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Birmingham: heading for the stars, whilst trapped in a bunker

Birmingham: heading for the stars, whilst trapped in a bunker

🕔30.Jul 2015

As the summer holidays relegate politics to an after thought, Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson reflects on the issues that will make September not just super but very serious indeed for Birmingham. It’s a long read, but not necessarily suitable for the beach or readers of a nervous disposition…

On so many levels, the city and city region are on the rise. In just a few weeks’ time, we’ll all be celebrating Super September – multiple openings, re-openings, arrivals, anniversaries, events and festivals that will make our lives better; our city more attractive to investors and visitors and will place Birmingham in the national (if not international) spotlight.

Just about every indicator is heading in the right direction – from FDI to employment; visitor numbers to the thousands of graduates pouring out of our universities. Not a week goes by without Marketing Birmingham, GBSLEP or the city council trumpeting some new stat, higher league table position or magazine which has awarded Birmingham the accolade of ‘bestest city in the world, ever’. Good on ’em, I say.

And yet. And yet….

Last week was a pivotal one for Birmingham. On the Files, we reported on both the letter from the Improvement Panel, set up to oversee implementation of the recommendations in the Kerslake Review, to Communities Secretary Greg Clark and comments from West Midlands Police and Crime Commissioner David Jamieson on the “dog’s breakfast” being made of the West Midlands Combined Authority. Add in the Boundary Commission’s view on the future size of the elected body and progress around the country on devolution, and it was quite a week.

None of these stories make for pleasant reading if you have anything from a passing interest to a passion for Birmingham. Just as the metrics are heading in the right direction, most of us would hope the politics and governance would be rising to the occasion to underpin, support and celebrate.

The harsh reality is, I fear, even worse than those of us who watch, analyse and comment on local politics have believed until now.

Crisis is not too strong a word. Inside the Council House at the highest levels, there is fear that the city council will not make sufficient progress in time for John Crabtree’s next letter to Greg Clark in September. There is inevitability in the air and a bunker mentality has taken hold.

The pace of reform is too slow and the panel is far from convinced that the political leadership really understands what Kerslake had to say. The concept of culture change is completely alien; never mind an understanding of the separation of policy direction from politicians and implementation by officers. Meanwhile, anyone would think Kerslake hadn’t even mentioned the notion of improving partnership working.

The best term used to sum up Birmingham’s political class, by someone who has had more than their fair share of exposure to them in recent months, is parochial.

There are institutional and endemic problems in how the council works, as Kerslake and other reports spell out. There is a limited supply of people willing to stand for elections that have the potential to go on to be high quality local politicians and community leaders. Given all of Birmingham’s recent troubles, attracting top officer talent to the Council House cadre is a tall order.

But the heart of the issue lies in the default operating model and culture, or as expressed to me by somebody very familiar with the situation: “all roads in Birmingham go through Albert.” Go back just a few years and you could find and replace the words Albert and Mike. It’s not personal, but the music has almost stopped and Sir Albert is holding the baby.

The Conservatives in the last parliament knew full well Mike Whitby was not the modern day Chamberlain he thought he was, but they recognised the political cycle would bring Labour back to power soon. Do not forget that many of today’s problems are, at least in part, the result of decisions (or lack of decisions) taken by the ‘Progressive Partnership.’ Partial responsibility for the problems Birmingham is now trying to tackle rests with previous administrations and on central government shoulders. Tory whips in the Lords appreciate that even more acutely now.

There has been too much small town politics for too long. Whether it’s massaging egos or defending positions, the simple truth is that our leaders have not always been open enough or big enough.

Too much second guessing, maneuvering and justifying. Not enough bold leadership, hard decision making and unvarnished accountability.

Whilst Baron Whitby is complaining the daily attendance allowance at the Lords is not enough to keep him in champagne and scones, Sir Albert is busy shuttling to and from Brussels. There have always been mutterings about Bore in Belgium, but just when Birmingham is facing its most serious threats, the leader is too often nowhere to be seen this side of the Channel. Many wish that Sir Albert spent more time in the Palace of Westminster and down the road in Whitehall, as well as 100 miles north, treading the same paths that Manchester’s council leader has so successfully beaten.

Many of us, not least on these pages given the banner under which we write, hark back to a golden era of municipal politics. But maybe the ghost of Joe is a double edged sword. As well as wanting to re-create that spirit of local leadership and civic entrepreneurialism, the whole city still behaves as though the city council is all powerful and controlling, with thousands and thousands of staff and a hand in everything from cradle to grave. I suggest that, even more than the politicians and officers, too many of us on the outside – including in business – look to the Council for leadership, permission or a guiding hand.

Those days are gone. Devolution may be heading our way, but we ought to abandon any sense of paternalism right now.

On devolution and combined authorities we should be, at least, thankful that council leaders and LEP chairs are in the same room.

