Council Crisis – well, we never expected sympathy
Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s first chief-of-staff and now Chicago mayor, is the accredited author of the tactic of never letting a serious crisis go to waste – the reasoning being that a crisis can present an opportunity to do things that previously had not been feasible. Chris Game observes how the crisis at the Council House has been used to timely advantage.
Emanuel didn’t actually specify, but he’d presumably have included not just a crisis in his own organisation, but anyone’s crisis, anywhere, as offering a potential advantage to be seized.
With Birmingham City Council Chief Executive Mark Rogers’ precipitate moving on/annual leave/departure/early retirement/other (take your pick) having been revealed, dissected, discussed and followed up in these columns, Files readers old and new, and pretty quickly the rest of the local government world, became aware that we currently have a bit of a crisis here in the Council House.
Former Conservative PM Harold Macmillan in 1958 half got away with downplaying the resignation of his entire Treasury ministerial team as “little local difficulties” (even he didn’t try sudden and collective annual leave), but that was pre-Twitter.
This one was unambiguously a crisis – and, as was quickly recognised by the Rahm Emanuels up there in Manchester, one that really shouldn’t be allowed to go to waste. So, they added up 1+1+1 and came up with something approaching 7.
The three components were Monday’s public announcement of Rogers’ departure, Tuesday’s report by the Clerk of the House of Commons that the proposed repairs to the Palace of Westminster would cost even more than previously estimated, and Friday’s airing by The Economist columnist, Bagehot, of the case for not just Parliament, but Britain’s whole capital, being moved from London to Manchester.
The last, of course, was much more a re-airing. Hardly a year passes without some interest or body discovering that numerous countries to which we’d always look first for political wisdom and guidance – Brazil, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kazakhstan, Burma – have relocated their capital cities, and suggesting what a great idea it would be if we did the same.
And indeed, there is in principle an almost irrefutable case for reducing the London concentration, and resulting diminution and distortion, of so much of the country’s economy, politics, culture and pretty well everything else.
The ‘So where to?’ game is quite fun too: somewhere around the population centre of gravity, which would be the West Midlands, or the (currently still United) Kingdom’s geographic centre of gravity, which would be somewhere north of Manchester?
That’s what they are, though: a case in principle and a school debating topic – except last Friday, when they became an Economist column and a regional newspaper front page.
The timing, in all probability, was happenstance. But it felt like kicking your rival city at the end of a week in which it had already suffered enough, or at least a kind of car accident rubbernecking.
The “pragmatic” part of the case put by the Economist columnist comprised mainly identifying empty, underused or convertible buildings where you could put things, and seeing as a plus the fact that Manchester’s airport, unlike Birmingham’s, is too far from London to facilitate commuting.
Parliament could go to the Manchester Central railway station turned Convention Centre; the PM could take over the rotunda of the Central Library; warehouse complexes would suffice for MPs’ offices, and underused former mills for government departments and their civil servants. Yep, I can see the Sir Humphrey Applebys enthusing about that.
This, of course, was all grist to the mill (cute link, eh?) of the Evening News, whose coverage amounted to little more than a rehash of the Economist column – a rehash and a hefty elevation of its status.
An opinion columnist’s personal view thus became the considered judgement of “Economist journalists [that] making Manchester the country’s capital would change British politics for the better”, with even “Economist bosses” agreeing that “leaders would be much closer to ‘ordinary voters’ if our city took over from London”.
Though possibly not that much closer to the ordinary Conservative, Lib Dem, Green, UKIP and independent voters, who regularly cast over a third of the votes in Manchester City Council elections and are lucky to elect a single representative on the 96-member Labour-monopoly council.
Which reminds me … the Manchester Evening News wasn’t the only member of the Fourth Estate last Friday to seize the opportunity presented by the Council House crisis. The Times too had views, certainly about the Council, to which it devoted quite an acreage of space – front page, editorial and double-page feature.
Despite the quantity, though, and editorial notwithstanding – indeed, editorial very much included – it wasn’t that easy to work out what it actually wanted from the Council’s political and managerial leadership, as opposed to what it emphatically didn’t like.
Like so many such scissors-and-Google exercises in rubbishing our city’s governance, the editorialising had to start with Mayor Joseph Chamberlain and his transformation of Birmingham some 140 years ago, and then jump straight to today’s children’s services and “the Trojan Horse scandal”.
No, not accompanied by even a speculation of how the great man might have coped with these issues in today’s political, social and financial climate, but just the magisterial verdict that since his departure “The decline is palpable”.
The city’s problem, you see, is that “the council is running an unsustainable deficit”, which, despite the acknowledged post-2010 cuts in budget of £650 million and staff of more than 10,000, is obviously near-criminally incompetent. Unlike, apparently, Chamberlain’s quintupling of the city’s debt to finance his municipalisation of gas supply, which, though unmentioned, probably constituted ‘palpable dynamic enterprise’.
Still, all is not lost. The editorial concludes with the intended reassurance that, even better than Chamberlain, who wasn’t in fact a directly elected mayor, “There will be a mayor of Birmingham elected in May”. Now that, for those of us expecting to be voting for a West Midlands mayor, really is news!
Chris Game is based at the Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham.
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