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Clancy and Rogers lay it on the line: ‘The salami days are over, now it’s serious’

Clancy and Rogers lay it on the line: ‘The salami days are over, now it’s serious’

🕔14.Jan 2016

More than half of the £250 million of spending cuts Birmingham council intends to deliver over the next four years rely on the new city leader succeeding in areas where his predecessors either failed to achieve results or shied away from making decisions, writes Paul Dale.

Addressing a budget consultation meeting of business representatives, council leader John Clancy and chief executive Mark Rogers did not attempt to gloss over the acute financial difficulties facing Birmingham city council.

Some £90 million will be axed from the 2016-17 budget on top of £550 million that has already disappeared since 2010, and a further £250 million has to be found by 2020. This means that in five years’ time the council will have half as much to spend as was the case in 2010.

On top of that, the council workforce, some 20,000-strong five years ago, is down to 10,000 and will continue to fall.

Clearly, in Clancy’s words, the council has to “re-imagine” the way it works.

Obviously, there will be far more commissioning of services rather than delivery directly by the council, and much more partnership working. Businesses, the third sector and other organisations are being invited to “step up” and do their bit, whether that is helping to run social services, cleaning the streets, funding free school meals, or keeping community libraries open.

It is the Government’s Big Society in action, although the Labour council leader likes to call it “a decent society”. The concept of a Big Society goes back into the mists of time. Possibly, the Good Samaritan was one of the first examples of those that can helping those that can’t, although as Lady Thatcher liked to point, the Good Samaritan could only come to the rescue of the unfortunate traveller because he had the money to do so.

Cllr Clancy’s step-up Birmingham is unlikely to get very far if he cannot deliver the savings demanded by Chancellor George Osborne. Failing to produce a workable medium term strategy, failing to deliver £250 million of spending cuts by 2020, would almost certainly invite further direct Government action in the form of commissioners being sent in to take the tough decisions that proved beyond the capabilities of elected politicians.

We are now way past the salami slicing stage, according to Clancy:

We have tried to slice a bit off here and a bit off there. Perhaps we did a bit too much of that and for the past few years we haven’t taken coherent and robust medium to long term decisions.

Out of the £250 million of proposed cuts, about £150 million is being sought from initiatives that have been tried in the past, but have not succeeded.

At the top of the list is a proposal to reduce spending on adult social care by £92 million by 2020. Some of the savings will be found through preventative measures, intervening at an early stage to keep older people living at home rather than going in to expensive residential care. There will also be far more reliance on services by the voluntary sector and private sector.

The meat of the proposal rests on the council and local health services working together far more closely, cutting out duplication. There will have to be an accommodation as to which council-run services the NHS ought to be providing.

As Mr Rogers put it, there will be a “conversation” with health chiefs because the council is going for “a fast and big bang” with the NHS. He also admitted, candidly, that although the council will try to ensure the highest possible standard of care from private providers, the dangers are all too clear to see from a business-led model.

There is nothing very new in proposed closer working between councils and the health service. Governments of all colours have promised it for decades, without much in the way of success. It may be on this occasion that Mr Osborne’s harsh austerity savings will force public sector bodies to amalgamate in order to survive.

A further £60 million of savings planned by 2020 rest on the council’s Labour party leadership being able to deliver sweeping changes to working practices – re-writing contracts to cut sick pay, reduce holiday entitlement, and increase hours worked. A separate set of negotiations will attempt to transform the much-criticised fleet and waste service and may lead to privatising refuse collection and street cleaning.

All of this has been tried in the past without success and it goes without saying that the contract negotiations are highly politically charged for Labour. The council leader will be up against the clock to deliver, with the threat of industrial action constantly around the corner.

There are many other difficult areas for Cllr Clancy, who as a still relatively new council leader will have to prove his political prowess by persuading colleagues to end years of prevarication by reforming (cutting) the costly home to school transport scheme. Other “much loved” services such as community libraries and children’s centres are at risk, certainly in their current form.

Apologising for Birmingham’s eternal traffic chaos, and for the “depressing” financial news, Cllr Clancy attempted to lift the businessmen and women in the audience with his by now familiar “I’m not waving the white flag” routine.

He says the only chance of future success is to create wealth and jobs through capital spending and his vision is for Birmingham to become a city of 1,000 small and medium sized businesses.

Business growth is essential. This is an entrepreneurial city and I am absolutely determined the way we move forward is through economic growth.

I am confident Birmingham will continue the positive growth of the past few years.

We will match Manchester, overtake it and become one of the great European cities.

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