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Birmingham’s political dividing line: austerity anger v financial incompetence

Birmingham’s political dividing line: austerity anger v financial incompetence

🕔07.Dec 2016

If you are a fan of passionate parliamentary debates, then yesterday’s debate on a vote of no confidence in the leadership of Birmingham City Council is actually worth a watch. No, seriously.

For here you will find the core of the debate on the council’s financial position in the raw. You will also have a chance to form a proper view on each of the party’s leaders.

For the Conservatives, it is about the ability to spend within your means and to make a budget that you know you can deliver.

For the ruling Labour administration, it’s about the sheer unfairness of Birmingham’s funding by Government and the scale of savings (£590M) which are being delivered since 2010.

The Liberal Democrats are somewhere in middle. Poor financial management, yes, but the city is subject to a social care crisis at the hands of government.

So, the issue is either one about revenue or about spending. Take your pick.

Cllr Robert Alden and his supporters (including mother Deidre and Cllr Ken Wood) laid out the charge sheet – expensive consultants and unnecessary assistant leaders as part of the leader’s “empire building”; health and social care integration savings that are some way from bearing fruit; a rubbish waste system; a failure to quickly address overspends as they occur and a “victim” like culture.

But Cllr Clancy was not going to be drawn on alleged financial mismanagement today when he could point to Conservative-Lib Dem ‘progressive partnership’ negotiated contracts with Amey and Service Birmingham; unchecked pension payments, the equal pay debacle and some “toxic” borrowing to fund the Library of Birmingham to name but a few.

It was left to deputy leader, Cllr Ian Ward, to make the detailed arguments about savings made and missed. The last budget had, he said, been signed off based on the “best available advice.” I think we know what that is code for.

The Leader of the Conservative Group issued a statement as the debate was about to begin, “slamming” the Labour Council as news emerged the Council budget gap had risen to £86 million next year.

Cllr Robert Alden said:

What started out as a £38 million overspend has morphed into a budget gap of over £80 million. Sadly this was only revealed in an LGA document. The City Council is still refusing to publicly talk about the current budget gap, referring questions at the full Council meeting to reports from earlier in the year, now out of date”.

The huge overspend which the Labour Council has produced this year means that next year over £80 million will have to be cut just to repay the overspends from mismanagement this year. We have a council that admits they were not accounting for how to cover future savings when they abandoned them in year. A Council which set a budget it said it could deliver but has failed to. A Council who will tell the LGA just how deep the budget black hole is but hides it from the residents of the City who are left footing the bill. We have demanded that all the internal and external comments the Council receive from the Independent Financial Review should be made public. The residents of Birmingham deserve to know if they can faith in the Council’s budget again, after Labours huge overspend.

The Conservative group leader concluded:

We are not claiming that the financial position of local government is anything other than challenging. However in such times now more than ever it is important that we have strong leadership, capable of delivering the duties of the Council to residents of our great city.

Time and again the current Council administration have shown themselves incapable of doing just that and in failing to do so have made the financial challenge far far worse.

We cannot build a City that works for everyone if we have a City Council administration that does not work.

It was a solid performance from the younger Alden, if you could divert your eyes from his jacket. His arguments were well presented. But frankly, councillors Alden and Clancy were not engaging on the same terms.

For Cllr Clancy, the opposition parties were erecting a smokescreen over an unfair funding settlement from a Government that “couldn’t even balance its own books by the way.”

In the end I am not going to take any lessons from the parties opposite on the financial mismanagement of this city council.

You failed to fix the roof when the sun was shining in this city. You made a right hash of it.

Clearly, you sit down this week and you put down 88 questions and a vote of no confidence. This is obviously getting your retaliation in early.

For those who have been getting to know Cllr Clancy over the last year, this was a very different side to the 3-piece suited former teacher and lawyer turned civic leader. His anger at the argument put forward by the opposition seemed more than just a tactic of uniting the Labour Group behind him. His deputy was, if anything, even more riled. He was literally foaming (actually, he wasn’t “literally” foaming…not quite) at the suggestion that utilising council property for money making coffee franchises.

Passion is a useful commodity in politics. But the words almost ran away from the council leader as he tried to speak them. It was no doubt powerful in the chamber and gave cause for a standing ovation from his Group.

It all changed nothing in terms of the confidence vote, or the state of Birmingham city council’s finances. But it has probably helped to bolster John Clancy’s position with the Labour Group and further weakened any prospect of a serious leadership challenge next May.

So, a political job done well. But the financial challenge remains significant.

Cllr Clancy has been able to hide any blame behind a budget which he largely inherited from his predecessor Sir Albert Bore. But the 2017/18 budget on which consultation starts tomorrow will be that of the Clancy administration and will be a test of his leadership skills rather than political passion.

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