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Dangerous times for Sir Albert as Kerslake panel deadline approaches

Dangerous times for Sir Albert as Kerslake panel deadline approaches

🕔30.Jul 2015

Sir Albert Bore is facing by far the most dangerous period of his political career since first becoming leader of Birmingham city council in 1999, writes Paul Dale.

There were huge rows at the most recent meeting of the council’s controlling Labour group, which is nothing unusual. And the reason for the comrades’ anger was familiar – they’d been left out of the loop, again, and only found out about an important development through the media.

Chamberlain Files was first to publish the latest depressing assessment from the independent improvement panel set up to oversee a post-Kerslake Review culture change at the council. Most Labour councillors were not prepared for the uncompromising tone of panel chair John Crabtree’s letter to communities Secretary Greg Clark – progress far too slow, council leadership still doesn’t understand the scale of change required, we will have to report back in 12 weeks’ time.

The reason councillors were unprepared was because they hadn’t been told about the content of the letter even though Sir Albert had been furnished with a copy several days before.

It is unclear why the council leader felt unable to share the panel’s letter with his colleagues, but his failure to do so was very much in line with his modus operandi over many years. The worst rows at Labour group over the past 16 years have typically been triggered by backbench councillors who felt they were being treated with disdain and neither being consulted on or informed of key decisions being taken by the executive and important events involving the council as a whole.

Sir Albert, the Great Survivor, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year, shows absolutely no sign of bowing out quietly and has told friends that he intends to go on and on. But the matter may realistically no longer be his to decide.

His future is in the hands of others in the shape of Labour councillors, and perhaps the Communities Secretary if the Government reluctantly agrees to despatch commissioners to run Birmingham city council.

On the subject of commissioners, I’m informed that Sir Albert told the Labour group the possibility of direct intervention from Whitehall was a “fabrication” being perpetrated by Chamberlain Files, the Birmingham Mail and the BBC. His claim was, however, holed beneath the waterline when deputy council leader Ian Ward told the meeting it was not beyond the realms of possibility that commissioners could be sent to Birmingham.

Actually, careful reading of the Kerslake Review shows the possibility of commissioners most certainly exists if the required reforms are not delivered:

It is essential that the council will accept and seek to implement our recommendations in full. On that basis, further statutory intervention will not be immediately necessary.

This process must start now and there must be demonstrable improvement over the next year or the panel will also need to decide whether further consideration is needed to establish the relative benefits and disbenefits of breaking the authority up.

The Labour group meeting was enlivened by one councillor who stood up and proceeded to explain in great detail how the Government could sack Sir Albert and his cabinet and send in commissioners to run the council until the all-out city elections in 2018.

Such an outcome is possible, but remains a long shot. Greg Clark has reportedly told colleagues that he is not minded to intervene directly by attempting to run Birmingham – who in their right mind would wish to? He would far rather the Labour party sorted out its own problems by addressing the leadership issues raised by Kerslake.

The Kerslake Review is all about collective leadership, the quality of which has been poor in Birmingham for a very long time. This is not something aimed solely at Sir Albert and Labour. Kerslake makes it clear that the 2004-2012 Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition must take its share of the blame for the city’s failure to advance, as must the business community for failing to step up to the plate.

This is what the improvement panel has to say about leadership in its latest letter to Mr Clark:

We continue to observe a council where the politicians with most influence are focusing too much on the inner political workings of the authority rather than engaging widely and enthusiastically with external partners and the communities of Birmingham.

There are many very able and committed councillors and staff who welcome the potential for radical change. The so far unmet task is for the council to consistently provide the kind of political leadership that actively encourages challenge, innovation, energy and enthusiasm – a form of leadership that will enable all staff and councillors to take forward the change programme at pace, in a way that unifies everyone across the council and throughout the city.

While the panel commends the energy and commitment demonstrated by the chief executive and his team, there remain questions about whether the senior political leadership of the council fully understands the scale of change required.

This goes to the heart of the desperate position the council is in, and the key phrase is this:

Politicians with most influence are focusing too much on the inner political workings of the authority rather than engaging widely and enthusiastically with external partners and the communities of Birmingham.

What happens now depends to a great extent on the improvement panel’s next letter to Mr Clark.

The first two letters have a consistent theme – some progress, but not fast enough. The second letter of course ramped up matters considerably by stating that Sir Albert and his colleagues really don’t understand what is required of them. Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson tried to rally leaders to step up to the plate this morning. But, with the best will in the world, it seems highly unlikely the third letter will reveal a Damascene conversion by the council’s political leadership.

As ever when there is talk of replacing Sir Albert, the question has to be asked “replacing him with whom?” John Clancy, the perennial challenger, fell some way short in May, but will no doubt continue to fancy his chances. Ian Ward, the deputy council leader, will have to distance himself from Sir Albert pretty sharply if he is to have any chance of the leadership, but there again does he really want to be leader?

The great paradox of Kerslake is that the very politicians exposed as poor leaders are now in charge of pushing through the culture change demanded by the review. It should come as no surprise that the old dogs are struggling to learn new tricks.

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