Clancy juggles financial misery with future vision in maiden council budget speech
John Clancy, delivering his first budget since becoming the leader of Birmingham city council, sought to tread a well-worn path between financial misery and the distant sunlit uplands at some future indeterminate point when the authority will complete its journey to improvement.
The council, he insisted, has been “innovating and evolving” since it was formed in 1838, “but the next five years will be our biggest challenge yet” although “a new spirit of optimism” would allow Birmingham “to step up and show the world once again what we can achieve together”.
The speech, which contained rather too many words to fit comfortably in an allotted 30 minute time slot, never really soared, which was not surprising since Labour councillors were being asked to cut public spending by £88 million. It was greeted at the end by polite applause from the Labour ranks, while opposition councillors politely sat on their hands.
Clancy was on much firmer ground replying to the budget debate, where he spoke off the cuff and aimed blow after blow in the direction of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, who he said had attempted to “misdirect” the chamber by concentrating on the minutia of relatively small spending cuts and ignoring “the dismantling of the welfare state before your very eyes”.
Hands jabbing, voice raised, he attacked the opposition for “disbelieving” his pledge not to axe school crossing patrols and not to introduce a congestion charge. To remove any doubt, Clancy added: “Watch my lips – there will be no congestion charge.”
His tub-thumping closing remarks will be the thing remembered by Labour councillors as they left the meeting, rather than the lengthy, sometimes ponderous opening speech. But the more cerebral of Cllr Clancy’s supporters will be all too aware that there are a great many elephant traps in the budget plans for the next four years and a rocky path to tread if the Future Council plan is to be delivered in full.
He presented the budget “with a heavy heart” but also spoke of a great deal of pride in protecting “Labour values” by investing in children’s social care and increasing the wages of low-paid carers.
Much of what he had to say could and probably would have been uttered by former council leader Sir Albert Bore, who was succeeded by Clancy on December 1 last year following a particularly divisive and often ugly Labour leadership battle.
And as opposition Tory councillors pointed out on several occasions, much of the 2016-17 budget remains the handiwork of Sir Albert, it having been too late to achieve much more than tinkering around the edges by the time Clancy got his hands on the paperwork.
Cllr Clancy set out the council’s financial plight with grim clarity.
The 2016-17 budget contains spending cuts of £88 million on top of £560 million of savings achieved in the past five years, with a further £163 million of cuts by 2019-20, by which time the Chancellor’s austerity programme will come to an end, if Mr Osborne’s economic forecasts are correct, which as Cllr Clancy pointed out is something of a big ‘if’.
By far the greatest threat to the financial forecasts remains a claim that about £90 million can be saved from spending on adult social care over the next four years through closer working and amalgamation of services with the NHS.
No one really knows whether savings on such a scale are achievable, although plenty have their doubts. By allowing the forecast to remain in the budget Cllr Clancy has taken what Sir Humphrey of Yes Minister fame would have called “a brave decision”.
The alternative would have been to find some or all of the £90 million from direct service cuts outside of social care, a course of action that would have decimated the few non-statutory services the council still runs. Labour is betting the farm on doing a deal with the NHS. Good luck on that one.
Over the period 2009-10 to 2019-20, the council will have reduced its spending by about £850 million and cut staffing from about 20,000 to perhaps 7,000. It is clear that the council can no longer act as the main provider of public services in Birmingham and must pass responsibility on to the voluntary and private sectors through partnership working, at which it has failed dismally in the past.
Much of Cllr Clancy’s speech was dedicated to the way the council will have to push through radical culture change if it is to remain relevant to the lives of Brummies. Delivering his “budget for change, not just a budget for cuts” Cllr Clancy insisted “the secure foundation on which we will build our plans for the Future Council and complete our journey of improvement” is now in place.
He even dared to suggest the council would soon bid “a fond farewell” to the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, the body that has been overseeing the governance reforms set out in the Kerslake Review since January 2015. The panel’s next public meeting is on March 10 at the Council House and chair John Crabtree has said residents, businesses and partner organisations will expect to hear that “significant progress” has been made by the council.
The panel, set up by Communities Secretary Greg Clark, was to have finished its work in Birmingham this spring, but all of the indications are that Mr Clark will decide some progress has been made, but not enough, and ask the panel to remain for the time being.
An uncompromising message lay at the heart of Cllr Clancy’s speech: the council must change the way it works, not just because of the financial cuts but also as a result of reduced staffing levels. The Future Council programme, encompassing the Kerslake reforms, can only be achieved if the council is prepared to work with others.
Insisting that the council had “come a long way in the past year” and the pace of change is accelerating, Cllr Clancy said:
Everything we do we will do through partnership. Every policy will be developed together, every achievement will be shared and every plan and vision will seek to unite us as a city.
It’s about all of us having a new frame of mind, a new attitude that thinks not ‘what can I do to the people of Birmingham or for the people of Birmingham’ but what can we do together? We must lead the city and not seek to run the city.
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