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Council: what’s ‘bin’ going on?

Council: what’s ‘bin’ going on?

🕔29.Aug 2017

Has the industrial dispute between Birmingham city council and Unite the union been resolved? Or is the ‘deal’ agreed between Council leader, John Clancy, Unite and conciliation service Acas dead on arrival, asks Kevin Johnson?

The question is, of course, first and foremost of interest to residents who live under the impression that waste collection is just about the most fundamental job of its local council.

But the wider question is whether Birmingham city council’s political and managerial leaderships are working effectively together to deliver the reforms and savings necessary for the local authority to set a legal budget next year and deliver even more significant changes to its operating models.

In simple terms, the dispute revolves around proposals to reform waste management including moving from “compressed working hours” to a five day week; the removal of the ‘Leading Hand’ Grade 3 role on Refuse Collection (106 employees in 113 posts); the separation of commercial and domestic collections and flexibility over the start and end depots used by employees.

READ: Bins – seven ways we coped with the strike

Last week, Cabinet was to have decided to engage with Acas to resolve the dispute, but consideration was deferred to a meeting this Friday, 1st September.

A detailed Cabinet report sets out the history of the dispute and attempts to reform Waste Collection.

The joint report of the Interim Chief Executive, Stella Manzie, and the Corporate Director – Place, Jacqui Kennedy, comes close to rubbishing the Council leader’s efforts to resolve the crisis. It states:

Discussions have taken place between the leader of the Council and the Unite regional organiser and Acas – proposals resulting from these discussions have been published in the press.

The report reproduces the statement from Unite the Union which included the line:

Birmingham City Council cabinet members have agreed in principle that the grade 3 posts will be maintained. Consequently there are no redundancy steps in place.

But the report then goes on to highlight the statement subsequently issued by the council:

The Acas statement in connection with the Waste and Refuse dispute does not represent the Council’s position until these matters are considered at the Council’s Special Cabinet Meeting on 24th August 2017. The decision on the waste reorganisation taken by Cabinet on 27th June is still the current position of the Council.

The Manzie/Kennedy report says, in terms, that the deal agreed by Cllr Clancy is not deliverable.

It says that a three month delay in implementing the model originally set out by the Council would result in a £2 million overspend. Contingency plans are already costing £311,000 per week and the officers say any changes to the model will need to be evaluated and incorporated into next year’s budget.

The report also says:

Unite has stated that there are savings that could be made in refuse collection but they will not negotiate until the proposal to remove the Grade 3 Leading Hand role is taken off the table. Management cannot agree to this.

Their report goes on to state:

However, the more significant potential financial implications arising from a decision not to continue with the implementation of the new operating model arise from a significant increase in the risks in relation to further equal pay claims.

In summary, in light of the advice given as to the low probability of the Council being able to mount an effective defence to such claims, meeting such liabilities would more than wipe out available headroom in the equal pay contingency, any uncommitted sums for capital investment and all available revenue reserves.

This would still leave a significant gap which would lead to the need for very significant and urgent reductions in both revenue and capital commitments and would also lead to the statutory chief financial officer (the s151 officer) having to consider whether the Council was in a position to set a lawful and balanced budget.

Conservative group leader Robert Alden called for Cllr Clancy to resign. He said:

It is increasingly clear when the Labour leader met Acas and Unite he either deliberately misled them agreeing to conditions the Council could not sign up to or is so out of his depth as Leader that he didn’t even realise what every opposition Cllr and officer did, that what he was promising was simply not possible to deliver.

First he hid for 7 weeks, then appeared claiming he had solved it all only to have it fall part in a week. The whole account has been a disaster he needs to go now!

Cllr Alden was joined in calling for Cllr Clancy’s resignation by independent councillor, formerly in the Labour group, Ian Cruise. He set out four questions for the Leader in a blog post.

Liberal Democrat group leader Coun Jon Hunt said:

The position is very, very worrying. Clearly, John Clancy is trying to buy time. There’s no deal to speak of – that’s the problem.

His cabinet are at loggerheads as many of them are members of the union themselves and so they have loyalty there.

He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place because the council wants to make cuts but the Labour Party wants to be loyal to the union.

Howard Beckett, who is leading negotiations for Unite, called on Stella Manzie to “step down from her position,” adding “John Clancy has shown leadership…”.

Cllr Alden called on the council Leader to publicly back Ms Manzie following Mr Beckett’s comments in an interview with the BBC’s Kathryn Stanczyszyn.

Cllr Clancy’s Twitter pages have been uncharacteristically quiet of late.

His official account has not posted anything since 17 August, with a tweet on the Barcelona terrorist attack.

He posted two tweets on his personal account on 16 and 17 August highlighting progress in resolving the dispute, but these were not replicated on the @BrumLeader account.

Cllr Lisa Trickett, the relevant Cabinet Member, has not posted anything about the waste management crisis since 22 July – both retweets of council posts.

There is hardly any reference to the dispute and its impact on the Twitter feed of corporate director, Jacqui Kennedy. Perhaps even more astonishingly, Chamberlain Files can’t find any use in recent weeks of the hashtag #lovemyjob for which she is famed in council circles.

The Manzie/Kennedy report to Cabinet referred to communication problems. It stated:

Officers have recognised that they have needed to improve the communication with elected members who had to deal with a huge volume of queries from the public in their area, as the dispute continued.

There have been extensive use of different forms of media including videos via social media, post code related information about collections etc. , to try and reach as many people as possible. The dispute has received extensive coverage locally, regionally and nationally bringing reputational damage to the Council, the city and its profile.

Being able to communicate clear messages has sometimes been hampered by the nature and unpredictability of the “go slow”. But the effectiveness of this has improved. Both the Cabinet Member and the Corporate Director Place have been on TV and radio to promote the Council’s messages.

Any communication issues between Cllr Clancy and Ms Manzie would be of particular concern.

READ: Council – it’s not all rubbish

At the beginning of this month, the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel said it planned to suspend its operations in light of progress. Chamberlain Files understands much of the Panel’s assessment is down to the quality of Ms Manzie’s management and political backing from Cllr Clancy.

Writing in the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) last week, Local Government Association chief executive Mark Lloyd sparked a debate on at what point professional expertise should bow to democratic legitimacy.

Politicians have a right to ignore officers’ advice, Mr Lloyd states, and if their subsequent course of action jars with a chief executive’s moral or ethical framework, provided it is not illegal, they should consider brushing up their CV and moving on.

Speaking at a LGA Annual Conference event on intervention in Birmingham recently, Stella Manzie highlighted corporate governance deficiency as a “signal that something might be going seriously wrong” within a council, as reported by the LGC.

If it is not clear in your council where the authority has come from for a particular decision or nobody knows who has made a decision or nobody can quite point to the cabinet or council report that says where that decision came from, you are in trouble. This would typically give rise to a culture of ‘blame and counter-blame.’

A Chamberlain Files source, from outside the council but with close links to senior councillors, suggests the relationship between Ms Manzie and Cllr Clancy has soured, with the bin debacle tainting the relationship further. Some Cabinet Members are apparently suggesting the officer is wielding too much power.

Whilst such suggestions might be the product of the summer silly season, it’s clear that balancing the budget and maintaining good working relationships with his political and managerial top teams, backbenchers and unions is a big challenge for Cllr Clancy – or any leader of Birmingham city council.

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