Clancy unveiled – what the Birmingham leadership contender really believes
Who is John Clancy? This is a question businesses across Birmingham and indeed anyone with an interest in the city’s fortunes, should be asking. Chief blogger Paul Dale profiles the man who wants to be the next city council leader.
There is still a long way to go until Labour city councillors meet in November to choose a successor to council leader Sir Albert Bore. But, as things stand Clancy is the front-runner and may emerge victorious after eight frustrating years spent attempting to oust Sir Albert, although it should be stressed nothing is certain at this stage.
John Clancy, a councillor for Quinton ward, is a former corporate lawyer turned teacher who hails from Labour’s working class moderate trade union wing, exemplified by the networking group Labour First whose supporters include deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, Perry Barr MP Khalid Mahmood, Black Country MP John Spellar, Sandwell council leader Darren Cooper and West Midlands MEP Siôn Simon.
In terms of personality and interests, the contrast between Clancy and Sir Albert could hardly be greater. While Sir Albert seems to dedicate his life to Labour politics in Birmingham and Europe and little else, Clancy is keen on ‘traditional working class pastimes’ such as going down the pub (he once led a campaign to save pub darts boards), and football (an adopted Villa fan). He is an expert on horse racing and regularly distributes ‘tips’ on the Grand National and Derby to friends.
He spends time with his wife at her family’s seaside house in North Wales, reading and writing as well as ‘chilling out’. Such pleasurable excursions may be in shorter supply if Clancy achieves his goal and becomes the leader of Birmingham city council.
It would be a mistake though to write off Clancy as a lightweight. He has a good brain and has been at the forefront of policy development for Labour, in particular dissecting the accounts of almost 100 local government pension schemes to prove that billions of pounds a year is wasted by councils throwing fees at city investment advisers for poor returns.
Clancy’s big idea, which has been embraced by the present government, is to amalgamate the very many public sector pension funds into four or five large funds, and use the money saved on administration to deliver economic development and new social housing.
Professor David Bailey, head of industrial strategy at Aston University Business School, will be a key member of Clancy’s kitchen cabinet. Bailey has been a trusted adviser to Clancy for several years and can expect to make a significant contribution to the city council’s economic strategy going forward, if his man wins.
Clancy has made it clear that under his leadership the policy direction of Birmingham city council would change in a number of ways, not least by a fairer distribution of economic development investment from the city centre to inner city areas and the suburbs.
He has been underwhelmed, to say the least, by grand projects such as New Street Station and the Grand Central shopping centre, and indeed by the whole ‘glitzy’ retail strategy which he fears will offer minimum wage jobs and little in the way of long term career prospects to the people of Birmingham.
He has been sceptical about the arrival of HS2, the Southside development of the wholesale markets and the redevelopment of Paradise Circus, taking the view that the current dash for Grade A office space will be mostly beneficial to commuters coming to work in Birmingham from surrounding counties, and when high speed trains are up and running from London and the south east.
He is dismissive of the Snow Hill Masterplan, Sir Albert’s final grand project, which the council leader has said will turn the area into Birmingham’s answer to Canary Wharf with towering office blocks full of professional services employees. Birmingham should not be slavishly copying London, is the Clancy mantra.
To underline his contention that Labour under Sir Albert Bore has concentrated disproportionately on city centre development at the expense of the rest of Birmingham, Clancy says his policy ‘vision’ for the leadership is based on Labour principles “where every child, every citizen and every place matters, and where every business matters too, not just some”.
He is no great fan of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership, which he dismissively refers to as “the Tory LEP”, and has warned that a West Midlands combined authority covering the GBSLEP and Coventry and Warwickshire LEP area is more likely to elect a Conservative metro mayor.
We should not expect, either, huge enthusiasm from a Clancy-led city council for WMCA’s devolution proposals. Clancy believes that a package worth a maximum £900,000 over 30 years doesn’t provide enough return to warrant the ‘upheaval’ of forcing the seven West Midlands metropolitan councils to accept rule by a metro mayor.
