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Birmingham’s end of local government white paper: ‘Don’t panic Mr Mainwairing, we’re all doomed’

Birmingham’s end of local government white paper: ‘Don’t panic Mr Mainwairing, we’re all doomed’

🕔10.Dec 2013

Veterans of Sir Albert Bore’s arduous Green Paper Campaign will be all too familiar with the doom-laden rhetoric adopted by the leader of Birmingham City Council.

A small band of journalists, and the emphasis is on small, that trooped along to a dozen service review briefings during 2013 were pretty much treated to the same script, albeit a script that tended to be ratcheted upwards during the course of the year.

Underpinning the briefings was, of course, the Jaws of Doom – a graph predicting the gap over eight years between the resources the council could expect to have and the growing demand for services.

The gap began at about £600 million and then shot up to £825 million, and obligingly increased at the last minute by a further £14 million to stand at £839 million in time for Sir Albert to launch his ‘white paper’ Planning Birmingham’s Future and Budget Consultation 2014-15.

Then there was Sir Albert’s catch phrase ‘the end of local government as I have known it’. This was fused at a private Labour group meeting with ‘Armageddon’, basically the end of the world for public services unless the Government saw sense and scaled back its austerity programme.

And then, at almost every briefing, Sir Albert took care to mention a well-worn local government mantra – the amount to be saved is so large that there can be ‘No More Salami Slicing’.

In other words, given the council’s apparent need to make a further £460 million of savings over the next three years, it would be no use ordering departments to simply cut budgets by an agreed percentage. You’d end up with the collapse of services across the board.

What would have to happen, Sir Albert argued, was a radical transformation of service delivery to make the council fit for a new type of local government where all but a few core services would be delivered by volunteers or the private sector.

This led to the three steps approach, apparently invented by the cabinet member for health and wellbeing, Steve Bedser, who during the course of the green paper campaign seems to have become closer to Sir Albert, so much so that the two probably no longer risk travelling together in a taxi lest they should both suffer a nasty accident.

Step one identifies the easy savings linked to efficiency improvements. Step two involves ‘radical’ options involving remodelling services. Step three, aka Armageddon, involves ‘radical’ reductions and the decommissioning of non-statutory services.

Those who have been watching all of this unfold since the start of the year will recall Sir Albert’s consistent warning that the day is fast approaching when the council will have to decommission services. That warning approached one minute to midnight status at the end of the summer when the council leader said it was no longer a question of if there would have to be wholesale decommissioning of services, but when this might happen.

At a briefing in September Sir Albert told the media he would bring forward plans for abandoning services in a white paper at the end of the year and that decommissioning would begin in 2015-16. Steps one and two had proved insufficient to meet the financial squeeze imposed on the council and it was sadly necessary to move to step three.

It was at this briefing that the funereal Cllr Bedser risked a joke, of sorts: “There won’t be any salami slicing. We have to consider whether there will be any salami at all.”

A month later, Sir Albert confirmed: “We had hoped we wouldn’t have to go any further than step two but it’s now clear we have to go to step three and the discontinuation of certain services.”

This brings us to the launch of the white paper yesterday and the discovery that Sir Albert’s position has shifted ever so slightly. The document claims to be all very radical, of course. In fact, the word radical or radically appears 12 times. And there is still to be no salami slicing, apparently.

As for the decommissioning of services, Sir Albert said he was “very close to the point” where this would become necessary, but it wouldn’t happen yet, which you must suppose is something of a relief for the people of Birmingham and for the Labour group.

Sir Albert added: “I am pleased to say we have managed to avoid closing any services in their entirety in the coming year, but there are reductions in services and some facilities will go.”

The white paper sets out a budget for 2014-15 that certainly does contain its share of salami slicing, particularly in terms of ‘efficiency savings’ and stripping out back office costs. Surely there can be no more salami left after this, although you never know.

It also contains a few potential political time bombs including proposals to dim street lights, cut back on street cleaning, sack all park keepers, and pass £5 million of cuts on to the District Committees, which in some cases may mean closing or reducing opening hours at community libraries.

A potentially embarrassing decision lies around the corner. Sir Albert has signalled that opening hours at the new Library of Birmingham may have to be curtailed on the grounds that the £189 million building is proving costlier to run than envisaged.

As for claims that the white paper offers a blueprint for a ‘new local government’, this is true but only up to a point. The ‘radical’ changes proposed in the way that the city council is funded might, if they were ever imposed, get the controlling Labour group out of a difficult fix, but the chances of Sir Albert’s ‘big ideas’ being implemented quickly, or at all, appear remote.

He sees a possible escape route through what’s known as ‘whole place budgeting’, effectively bringing together in a single pot the £7.5 billion of public sector funding handed to various organisations in Birmingham each year.

This, it is argued, would enable the council, health services and police to pool budgets and work together more effectively by cutting out duplication. It would also enable the council to get its hands on a higher proportion of health service funding to meet the soaring cost of caring for adults with learning disabilities, and cash from the Dedicated Schools Grant to pay for non-statutory education services.

Another big idea is to embrace Lord Heseltine’s plan for city region powers and a single pot of Whitehall funding for economic regeneration, including the possibility of establishing a West Midlands Combined Authority to oversee economic development and transport.

These ideas are all well and good but the chances of whole place budgeting occurring any time soon seem remote, and certainly improbable in the three to four year timescale of spending cuts facing the city council. Health services and schools are hardly likely to volunteer to throw their lot in with the council, and it is difficult to envisage the government forcing the issue.

What it boils down to is this: Sir Albert has put off the inevitable for another year. As the Americans would say, he’s kicked the can down the road. Perhaps he felt he couldn’t get decommissioning past the Labour group at this stage, or possibly he simply can’t bring himself to do it.

At the start of this year, with his dire prediction, he resembled the Fat Boy in Dickens’s Pickwick Papers, who liked ‘to make your flesh creep’. By the end of the year Sir Albert moved effortlessly into Mr Micawber mode, desperately praying that something will turn up.

Basically, bringing together two catch phrases from Dad’s Army: “Don’t panic, we’re all doomed”.

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