Clancy’s 2016 vow for Birmingham: ‘I’ll create wealth, jobs and an enterprise city’
In the first of a three-part interview to mark 30 days in the job, Birmingham city council leader John Clancy tells Chamberlain Files’ chief blogger Paul Dale of his hopes and fears, how spending cuts won’t force him to “raise the white flag”, and how he wants to build an Enterprise City.
Those that follow John Clancy on Twitter and are friends on Facebook will have woken on December 31 to be greeted by a barrage of comments from the city council leader congratulating individually people in Birmingham featuring in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list.
He followed that by a series of videos on Facebook showing the council leader visiting the Central Mosque soup kitchen and various community-action projects to help homeless people at Christmas.
A nice personal touch, you might think, but also an important signal that this is a leader intent on doing things differently by presenting the council with a more modern, inclusive face.
The previous city leader, Sir Albert Bore, did not really ‘get’ social media. He resisted Twitter for a very long time until, finally, persuaded almost certainly against his better judgment, he consented to have an account opened in his name, not that it was used very much other than in the final weeks of his administration.
The first thing that strikes home when you walk into the spacious Council House office Clancy inherited from Sir Albert is that the clutter has disappeared. Sir Albert was famously always surrounded by heaps of paper, reports and documents in a very visible sign of a lifetime in politics.
There is just one reminder of times past – a drawer full of large paper clips.
Clancy has given the office a minimalist look. Save for a computer and tablet, chairs, table, and a large rubber plant looming in the corner, there is nothing else to catch the eye. He has asked city education director Colin Diamond to organise a competition among Birmingham school children to paint art for the leader’s office wall.
Of course, an understanding of how social media works and a tidy desk won’t by themselves deliver the culture change required of the council by Lord Kerslake’s governance review. But it is a start. An indication perhaps that Clancy’s style of leadership is sharply different from that of his predecessor.
The Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel appears to be satisfied for the time being that the council is back on track to deliver the Kerslake reforms, but the next couple of months will be a crucial period for the new leader. Above all else he must demonstrate a willingness to embrace partnership working and show a genuine commitment to involve opposition councillors in drawing up the 2020 Future Council plan.
He intends to spend as little time as possible in the Council House and has told chief executive Mark Rogers to get on with running Birmingham, adding “I really mean this”. Clancy sees his role as leading the city rather than running it and has promised to get out and about and chivvy up Birmingham’s “many civic leaders”, bringing organisations on board to work out a way of running the city more efficiently with a far smaller council and dwindling financial resources.
The message he wants to get over straight away is one of confidence. This may sound odd given that the council is losing 1,202 jobs this year on top 10,000 jobs gone since 2010 and £560 million in budget cuts since 2010 with a further £250 million to go over the next four years.
Bur Clancy says he won’t countenance Sir Albert’s gloomy ‘jaws of doom’ and ‘end of local government as we know it’ rhetoric. He doesn’t belittle for a moment the impact of job cuts and budget reductions, but points to hope on the horizon in the form of business rates uplift, where the council will be able to keep revenue from businesses and cash in on booming city centre growth and huge economic regeneration generated by the arrival of HS2.
His belief quite simply is that by working together, public and private sectors and voluntary organisations, it is possible to “reimagine” the way a far smaller council can commission service delivery. But this can only work if the Birmingham economy grows at pace.
We are not putting up the white flag. We are not saying we’re going to sink. This is a chance to rebuild local government. We will rebuild our revenues and the council will remain an anchor economic institution.
He has an idea for a vision statement, and that is “Birmingham a Great Enterprise City”, although he is keen to stress this is just his idea at the moment. This fits in with another key Clancy theme, investing in small and medium sized businesses, particularly in emerging high-tech sectors like 3-D printing and life sciences.
There is, however, one important caveat. He fears Birmingham’s much-reported skills crisis will prevent many unemployed people from taking the new jobs that are about to come on stream.
Clancy notes that as GCSE results gradually improve, producing a new generation of potential employees, it is Birmingham’s 30-plus age group most likely to have few or no qualifications.
He has earmarked the skills agenda as the number one challenge for the emerging West Midlands Combined Authority, and warns: “If we haven’t got the skilled people to fill these jobs then we have a huge social cohesion problem. WMCA has to get to grips with the skills agenda. It’s a huge challenge.”
Crucially, he wants to build up capital spending across Birmingham “because this is how jobs and wealth are created”. He thinks politicians spend too much time worrying and talking about the council’s revenue spending on services and not enough time discussing how to raise capital.
