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Budget for breakfast anyone? Council leader explains background to ‘savage’ and ‘unfair’ cuts.

Budget for breakfast anyone? Council leader explains background to ‘savage’ and ‘unfair’ cuts.

🕔09.Jan 2015

As Birmingham council’s leader briefed business on his proposed budget, representatives were left in no doubt where the blame lies for “savage” and “unfair” cuts. But, it seems there are some helpful findings in the Kerslake Report after all. 

Business leaders and entrepreneurs converging on the Council House for a breakfast briefing on Birmingham City Council’s budget would be forgiven for wishing they had stayed in bed for an extra hour. They were treated to a barrage of statistics and graphs as council leader Sir Albert Bore explained the Budget White Paper and the latest round of council cuts.

Sir Albert left no one in any doubt about the “savagery” of the Coalition Government cuts. He laid out how the government method of ‘spending power’ (as explained so artfully by Chris Game on these pages) was particularly unfair to Birmingham. It is a game of “lies, damn lies and statistics” he argued.

This small proportion of council revenues from residential and business properties (14% in total) and the minor degree of ‘controllable’ budget are well established. The leader also highlighted that the local government finance settlement, announced just before Christmas, was even worse than factored into the white paper budget figures.

But Sir Albert went beyond criticising the Tories and Lib Dems at a national level. Subtly, but pointedly, the decisions of the previous ‘Progressive Partnership’ in power at the Council House came under scrutiny. Sir Albert explained that running costs for the entire Economic Development function are down to £12M, whilst the annual cost of the Library of Birmingham is £22M, with £10M of that in debt repayments alone.

Earlier decisions not to increase Council Tax by as much as possible were having an aggregated impact, argued Sir Albert. It means that not only is that revenue not available for the year in question, it is not there for future years on which to build additional income through further percentage increments. This was one of at least three postive references to the findings of the recent Kerslake Review, which had pointed out that Birmingham was a relatively low council tax base authority. Perhaps Lord Whitby might have something to say on this when he next speaks in the Lords Chamber. 

The continual underfunding of child protection also came under the Labour leader’s fire, again with an implicit reference to the Whitby/Tilsley years. An extra £19.9M is going into the service next year.

Sir Albert explained that Birmingham was on the gradual path to becoming a commissioning authority. He predicted the Council would be in quite a different form in a few years. Without action, he said, the Council would be in Barnet graph of doom territory, in others words only just able to deliver on its core statutory functions of social care and refuse collection. The leader claimed that pretty much all the ‘back office’ cost savings have been achieved.

Asked by Sustainability West Midlands’ Simon Slater whether the introduction of a Combined Authority would save costs, he explained it might bring more money in. Whilst highlighting the joint economic unit with Solihull, he said the Borough Council was not wanting to “play” on a Combined Authority until after the general election. Council chiefs are currently looking at the economic benefits of a Combined Authority. Sir Albert highlighted the fundamental driver of the Greater Manchester deal was closing the gap between the money raised in an area and then spent on its public services.

GBSLEP, which yesterday signed its Growth Deal with Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, has also signed up to the Birmingham/Solihull joint economic unit. Marketing Birmingham will be part of it and the Council is also talking to Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce about how its services could be positioned under the unit umbrella.

Challenged by local enterprenuer David Roberts on entrepreneurial approaches to council services, Cabinet members lined up to explain how building services, refuse and education are examples of how the Council is working in new ways with other sectors. James MacKay highlighted work on a vision 2020 approach for the Council (as well as pointing to Kerslake’s comments on previous misplaced use of voluntary redundancy programmes) but Roberts will not have been alone in the room thinking more innovation and new partnerships need to be advanced more quickly. Birmingham’s civic glory days were characterised by partnerships between the start ups of the day and a commitment to social responsibility. Many might argue the stars are aligning for a return to such an approach to civic leadership and governance.

After the initial trial by powerpoint and numbers, Sir Albert came into his own as question time progressed and caffeine levels rose. More human and seemingly more open rather than political ‘beast’, the leader was engaging whilst no one will have been left in any doubt over his command of numbers and arguments.

The Council should be commended for its commitment to consulting on the budget, although library campaigners and others are unlikely to be pleased when the final budget is presented to full council on 3rd March. Whilst physical attendance at public meetings has been low (just above one man and his dog levels) Sir Albert excitedly announced the council had “reached out” via social media and webcasts, bringing thousands into the conversation. Whether the experience is enough to convince this ‘political dinosaur’ to turn onto twitter is another matter.

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