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Birmingham City Council workforce cut by a quarter, as record budget squeeze bites

Birmingham City Council workforce cut by a quarter, as record budget squeeze bites

🕔15.Feb 2012

Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby told cabinet colleagues that “sensitivity and fairness” were the threads running through his approach to the latest £101 million tranche of Government-imposed spending cuts.

Actually, a decision to  avoid the most controversial savings proposals lay at the centre of what will probably be the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition’s final budget before cabinet members retire to the backbenches after losing power at the May elections.

Coun Whitby and his colleagues made much of conducting an exhaustive consultation exercise, asking 3,000 members of the public and stakeholder organisations what they thought about a long list of suggested cuts. Unsurprisingly, the people of Birmingham weren’t at all keen on most of the proposed savings and delivered precisely the answers that could have been predicted all along.

So in quick order, a long list of cuts-too-far were jettisoned by the cabinet, scrapped in part or postponed. These included an ill-fated plan to remove council-funded social services from adults with substantial needs, which the High Court decided was being unlawfully implemented by the council which had not conducted a proper equality needs assessment.

Other cuts removed from the budget included a move to axe free home to school transport for thousands of vulnerable youngsters, and a proposal to reduce the Supporting People Programme, which helps keep vulnerable adults out of care or hospital, by £3.8 million (although £1.9 million will still be cut).

Controversial cuts to Youth Service funding, children’s centres and respite care homes were also dropped along with an idea that council grants to voluntary sector groups should be reduced. A suggestion that fees the council pays to private care home providers should be cut was also dropped.

Politically sensitive ideas, including charging for bulky waste collections and for collecting garden rubbish proved unpopular with the Birmingham populace, and were ditched, along with a suggestion that money could be saved by reducing the level of street cleansing.

In a sense, you can’t blame the cabinet. The end of the road is almost in sight and most Tory and Lib Dem politicians are reconciling themselves to losing office, but there is perhaps the slimmest of chances that something might be salvaged at the elections off the back of a popular budget. There is, after all, to be a council tax freeze for the second year running.

It is stretching the imagination to call £101 million of cuts for 2012-13 popular, but the package finally put forward by the cabinet could have been far worse had all of the proposals put out for consultation been approved.

Why, you might ask, were so many politically unacceptable savings floated in the first place?

There are two possibilities. The first is based on cabinet indifference, with members simply failing to recognise the huge public backlash against serious cuts to front line services. The second is that the proposals were worked up by officers and had nothing to do with the politicians.

The official explanation is that the initial cuts proposals were drawn up by officers, who ran the consultation process while elected councillors were deliberately kept at arms-length. That, however, does not explain why leaders of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition did not intervene earlier, when cuts proposals were handed to them by officials at a series of brainstorming away-days towards the end of 2011. Instead, they insisted on blundering forward with savage adult social services cuts and did not begin moving to reverse that decision until ending up on the losing side of a Judicial Review.

There are of course plenty of nasty cuts remaining in what opposition Labour leader Sir Albert Bore described as a “smoke and mirrors” budget. He reckons that a £50 million “black hole” exists when tricky accountancy practices such as borrowing from balances and extending debt repayment periods are taken into account. Whether this is true or not, Sir Albert will probably be left to deliver the coalition’s budget in May, at least until November when the baton may pass to an elected mayor.

Unpalatable cuts approved by the cabinet include saving £1 million by reducing the wages paid to adults who escort disabled children traveling to school on buses; cutting £1 million from the adoption and fostering service by reducing staff; axing £4 million from the Connexions service; cutting £5.3 million from the budget for Children’s Centres.

Sir Albert, if he takes control of the council, will also be left to sort out the loss-making Shelforce company which manufactures double glazing and employs 69 disabled adults.  It is losing money and a £1 million savings plan is being pushed through by the coalition, which will see 28 jobs axed. A commitment has been given that there will be no compulsory redundancies at Shelforce.

The budget papers make several references to “vacancy management” and “admin efficiencies”, which is local government-speak for getting rid of jobs. It has always been evident that, since most of the council’s expenditure goes towards paying salaries, a sharp reduction in staffing numbers would be an inevitable result of the 2010-14 spending cuts programme which already stands at an estimated £400 million and has seen the council lose 17.4 per cent of Government grant in two years.

Almost 5,000 out of about 25,000 non-schools jobs have disappeared, and a further 1,144 are expected to go in 2012-13. In the three year period 2010-13, a quarter of the non-schools workforce will have been axed, which represents the sharpest downsizing in the history of Birmingham’s largest employer.

Anyone expecting some relief at the end of the current public expenditure reduction programme can think again. Buried away at the back of the council budget papers lies officers’ predictions on future savings likely to be demanded by the Government, which are projected to be between £99 million and £163 million between 2013-14 and 2021-22.

The first two decades of the 21st century will see the city council’s total workforce reduce from almost 60,000 to about 40,000. The council’s non-schools core workforce, which numbered about 25,000 a few years ago, is already down to just over 20,000 and could fall to 15,000 or even fewer by the mid-2020s as more jobs are outsourced to private sector partners or co-operatives.

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