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Birmingham’s reputation is being systematically trashed: is anyone in charge of the fight back?

Birmingham’s reputation is being systematically trashed: is anyone in charge of the fight back?

🕔16.Jun 2014

How do you solve a problem like Birmingham? After all, if Alastair Campbell’s dictum about a government being in serious difficulties when a bad news story persists for more than two or three weeks is to be believed, this city must be staring at a reputational catastrophe.

Eight months ago, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Chief Inspector for Ofsted, used his annual report to launch an unprecedentedly savage attack, describing Birmingham as one of the worst places in the developed world to bring up children.

Branding the city a “national disgrace” where a third of children grow up in poverty, he went on to compare infant mortality rates unfavourably with places like Cuba and declared a “failure of corporate governance on a grand scale”.

His comments were triggered by the city council’s inability to address its inadequate children’s social services. At that time, Birmingham had failed seven Ofsted inspections. The figure has risen to eight since then, or possibly nine. It is difficult to keep track.

A government commissioner, Lord Warner, has been appointed in an effort to help turn around children’s social care, but more about him later.

Wilshaw went on to suggest, and this, I think, is important, that Birmingham is just too large to be governed by a single administrative body and that the city council might have to be broken up into smaller more manageable authorities.

It was an astonishing salvo and came completely out of the blue. Birmingham’s response was, as usual, pretty much a non-response other than to say it was trying very hard to address its problems.

In an odd coincidence, just after Ofsted issued Wilshaw’s report, Birmingham City Council began to receive letters alleging a ‘Trojan Horse’ plot by militant Muslims to infiltrate schools and force children to adopt an ultra-conservative Islamic ideology.

The council, for reasons best known to itself, did little other than hand the letters to West Midlands Police, who decided that nothing needed to be done about Trojan Horse, thank you very much. And that might have been that, had the Birmingham Mail not revealed the existence of the letters in March 2014.

Investigations were ordered and the Government got involved in the shape of Education Secretary Michael Gove. Sir Michael Wilshaw – he of the ‘Birmingham is the worst place in world to bring up children claim – was naturally on to it like a shot, storming into the city to take personal charge of Ofsted’s inquiry.

Birmingham is entitled to ask, as former Education Director Sir Tim Brighouse has done, whether Sir Michael was really the right independent-minded person to oversee the Ofsted probe given the incendiary nature of his attack on the city last year.

Pretty much since March, national newspapers, television and radio have been full of news about Birmingham. Not good news, though. Ofsted’s report on the 21 ‘Trojan Horse’ schools inspected certainly disproves the theory that there is no such thing as bad publicity. There most certainly is, and Birmingham has had more than its fair share.

Wilshaw took care personally to write to Mr Gove setting out Ofsted’s findings. A culture of “fear and intimidation” had developed in some Birmingham schools where governors were exerting inappropriate influence to impose a narrow faith-based ideology on pupils.

Birmingham City Council was criticised for turning a blind eye by failing to address complaints from head teachers about what was going on. Nine council-run schools were found to need improvement, and one has been placed under special measures. Four academies have been placed in special measures and two require improvement.

The second part of the Trojan Horse drama will take place next month when former Metropolitan Police counter-terrorism commander Peter Clarke hands the results of his Trojan Horse inquiry to Mr Gove. The chances of this resulting in anything other than more bad publicity for Birmingham are remote, you would imagine.

The events of the past eight months raise two important questions. The first: “Who is in charge of co-ordinating Birmingham’s response to an all-out assault on its reputation?” The second: “Can a city of 1.1 million people ever be governed effectively by a behemoth of a city council with 120 elected representatives?”

As to the first question, there is no single person, or even a single body, overseeing Birmingham’s response. The reputation of the second largest city in Britain is being systematically trashed. There is a feeling of helplessness not to mention hopelessness. Some people are acting individually, but there is as yet no city-wide strategic approach. Who is in charge of the fight back?

Nothing very new there at all. I’ve lost count of the number of ‘let’s get the Birmingham message over’ and ‘let’s promote Birmingham as world class’ initiatives that have been stiched together over the years only to disappear in a mountain of bureaucracy and turf-war disputes over who should be responsible for putting out ‘the message’.

Sir Albert Bore, leader of the council, rushed to London with chief executive Mark Rogers a week ago to assure Michael Gove that the issues in Ofsted’s Trojan Horse report would be addressed. Just give us some time, was the gist of the Bore-Rogers strategy.

It is reported that Labour councillors were not told in advance of Sir Albert’s trip. Neither did Labour’s high command at Westminster know about it, apparently. Sir Albert will probably again be accused of behaving like a directly elected mayor; he will certainly be criticised by backbench Labour councillors for failing to question publicly the inaction of the 2004-2012 Tory-Lib Dem council coalition in addressing school governance issues.

Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne and District Committee chair Cllr Ansar Ali Khan issued a statement proposing to knock on doors and start talks with parents about “the way forward for Birmingham schools and communities”.

Ladywood MP Shabana Mahmood was quoted in an interview in the Huffington Post bemoaning “this lazy discussion of Islam and extremism”. Mahmood noted: “What this means for Muslims in Birmingham is at least two more months where the words Muslim and extremist are lazily interchanged and where clear problems of governance get redefined as radicalisation.”

Whether the cauldron of controversy over Trojan Horse and children’s social services will lead to structural change in the way public services in Birmingham are administered is ultimately a matter for the Government. Lord Norman Warner, the commissioner overseeing children’s social services, thinks the current city-wide organisation should be broken up into three or four smaller directorates.

Former council chief executive Stephen Hughes spoke about the impossible task he faced in keeping tabs on all that was going on in Birmingham. The only chance, he reckoned, was to take a team approach because no one person could ever run such a large city.

Sir Albert Bore favours devolving local service provision to 10 District Committees. But some of these areas are as large as smaller district councils, and Sir Albert has never managed to explain how a central cabinet with executive powers to run Birmingham can sit back and allow district committees to take important and quite possibly controversial spending decisions.

Meanwhile, the elected mayor issue hasn’t gone away. Edgbaston Labour MP Gisela Stuart recently told the House of Commons that Birmingham City Council was in danger of going bankrupt, just like Detroit in America, and that a new system of leadership was required in the form of a directly elected mayor.

Mrs Stuart departed from Labour policy by suggesting the Government should impose an elected mayor on Birmingham, in the way that police commissioners were imposed on England and Wales by the coalition government. Her entirely reasonable point is that if Ministers believe elected mayors are the answer, then they must make it happen. Radical change on such a scale is never likely to be approved in a referendum, as has been shown in the past.

How do you solve a problem like Birmingham? It seems highly unlikely to me that a coalition government nearing the end of its time in office will have the inclination or the energy to go down the road of radical structural change. Sir Albert Bore, the ultimate deal maker, reckons he has the measure of Mr Gove and has persuaded the Education Secretary to grant the council yet more time to turn things around.

And he probably has.

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