As Paul Dale has been covering in some depth on these pages, the West Midlands is at the races. But only just. To use Chris Game’s analogy, our city region is in a seniors’ 1K jog whilst everyone else is looking to beat personal bests over more challenging distances.

Council leaders have tried to park the mayor and naming issues, but to no real effect. The elephants are still in the room.

The Prospectus was pulled together rapidly, with little local engagement, resulting in a document that caused last minute stand up rows among those gathered around the WMCA table. A top down document in the name of leaders who struggle to work together is not the way forward.

Whilst other areas are throwing health, fire services and the kitchen sink into their devo deals, West Midlands leaders have not invited the only region-wide elected politician, boss of the coppers David Jamieson, in for so much as a cuppa.

The ‘Statement of Intent’ claimed three commissions would start work immediately. We are still waiting for substantive answers to our straight-forward questions about who is chairing them; who are the members; what are the Terms of Reference and what are the timescales.

We know that Birmingham struggles to get a hearing in Whitehall. Relationship building has been poor and too often we have been seen as a bunch of whingers rather than a city wanting to build partnerships and chart innovative solutions. There is no doubt that GBSLEP chair Andy Street has done much to arrest the decline, whilst Birmingham city council chief executive Mark Rogers is doing his fair share of working civil service’s finest.

But, increasingly there are reports that the Conservative government is giving up on Birmingham’s leaders. There is a growing sense that Sajid Javid, Bromsgrove MP, Business Secretary, potential future Tory leader and the newly appointed minister for the Midlands Engine – as well as Street – are bypassing the Council to get things done as they look ahead.

Contrast that with the relationship that Osborne has built with Greater Manchester leaders as well as Labour politicians all over the north. In Osborne, Clark and Javid along with grandee Lord Heseltine, local government leaders and devolution champions are faced with the most well-disposed and friendly Conservative Cabinet ministers in living memory. If we can’t make it work with this lot, we never will.

It is not simply the Council that some government figures find “toxic.” It extends, as someone with the ear of Conservative ministers tells me, to the “orbit” of the Council. It is the system and the establishment that surrounds the local authority. The dead hand of bureaucracy; the inability to be fleet of foot and to respond quickly and positively to opportunities.

The problem is similar to Henry Kissinger’s words on Europe. Who does government call when it wants to get something done in Brum?

Part of the problem is, and always has been, communications: image and narrative. What do we stand for; what defines us; what are we about?

There are London agencies now working for GBSLEP, Marketing Birmingham and Birmingham city council on positioning and narrative. Results are promised soon. They need to be. It often takes an external perspective to provide a forensic analysis and diagnose some strong medicine. But it will take local leaders to implement and manage.

We need to start thinking the big ideas again. We seem to have lost our propensity for ambition. The political culture has too often meant policy proposals follow the lowest common denominator principle and we too readily accept advice that says new ways of doing things won’t work.

Relationship building, communications, ideas generation and much more will help to lift the Council and its solar system out of the bunker.

But it will take Leadership….with a capital L.

Only with more positive, dynamic and open leadership will Greater Birmingham be able to further boost its economic progress.

So, Birmingham’s Super September? More like Bloody Serious September.

WMCA needs to shift several gears so it can make a serious submission to the Chancellor’s 4 September deadline for the Spending Review.

Sir Albert, along with his deputy, chief executive and opposition group leaders, needs to redouble efforts to convince the Improvement Panel in time for the next public meeting and progress letter to Greg Clark in September. But first, they need to ‘get’ the problem and believe they can resolve it. Whilst the chances of the Government sending in Commissioners to run the Council is high, it’s not inevitable – especially if the Panel and the Communities Secretary see real signs of pace and progress.

It’s time for our leaders to reach above parochial politics. Deliver the Kerslake reforms and work together to take WMCA into the elite race.

The next generation of political leaders needs to be ready for the new 100 seat Council of 2018. That new Council needs to be part of a Greater Birmingham Combined Authority featuring a Metro Mayor, working with council leaders, with a clear democratic mandate; an open and visible approach to leadership and a reforming agenda for integrated public services.

The harsh truth is we – those outside the Council – have stood back, moaned and at times mocked our leaders. Let’s face it, to many Mike Whitby was a figure of fun but, as the elected leader, we felt a duty – and had a sheer practical need – to be respectful.

Never again. If we have people in leadership positions in public life who are not up to it, the business community and others should speak up and encourage the democratic process to find an answer.

We certainly can’t leave it to political leaders alone, or the ‘usual suspects’ like vice chancellors and senior partners of the big advisory firms, no matter how well intentioned and well resourced. It is time for a much wider community of leaders to step up and lend a hand.

Birmingham’s future has never been both more promising and more threatening: Super and Serious.

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