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Clark’s smoking gun letter ‘puts the frighteners on Birmingham council’

Clark’s smoking gun letter ‘puts the frighteners on Birmingham council’

🕔11.Sep 2015

City council leader Sir Albert Bore’s appearance before the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, where he will defend his record on delivering the Kerslake Review reforms, was always going to be a tense occasion. A dramatic late intervention by Communities Secretary Greg Clark casts today’s meeting of the panel in an entirely different light, writes Paul Dale.

For reasons that may never become clear, Mr Clark decided two days before today’s improvement panel meeting to authorise the release of a short but pointed letter to panel chair John Crabtree.

It would be an exaggeration to describe the letter as incendiary. More like a smoking gun, really.

In the letter the Communities Secretary says that “a change in the culture and style of leadership at Birmingham city council is essential if the authority is to have a stable and sustainable future”.

Well, we all knew that.

But what wasn’t clear until the letter was released was that Mr Clark is reserving the right to take further “measures” against Birmingham city council if he is not satisfied with the quality and pace of implementing the various Kerslake recommendations.

In other words, if Mr Clark thinks the culture change demanded by Kerslake – moving away from a council knows best attitude towards effective partnership working and better leadership – isn’t being delivered then he could intervene directly.

There is no mention in the carefully nuanced letter of sending in the commissioners, as has happened for example in Rotherham, but it is difficult to see quite what more the Government can do to force the pace of change at the Council House.

This is what Mr Clark had to say:

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.

Perhaps the most significant thing about Mr Clark’s letter is that it refers not to recent events but to something that happened in July, when the improvement panel published a critical half-year report questioning the commitment of Sir Albert and his colleagues to delivering Kerslake.

Panel members did not believe the council leadership understood the scale of change required.

This killer sentence prompted Mr Clark to order the panel to send him a follow up report on the council’s progress in September. He met with Mr Crabtree sometime after July 20 to discuss the panel’s report, but the letter he wrote afterwards to the panel chair was not put into the public domain, until now.

Why did the Secretary of State delay releasing his letter until the eve of the panel’s public interrogation of Sir Albert, his deputy Ian Ward, and council chief executive Mark Rogers, at which anyone canny enough to have secured a ticket can attend and ask an unscripted question?

There can only be one answer to this question: Mr Clark wants to put the frighteners on the council.

Birmingham city council published its latest letter reporting on progress to the panel last Friday. Council leader Sir Albert Bore told Mr Crabtree “Birmingham has listened, I have listened” and insisted the council was sharpening its focus and picking up the pace.

Indeed, Sir Albert declared himself “personally really pleased with the progress we have all made in the last couple of months” and insisted the council was “moving towards a default forward looking, inclusive and less controlling approach.”

Certainly Mr Clark’s letter has set the Council House abuzz. Politicians and officers alike are asking themselves “what did he mean by that” and waiting with some trepidation for events to unfold.

Meanwhile, as we revealed yesterday, Sir Albert sought to play down the significance of the letter, telling his fellow councillors that:

there is nothing new being said….

The letter plays into the hands of quite a few councillors who have always regarded Kerslake as part of a thinly veiled Tory government-led plot to destroy a Labour-run Birmingham city council. There is of course no evidence at all for such a claim, but that won’t stop the rumours flying.

The conspiracy theorists suffered a bit of a blow when the General Election came and went without the then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles sending in a squad of commissioners to run Birmingham, sacking Sir Albert, Cllr Ward and the rest of the cabinet.

Now, though, it’s obvious that something is up.

Actually, it’s not that obvious. Yes, Mr Clark is reserving the right to take unspecified “measures”. But Government intervention can be avoided (and probably will be) if Sir Albert and his colleagues can convince the panel that the pace of culture change is quickening and will continue to do so.

That’s why today’s meeting really is so important.

Chamberlain Files will be there. You can watch the webstream here from 12 noon. Catch up with all our Kerslake coverage. 

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