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Dale’s Diary: Is Labour wheelie on course to privatise the bins?

Dale’s Diary: Is Labour wheelie on course to privatise the bins?

🕔11.Sep 2014

Whisper it softly, and certainly don’t tell the unions, but the word is that Birmingham’s Labour leadership has all but decided to privatise the city’s refuse collection service.

The council is undergoing ‘market testing’ to compare the cost of the in-house service with an external operator.

Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore has attempted to justify this by pointing out that a requirement for market testing was obligatory in the conditions attached to the £30 million grant Birmingham received from the Government to introduce wheelie bins.

“We’ve just got to do it,” he told the Labour group.

That fails to explain why the government demanded market testing, and what action the council might be expected to take if the testing shows that a significant amount of money could be saved by privatising the bins.

Few people believe that the eventual result of this will be anything other than a decision to contract out, particularly against the backdrop of the £360 million in “austerity” savings the council is required to make by 2017-18.

The matter is complicated by the move from black plastic sacks to wheelie bins, which is still not complete, and the need to deliver £6.6 million of savings in Fleet and Waste Management as approved in the council’s 2013-14 budget.

There are plenty of efficiency savings that could be stripped out of Fleet and Waste Management, but these are fraught with political implications for Labour. Far easier, you might think, to hand the task of restructuring F&WM, with the inevitable job losses and pay cuts, to a private company.

All of this is a bit of a headache for Cllr Lisa Trickett, who was promoted and handed the cabinet portfolio for green, smart and sustainable city in May, and under whose remit the bins issue falls.

It’s reported that Trickett has convinced Sir Albert that pressing ahead with offloading Fleet and Waste Management this side of the General Election wouldn’t be a very wise move.

Industrial unrest is a certainty, perhaps strikes by the notoriously bolshie bin men, with piles of rotting rubbish in the streets. Such scenes wouldn’t play very well for Labour-controlled Birmingham.

The thing is that Trickett, who is said to be ambitious for high office and has been talked about as a future council leader, may be asked to do something that even the recent Tory-Lib Dem coalition backed away from.

Former Tory council leader Mike Whitby and cabinet member Tim Huxtable looked at privatisation but decided against, largely on the grounds that they doubted whether any reputable firm would be willing to take on the challenge of running Birmingham’s bins.

But the financial difficulties now facing the council are such that Sir Albert may be forced down the privatisation route, assuming of course that he and Cllr Trickett can persuade the Labour group.

The appointment of the former head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, to conduct a post-Trojan Horse review into Birmingham city council’s governance arrangements is being seen as an opportunity rather than a threat by town hall chiefs.

I gather that Sir Bob has been sent a “blue sky thinking” paper setting out Sir Albert Bore’s plan for radical change to the way the local authority operates.

This is believed to involve replacing the cabinet with a strategic board, whose members would be elected on the party list system as happens in elections for the European Parliament.

Birmingham would be split into four new councils responsible for day-to-day running of services and answerable to the board which would make decisions about city-wide strategy on economic development, housing, skills, transport and planning.

One of Kerslake’s terms of reference for his review is to investigate the structure and size of the council as well as its strategic leadership and direction.

It is difficult, though, to see how anything as far-reaching as Sir Albert’s plan could make progress without primary legislation which would be time consuming and probably something that the next government won’t have the inclination to pursue.

You have to feel sorry for Anita Ward, chair of the education scrutiny committee.

Her job has involved probing into two issues of great importance – the continuing failure of Birmingham children’s social services and, latterly, the impact on Birmingham schools of the Trojan Horse affair.

For more than two years she’s been kept in the dark and treated very shabbily by council officers and members of the executive. Reports have been kept from her and her committee, policy decisions routinely taken without even scant reference to scrutiny.

This week Ward co-chaired a joint scrutiny board set up to examine Trojan Horse matters. The aim was to scrutinise the action plan the council has been told by the government to draw up to address issues raised by the three Trojan Horse inquiries.

But members of the scrutiny board did not have the action plan before them because it is yet to be signed off by the new education commissioner, who is yet to be appointed.

This is not to be confused with the other government education commissioner, Lord Norman Warner, who is overseeing the children’s social care improvement plan.

And just to complicate matters further, there’s a third external figure helping to map out Birmingham’s future, Sir Bob Kerslake, appointed by the Communities Secretary to undertake a review of the city council’s governance arrangements.

It is fair to say that Birmingham city council is no longer in control of its own destiny.

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