to the council’s culture.

The dangerous position that Birmingham city council finds itself in could hardly have been put more plainly. Despite assurances by politicians, of all parties, that they “get” the need for radical change, the clear evidence suggests that change is happening at glacial pace if it is happening at all.

Take, for example, the issue of senior management capacity.

This is a key risk identified by Kerslake, pointing a finger directly at the 2004-2012 Conservative-Liberal Democrat council leadership. Huge cuts in Government grant from 2010 resulted in a stampede to get rid of good senior managers with seemingly little thought given to how those left to run the council would cope.

When Labour took over in 2012, a chaotic HR policy continued apace with the result that top officers with years of experience were practically falling over themselves to take voluntary redundancy, and were allowed to do so even though that left the council in a calamitous position.

As a result of this, when chief executive Mark Rogers arrived in March 2014 he was astonished to discover that senior management capacity was nowhere near enough to cope with the demands placed upon running a city of a million-plus people. Incidentally, Mr Rogers is one person who does appear to have impressed the improvement panel, even though at times he must feel he is fighting a losing battle almost single-handedly.

Mr Crabtree states in his letter to Greg Clark that he raised the panel’s concerns about the lack of senior management capacity with Sir Albert Bore on March 23:

I noted that senior management was extremely stretched and that there could be a severe risk to the delivery of the improvement plan if the council did not address this for the longer term, and ensure a senior management structure appropriate to England’s largest council, serving 1.1 million people.

He was given assurances by Sir Albert that the issue would be addressed.

What happened? Nothing happened. Mr Crabtree says in the latest letter:

However three months later the roles had still not been advertised. Since the public meeting at which the panel raised this issue with the leader of the Council yet again, I have been advised that the new senior strategic posts will be advertised this month.

There has been a similar delay in addressing a decades-old Birmingham problem – getting the city’s message across. Kerslake was rightly dismissive about the council’s dreadful record on communications and PR and demanded action.

The panel letter notes:

A comprehensive communications strategy is a vital component of the Future Council Programme to engage and inform both internal and external stakeholders. The panel has been informed that this will not be ready until September.

Such delay does not inspire sufficient confidence that the council’s key stakeholders will be, or will feel, involved and informed. The council’s stated commitment to transparency as part of a new approach to communicating with its residents and partners needs to be translated from words into action.

Finally, if any further proof were needed of difficult position facing Birmingham, an advance copy of the panel’s letter was sent to city council leader Sir Albert Bore for his comments. It is understood that Sir Albert had nothing to say and did not suggest altering or removing anything.

Does he agree with the letter and the views of the panel, or is he simply in denial?

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