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Clancy basks in sea of tranquility, but winter storms are on the horizon

Clancy basks in sea of tranquility, but winter storms are on the horizon

🕔08.Dec 2015

The air of tranquillity that has descended over Birmingham city council since John Clancy became leader a week ago is, quite frankly, a bit eerie and clearly cannot last for much longer.

There’ll be winter political storms to batter the good ship Clancy and possibly blow it off course, but at the moment all is sweetness and light among those who until fairly recently were bitter political enemies and at each other’s throats.

But that’s quite enough about the Labour group.

Since Clancy’s coronation as leader we’ve had remarkable scenes of jollity with his supporters joining Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors for a Twitter and Facebook ‘selfie’ fest of grinning celebration.

More seriously, only today Clancy, Tory group leader Robert ‘Bobby’ Alden and Liberal Democrat leader Paul Tilsley joined forces in an attempt to see off the post-Kerslake Government commissioners popularly imagined to be stowed away in a transit van somewhere off the M6 waiting for a signal to move in and take over the council.

The new leader’s first cabinet meeting since replacing Sir Albert Bore was a most agreeable affair.

Cllr Tilsley commented about how much he was enjoying working with Cllr Clancy. For his part, Cllr Clancy noted it was early days yet and they were like a newly married couple on honeymoon, which was certainly the most profound thing he said all morning.

Alden and Tilsley were in “helpful” mode. There was much “I entirely agree” and “this report makes some good points” and even our old favourite “this is a good news story”.

The Labour cabinet members were remarkably quiet in the presence of their new leader, which is hardly surprising since a fair few of them fear they won’t still be in a job by the end of January, particularly those that warned the commissioners would be on their way in if Clancy became council leader.

Cllr Tahir Ali, the cabinet member with responsibility for traffic chaos, so often the butt of sarky comments from Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, was treated almost like a visionary whose every word was greeted by admiring nods of heads.

And even the presence of district auditor Phil Jones could not dampen the party atmosphere, which is most unusual since Grant Thornton rarely brings any good news when its representatives turn up at cabinet.

Mr Jones did as it happens have some positive news, sort of. The amount that the council owes in compensation to the tens of thousands of women employees it disgracefully under paid for decades has fallen to a mere £562 million, down from £1.1 billion a couple of years ago.

Liabilities are being met and claims settled, but as Mr Jones scarcely needed to point out having to spend half a billion pounds compensating dinner ladies and school cooks rather than using the money to boost social care is not a place where any local authority wants to be.

Some of the cash required to settle the equal pay bill will have to be borrowed, pushing up even further the council’s alarming debt repayment bill. The rest of the money is to be found by accelerating the sale of council land and property assets.

Addressing the council’s wider financial problems, Mr Jones had some good and bad news.

The good thing was he could declare Birmingham city council a “going concern”. That is to say it won’t go bankrupt in the immediate future. Those commissioners will have to turn off the transit van engine and stand down at this rate.

On the other hand, the council continues to face a major financial challenge and must identify further savings of about £360 million by the end of 2017-18. That figure includes £105 million for the current year and £167 million for 2016-17.

Detailed implementation plans for this year’s savings are not all in place yet, and tomorrow Cllr Clancy will launch consultation on how he proposes to find the £167 million required for next year.

This will naturally be the first proper test of Clancy’s mettle.

Traditionally on occasions such as the media budget briefing Sir Albert Bore relies on good old smoke and mirrors and manages to produce a few million pounds he’s squirreled away at the back of the municipal sofa. But Sir Albert is now a former leader and the baton has passed to a new generation.

At the first Labour group meeting after becoming Labour’s leader, but before he was elected council leader, Clancy sensibly prevented Sir Albert’s draft budget from going forward in order to make adjustments. He is determined that the 2016-17 council budget should bear the Clancy stamp.

The most likely new idea is that a large sum of money will be found to clean up Birmingham, with the 40 ward committees being handed funding and told to get on with a street-cleaning and litter picking blitz. This will play into Clancy’s twin themes of every place matters, not just the city centre, and enabling the active involvement of opposition councillors in decision making.

So even if no one else likes the budget, Cllr Clancy’s new chums Bobby and Paul might just approve.

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