Clark hints at government commissioners taking over ‘slow’ Birmingham council
Local Government Secretary Greg Clark has hinted for the first time that he may be forced to send in Government commissioners to take over the running of Birmingham city council.
Mr Clark told MPs he was concerned at poor leadership and the slow rate of progress in delivering governance reforms demanded in the Kerslake Review, and suggested that an £8 billion devolution package for the West Midlands could be at risk if the council did not become more “fleet of foot”.
He told the Commons Local Government Committee he was disturbed to receive a report from the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel in July stating that the council was not reacting quickly enough to deliver the Kerslake reforms and questioning whether the authority’s Labour leadership appreciated the scale of culture change required.
Asked by Solihull Tory MP Julian Knight to assess on a scale of one to ten Birmingham city council’s performance in delivering the Kerslake reforms, with one being very poor and ten excellent, Mr Clark laughed and said he wouldn’t give a numerical figure.
However, when asked whether the council’s failings might hamper the West Midlands’ efforts form a combined authority and push through a devolution deal, Mr Clark said:
The leadership has not been as fleet of foot as I think is needed for the scale of the opportunity, not just for the city of Birmingham but for the West Midlands.
He hinted that the Government would consider taking over Birmingham city council if it failed to improve, stating:
There are a number of options available. It would be wrong to pre-empt that.
Mr Clark could decide to send in Government commissioners to run Birmingham, as has happened in Rotherham and the London borough of Tower Hamlets.
Lord Kerslake’s review, published last December, exposed years of poor leadership at Birmingham council, highlighted a tendency to kick difficult decisions into the long grass, the absence of any understandable strategic plan, a “we know best” attitude by councillors and officials and a poor record of partnership working.
Mr Clark told MPs he would wait for the next report from the improvement panel, which is due by the end of October, before deciding what to do.
Chamberlain Files has learned that panel members are conducting a series of one to one interviews with scrutiny committee and district committee chairs over the next few days in an attempt to get a sense of what is happening outside of the council leadership bubble.
Mr Clark’s remarks mean that the next panel report will be of critical importance, not just to the future of the city council but also to its leader Sir Albert Bore, who has been in charge since 2012 and also led the council between 1999 and 2004.
He has insisted there is no possibility of commissioners coming in and said he was “rather pleased” with the way he and his colleagues were implementing Kerslake.
The improvement panel, chaired by former Wragge & Co senior partner John Crabtree, said in a letter to Mr Clark in July:
The senior political leadership of the council, in spite of assertions to the contrary, may still not understand the scale of the task facing the council and the enormous culture change needed right across the organisation by politicians and staff at all levels if the residents of the city are to be well served.
I am writing now simply to emphasise, as we all agreed, the importance of securing a fundamental change in the culture and style of leadership at the heart of the Council. Such change is essential if the Council is to have a stable and sustainable future, provide the leadership the City needs, address the challenges it faces, and deliver the efficient and effective services local people right expect.
“I will want to consider [the next report from the panel] very carefully before deciding how best to proceed and whether any further measures may be needed to secure the long term improvement in Birmingham we are all seeking.
Sir Albert emailed Labour councillors claiming there was nothing new in Mr Clark’s letter.
One fast growing bone of contention concerns the council’s attitude to recommendation eight of the Kerslake report, setting up an independent leadership group to “approve the new long-term City Plan and be used to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account.”
A group called Birmingham Partners has been established, but its role appears to be to run image-building campaigns and create vision documents. Sir Albert said Birmingham Partners would “add value rather than oversight”.
The panel will have to decide whether Birmingham Partners is or is not the type of organisation envisaged by Lord Kerslake.
The Local Government Secretary’s latest intervention makes it clear he is far from convinced that the council is moving quickly enough to deliver all of the Kerslake recommendations.
Mr Clark told the Commons Local Government Committee:
I was disturbed by the very frank reflection of Mr Crabtree and his colleagues about the responsiveness of the leadership of the council in Birmingham.
The group chose to draw that to my attention in particular.
They will be writing to me again in a few weeks’ time to give their further view but the fact that they drew that to my attention, I was concerned – especially since there is a big opportunity across the West Midlands for power to be devolved across the area.
And of course it would be unthinkable for Birmingham not to be a big part of that.
Asked by committee member Julian Knight, the Conservative MP for Solihull, whether this meant Birmingham “can’t be trusted with devolution”, Mr Clark replied:
I will wait for the further letter from the people who are going to advise me on this but they flagged to me that the leadership has not been as fleet of foot as I think is needed for the scale of the opportunity, not just for the city of Birmingham but for the West Midlands.
Describing the improvement panel as “fair minded men and women” who wanted to see Birmingham succeed, Mr Clark said he wanted the city to be the sort of place the rest of the country looked up to in terms of local government leadership.
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