He takes the view increasingly being expressed in Labour party circles that the Chancellor’s devolution project and Northern Powerhouse scheme is a cunning way to pass higher public spending cuts on to councils, finessed through under the guise of localism and modernism.
However, with the date for Labour councillors to choose their new leader fast approaching Clancy has let it be known that he will go out of his way to reassure the business community. He recognises his views on HS2, city centre regeneration and the combined authority will not appeal to everyone and accepts that he will have to work hard to win the confidence of the Birmingham boardrooms.
Keen to stress that he is not anti-business, Clancy says he has been at the forefront of persuading Labour to recognise that manufacturing industry, small and medium sized businesses, micro businesses and small traders are the mainstay of the economy and must be supported and nurtured.
What this region needs to become an economic powerhouse is not glitzy retail and big commerce schemes. It requires long term financial products that can be used to concentrate on SMEs and manufacturing.
I’m not against HS2 and retail development, but there has been an imbalance. We have to shift the investment back to manufacturing and small businesses who are the real wealth creators.
In his latest policy statement he talks about working with the combined authority to” enhance the current devolution offer” by creating a regional wealth fund by using the city council’s huge property portfolio and the local government pension fund as investment vehicles.
The city and the region’s vast assets would become part of a triangle of regional wealth which would bring in significant liquid financial investment from the West Midland Pension Fund, and others. It would draw similar sums of investment capital into the fund from throughout the world which would undoubtedly see the fund as a safe and attractive asset-based fund.
He talks about initial investments via Birmingham Municipal Bonds, a Birmingham Municipal Bank, Asset Backed Vehicles and real estate investment trusts which would be “the starting blocks to creating a much bigger Wealth Fund at regional level to generate revenue and add to and enhance the asset base and invest in skills”.
Clancy is keen to correct any suggestion that he has little time for the arts. On the contrary, he insists, the arts “are crucial to people who are unemployed and whose careers are over”. He initially moved to Birmingham from his native Stockport because of the attractions of the CBSO, and is “a huge classical music fan”.
Should he become council leader he plans a city-wide arts summit to “look at doing something radical and finding new ways to fund the arts”.
If Clancy does become the next leader of Birmingham city council, he will be one of the least experienced politicians to get the post. He has just over eight years’ service as a city councillor and has never held any significant position on the council. He’s not been a cabinet member, a scrutiny or regulatory committee chairman, or held any executive office.
Promotion for Clancy was never going to happen while Sir Albert was council leader. Their relationship soured ten years ago when Clancy, then a young councillor, stormed into Sir Albert’s office accompanied by colleague Mike Olley to tell the council leader he had lost the confidence of Labour members and should resign forthwith. Sir Albert declined, and remained Labour leader for another decade.
Since then, Sir Albert has been challenged for the job five times by Clancy. After the 2014 challenge, Clancy found himself punished with just one position – a member of the planning committee.
Clancy has said he regrets the way he went about challenging Sir Albert in 2005.
It was the wrong way to go about it, I shouldn’t have done it, it was a mistake.
There is also a recognition, for sure, that’s it’s a case of now or never for Clancy’s leadership ambitions.
His first task as leader would be to face up to the Chancellor’s austerity programme and attempt to identify more than £200 million in spending cuts over the next couple of years. He plans a zero-based budget review “where nothing is ruled out and everything is on the table”, adding that “we have to decide what we can afford”.
The review is, in fact, given top billing in Clancy’s list of “tough decisions”. Sir Albert Bore shied away from a zero-based budgeting exercise fearing he would be unable to get inevitable unpalatable spending cuts through the Labour group of councillors.
So the baptism of fire facing Clancy is two-fold. He has to convince Labour councillors to back whatever cuts his zero budgeting exercise throw up, and he must also convince the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel to give the council more time to implement the Kerslake Review governance reforms.
Should he fail to convince the panel, Clancy could turn out to be the shortest serving leader in history – turfed out by Local Government Secretary Greg Clark to make way for a team of commissioners who would be brought in to run the council.
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