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Bore’s ‘extraordinary’ letter will buy time, but Birmingham not yet out of Kerslake woods

Bore’s ‘extraordinary’ letter will buy time, but Birmingham not yet out of Kerslake woods

🕔07.Sep 2015

The latest letter from Sir Albert Bore to John Crabtree, chair of the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, must rank as one of the most extraordinary communiques ever to come from the pen of a council leader.

The missive, all 2,000 words of it, amounts to a heartfelt plea to give Birmingham a chance, and sets out to suggest that a once lumbering civic juggernaut has somehow turned into a sleek sports coupé racing towards the finishing post implementing every aspect of the Kerslake Review recommendations as the chequered flag approaches.

It is passionate in places, sometimes defensive, verging occasionally on self-congratulation, and ends with an almost desperate plea that if the council isn’t doing enough to change the way it behaves then Mr Crabtree must “work with us and guide us in the right direction”.

This is a letter that manages to be defiant and a cry for help all at the same time.

It is a letter that, although it bears Sir Albert’s signature, is unlike anything seen in the past from someone who is not generally inclined to write in such personal terms. You might almost think he had a team of writers working for him.

Sir Albert’s key passage, effectively challenging Mr Crabtree to back him or sack him, is this:

I am personally really pleased with the progress we have all made in the last couple of months or so, especially since we last met with you at the public meeting in June and following the publication of your last letter in July.

And I trust that you will recognise those endeavours, not only by myself and the cabinet, but also by the chief executive and his team of senior officers; the wider group of staff pushing forward and hard on this agenda; and our partners who are working with us and helping us to improve not only the city council but the city as a whole.

The progress made in the past two months has to be measured against little progress between January and July. Whether Mr Crabtree and his colleagues will accept that the pace of change is adequate now is something we shall find out before too long.

It would be churlish though to let this pass without, as Sir Albert recognises, recognising the game-changing behind-the-scenes role played by council chief executive Mark Rogers, whose metaphorical banging of heads together appears to be paying off. Mr Rogers, without doubt, is someone who has grown into the job, is his own man, and is beginning to make a real difference.

The first thing to be noted is that this is a letter Sir Albert never imagined he would have to write. If the improvement panel had given the council an adequate half-year progress report in July, then there would have been no need for a follow up letter from the council leader.

But the panel was concerned at the slow pace of change and decided it would have to review matters in September and report directly to Communities Secretary Greg Clark. This meant that Sir Albert and his colleagues had a couple of months to step on the accelerator and start to deliver the Kerslake Review recommendations in full, or possibly face direct Government intervention.

So Sir Albert’s new letter has to be judged against the criticisms in July. These were that the panel was “not seeing the radical shifts necessary to address the starkest of Lord Kerslake’s criticisms relating to the authority’s culture” and questioned whether politicians understood the scale of the changes being demanded of them.

Mr Crabtree said he continued “to observe a council where the politicians with most influence are focusing too much on the inner political workings of the authority rather than engaging widely and enthusiastically with external partners and the communities of Birmingham”.

And he added, rather pointedly:

While the panel commends the energy and commitment demonstrated by the chief executive and his team, there remain questions about whether the senior political leadership of the council fully understands the scale of change required.

The panel’s key concerns in July related to lack of progress over three key Kerslake recommendations.

These were establishing an independent city partnership group to oversee the council’s progress and to develop an agreed vision for Birmingham, developing a long-term financial strategy for the council, and securing the senior management capacity necessary to boost performance.

Mr Crabtree was entitled to be concerned because Sir Albert had assured him steps were being taken to create the additional senior management capacity demanded by Kerslake, but promised job advertisements simply never appeared.

In July, Sir Albert accepted the council had “taken some time to get out of the starting blocks” but was “confident that we are now moving forward at pace and on all fronts”.

He promised:

There will be an acceleration of the actions required over the summer, which will include progressing the recruitment of senior officers to increase strategic capacity; running networking events with partners to develop a shared and long-term vision for the city; and completing a programme of workshops across all service areas to develop our financial planning for both the short and longer term.

That brings us to this month’s letter in which Sir Albert was required to address the previous criticisms and assure the panel not only that he “gets” the change agenda, but that he is delivering what is required.

The letter contains something that seasoned Bore-watchers doubted they would ever see – an admission that mistakes were made. Sir Albert uses ‘we’ instead of ‘I’ and doesn’t quite apologise, but comes close:

The panel’s last letter reiterated concerns it had about the slow progress in boosting senior management capacity and we recognise, in retrospect, that we could have moved more swiftly.

Progress has been achieved against the three failings flagged up by the panel in July, but developments have panned out in a very Birmingham kind of way. Despite claims of inclusivity and a new approach to partnerships, the council reverts to type by refusing to publish an evidence pack which it has shared with the panel but will not permit anyone else to see.

The independent city partnership group, called Birmingham Partners, is finally in place but consists of a predictable list of the usual suspects – chamber of commerce, the universities, schools, children’s hospital etc.

It is worth recalling that Kerslake’s suggestion of an independent Birmingham leadership group amounted to far more than a collection of well-meaning chums. Kerslake wanted, and the Government agreed, a group that “should approve the new long-term City Plan and be used to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account”.

Advertisements for a range of senior council directors have been placed, and a new strategic communications director is in post, although the council has not bothered officially to announce that James Flynn is the man hired to develop “an honest, balanced and compelling narrative for Birmingham”.

The irony of a council accused of serial communications failures, failing to communicate that it has employed a communications director is almost surreal.

Work on the financial strategy has moved up a gear thanks to the appointment of consultants Deloitte who are working on a demand management approach to identify £250 million of savings. This effectively amounts to the very zero budgeting exercise that could and arguably should have been introduced in 2013-14.

Other changes are underway or are being delivered. Senior council officials and councillors now have to undergo proper performance reviews, councillors are being sent on training courses, the size of the council is being reduced to 100 councillors and a boundary review is taking place.

The West Midlands combined authority exists in shadow form, and Birmingham has gone out of its way to take a back seat, in public at least. The new body even has a Tory chair, and who ever saw that coming?

And so, bit by bit, the Kerslake recommendations are being implemented and the council’s leadership has moved from an attitude in January of “we don’t really have to do all of this” to belatedly realising that they have no choice in the matter.

While Sir Albert’s letter doesn’t come close to explaining why the first six months of the year was wasted, it should do enough to convince Mr Crabtree and his panel colleagues that their concerns are now being addressed more urgently.

This will buy Birmingham extra time and keep the Government at bay, but only if the municipal foot continues to be pressed firmly on the accelerator. The council is not yet out of the Kerslake woods.

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