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Conspiracy theories run wild as council retreats to the Kerslake bunker

Conspiracy theories run wild as council retreats to the Kerslake bunker

🕔15.Dec 2014

Birmingham city council is in danger of moving deeper and deeper into bunker mentality as the implications of the highly critical Kerslake Review begin to sink in, says chief blogger Paul Dale.

Council leader Sir Albert Bore and chief executive Mark Rogers issued a press statement that barely concealed their simmering inner anger when Sir Bob’s bombshell was launched a week ago.

The broad thrust of the review’s recommendations was welcomed, but both men felt Sir Bob and his team of experienced local government experts were wrong about Birmingham in many respects.

It was said the report failed to “recognise the good work already underway”, was overly prescriptive, and merely gave a “quick glimpse into our governance at a particular moment in time”.

The main thrust of Birmingham’s defence, as promulgated by council leader Sir Albert and Mr Rogers, is that the city is quite capable of sorting out its own problems without Government interference and is addressing matters satisfactorily thank you very much.

This, sadly, is complete tosh. For as the Kerslake Review rightly pointed out issues of poor decision making, a failure to think and act strategically and a paternalistic attitude to forming partnerships has been a disturbing hallmark of the council for years.

Claims by Sir Albert that Kerslake simply doesn’t understand or has ignored all of the good work going on in Birmingham unintentionally but brilliantly lends backing to one of Sir Bob’s main findings – that the council invariably thinks it knows best and is not inclined to listen to anyone else.

There are precious few signs of progress and both Kerslake and Communities Secretary Eric Pickles believe change will not happen until the council is kicked into action by an improvement board.

Another excuse being pushed by Bore and Rogers is that Kerslake’s study was simply a snapshot at a particular point in time. They described the review as a “quick glimpse”, implying that Sir Bob pitched up in Birmingham for a week or so, spoke to a few people, and wrote up his findings.

The truth is that Kerslake, a respected civil servant and Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, conducted a comprehensive review over 50 days and took evidence from council staff, councillors and organisations who work with Birmingham city council.

As Chris Game pointed out last week, this was not the work of a one-Knight band and the Review followed the established LGA model for peer challenges. To date, we have not heard reports of any of the eight-strong panel dissenting from the report’s findings and recommendations. As Chris remarked:

The fact is that the Birmingham Kerslake report is not a Whitehall production, and we’ll be doing ourselves no favours if we pretend it is.

Yes, it was a snapshot. But it is a snapshot that tells a truthful story about the state of Birmingham city council as Sir Bob found it, as almost anyone with experience of doing business with the council would be able to testify.

Finally, the book of excuses includes the predictable claim that the Government’s swingeing financial cuts have prevented Birmingham council from improving. But as Sir Bob points out, many of the failings such as “organisational disobedience” by council officers, poor strategic decision making and a ‘we know best’ attitude have nothing to do with a lack of funds, and everything to do with poor leadership and management.

Kerslake’s report is peppered with killer quotes from key personnel, including cabinet members. The quotes are hardly complimentary to the ruling administration.

One, unnamed, cabinet member told Sir Bob:

There’s a general feeling that the scale of Birmingham means … they don’t need to compete with others. There’s nothing new to learn.

Another cabinet member said:

The budget available to district committees no longer makes them worthwhile.

A third quote from a cabinet member:

Human Resources processes are a nightmare. You need to have some workarounds.

These are members of Sir Albert’s top team from whom a measure of loyalty, or at least some diplomacy, might have been expected. The outspokenness suggests that the cabinet is not a very happy ship.

One of the most telling things about reaction to Kerslake has been an almost total absence of disagreement with the findings, other than from Sir Albert Bore and Mr Rogers. Birmingham Labour MPs, where they have said anything at all, have agreed with Sir Bob. Steve McCabe (Lab, Selly Oak) was extremely dismissive of the council’s response to the review, describing the Bore-Rogers press statement as “just rubbish”.

Councillors from all political parties who have now had time to read and digest Sir Bob’s report (or at least media reports of it) are beginning to understand just how critical the findings are of Birmingham’s performance over a long time.

The general perception in the political world that Birmingham has lost its way and is failing to punch its weight began in the mid-1990s and takes in the Labour administrations of Sir Albert from 1999 to 2004 and from 2012 to the present day, and the Tory-Lib Dem coalition led by Mike Whitby from 2004 to 2012.

And the difficulty for Sir Albert is that he is very much a figure both of the past and of the present. The failings that Kerslake picks up on – councillors acting as if they are officers, always kicking the can down the road rather than taking tough decisions, a failed devolution strategy – all of these things happened under the watch of Sir Albert, or Lord Whitby and Lib Dem leader Paul Tilsley.

Whitby was handed a peerage and promoted to a loftier place even than Birmingham city council. But Sir Albert and Cllr Tilsey still lead their political groups and look like continuing to do so for the foreseeable future. If they are receptive to the type of culture change proposed by Kerslake, they must say so and act as if they want to deliver change.

A great sulk has descended over the Council House since Kerslake published his review. I am told that Sir Albert did not speak when Sir Bob addressed city councillors and invited questions on his findings, and similarly the council leader had nothing to say at a Labour group meeting called immediately afterwards to discuss the Kerslake Review.

Meanwhile, it is reported that a senior council officer told a meeting attended by 100 council managers that the Kerslake Review was “all political”, it was not evidenced-based, and the criticisms contained in it were pay-back time for Sir Albert’s brave stance against the Tory-Lib Dem government’s cuts. Birmingham, the official concluded, was still the best council in the country. Goodness knows what this person is on, but being’ in denial’ hardly covers it.

Another officer, who is close to Sir Albert, has been darkly telling people that he knows “the real truth” about Sir Bob. There are hints that Kerslake is in cahoots with Eric Pickles, or that he “has it in for Birmingham” because he once applied for the post of city council chief executive and was turned down.

Too often, the asides, mutterings and comment on social media over the last week have been to characterise Kerslake as yet the latest example of Brum bashing from London. Kerslake himself said in the report:

Birmingham City Council too often sees itself as a victim. Whilst the financial and other challenges are considerable and must be tackled, the public and businesses are calling for a more positive vision.

Those with a close understanding of the city council might argue that the report is, in fact, a broadly accurate reflection of the council they know and that any opportunity to improve the local authority’s performance would only be welcomed by the proud citizens of Birmingham. Kerslake added:

30 years ago Birmingham City Council was at the cutting edge of innovation in local government but has lost ground. To return it needs to start with getting the basics right.

None of this augers well for the outcome of the 12-month period which Birmingham has been given to sharpen up its act or face Government intervention. Nothing will be achieved until those at the top of the council chain ditch their conspiracy theories and accept that Sir Bob’s view accurately reflects the way most people regard Birmingham city council, except of course those that are actually running the council who appear to be in deep denial.

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