The capital spending of this city council is what matters. I don’t want the revenue budget to drive the political class of the city. It is capital spending that creates wealth and jobs and will be the way this city council interacts with the private sector.
We are going to ratchet up Finance Birmingham to fund SMEs. We are working on Brummie Bonds because I don’t want to rely on the Public Works Loan Board for investment. You might say who is going to be interested in Brummie Bonds, but I think a lot of people will want to invest in this city.
The business community is excited about the possibility of the city council having a completely different profile. They want to be part of that change. I want the Government to sit up and take notice of Birmingham as an innovative city.”
One of Clancy’s big themes is that he won’t micro-manage the council.
This means that “the shackles are off” as far as Mark Rogers and his senior team are concerned. They are being empowered to think radically and are already engaged in scoping key Clancy projects, namely using council assets and possibly local government pension fund assets to build a wealth fund, developing Brummie Bonds to sell to investors, free school meals for infant and primary school children, and renegotiating the Capita and Amey contracts.
How, then, has Clancy found the first 30 days?
He admits to being pleasantly surprised, and says unleashing the officer talent pool has had a cathartic effect across the Council House:
I thought it would be quite a struggle getting through the first month. Actually, it’s been exciting and energising.
People have been surprised that it’s gone smoothly in terms of the first month and there is stability. They were perhaps expecting something else. I think people were expecting a political earthquake and imagining all kinds of things would happen.
I was surprised how much officers had read about my plans and what I had said in the past and they were immediately ready to start looking at the practical consequences of these policies.
I was expecting a kick back. I was expecting officers to say ‘you can’t possibly do this’ but that is not the case so far. I have been pleasantly surprised by the willingness of officers to say to me ‘yes this is doable’.
I would go so far as to suggest there has been a ripple of excitement amongst officers who now realise they can get on with their jobs in interesting and exciting ways. The shackles are off me as well because I don’t intend to spend time micro managing what goes on in the Council House.
The stability he talks about – there have been no changes to the cabinet and none are likely any time soon – is as much pragmatic as anything else. Clancy won the Labour group leadership by just one vote from Penny Holbrook in a far closer contest than most people had expected and he recognises his mandate is not strong enough to deliver radical change in the top team.
Clancy and Holbrook are reported to have established a constructive and friendly working relationship, which has perhaps made a leadership challenge at the Labour group AGM in May less likely. The council leader can’t be certain he won’t be fighting for his future although it is difficult to see who might mount an effective challenge.
He insists that talk of a Brummie night of the long knives, replacing Bore supporters with Clancyites, was overblown: “I have always been a patient person and prepared to play a long game. Perhaps people who don’t really know me don’t realise this. I was never going to rip everything up and start all over again.”
Asked about the first signs of change, Clancy says: “We have already seen at the independent improvement panel meeting evidence of a willingness to work across the political parties. There are clear areas where councillors from all sides are prepared to work together across the city.
There will obviously still be the political pantomime in relation to the full council meetings but I do believe the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat groups see the benefits of working together in areas of mutual interest for the good of Birmingham.
He is promising to “incentivise” people to come up with good ideas and adds that not enough attention has been paid to the views of the council workforce. Clancy is considering a rewards system, possibly cash incentives or additional holiday, for the best staff suggestions about improving performance.
We haven’t trusted our employees enough in the past to give us ideas about how we can do things differently. If a group of people came to me with an idea to save £100,000 it is right that they should have a share, whether that is in terms of a bonus or additional holiday or something else.
I want people to be incentivised. The culture change required goes very, very deep, and changes are required not just because of Kerslake but also because we as a council are half the size we once were.
Meanwhile, as the thrill of a new dawn inevitably begins to fade, the biggest challenges for Clancy are yet to come and will determine whether his administration really can offer something bold and radical, or as has happened so often in the past will end up trimming and fudging.
Negotiations have started with the unions over a hugely controversial plan to re-write the contracts of council staff, reducing sick pay and holidays and increasing working hours, to save £30 million by 2017-18, rising to £34 million by 2019-20. It seems certain these proposals will be fought tooth and nail by the unions, as they have been before.
This will be a baptism of fire for Clancy, although as he points out, ever the pragmatist, there is over a year to negotiate before the 2017-18 budget has to be approved. Having said that, £34 million is a tidy sum of money and making the saving is of crucial importance to developing a sustainable medium-term financial plan for the council.
The improvement panel will be watching with interest, no doubt.
Tomorrow on Chamberlain Files: Clancy tells Capita and Amey to “get real” and cut costs.
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