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Dr Henley’s diagnosis: ‘Birmingham has been badly run by Albert and Ian’

Dr Henley’s diagnosis: ‘Birmingham has been badly run by Albert and Ian’

🕔02.Nov 2015

Birmingham council is a failing dysfunctional organisation because Labour and Conservative leaders gave top jobs to their chums who had no experience and proceeded to make numerous bad decisions, one of the contenders to take over from Sir Albert Bore has claimed.

Barry Henley said Sir Albert, Labour leader since 2012, and his Tory predecessor Mike Whitby were guilty of using “patronage” to promote colleagues who would then be “beholden to them” for their paid cabinet posts and support them even though they were under-performing.

He said Sir Albert had eventually been forced out by the cabinet even though he appointed them and they owed their jobs to him, “which was quite an achievement really”.

Cllr Henley said:

I have been in Labour group meetings where I have stood up with Sir Albert next to me and said the systems we have are based on patronage rather than merit and everyone nods wisely and agrees but nothing is done about it.

It is a lousy way to run a city.

Promising to appoint the right people for the right jobs if he succeeds Sir Albert as leader of the Labour group and the council, Cllr Henley said he had deliberately refrained from promising cabinet positions to colleagues in return for their support in the leadership election.

Some of my opponents have offered the same job to more than one person.

In an interview with Chamberlain Files Cllr Henley described the council as an organisation in danger of destroying itself by a culture that pushed almost all decision making to Sir Albert or his deputy Ian Ward, with officers generally bypassed or their advice ignored.

This meant decisions that should be taken very quickly were delayed, often for years.

A decision that would be taken, for example, in the NHS in a month might take two or three months at a university but a decision of the same complexity would take up to two years at Birmingham city council it’s that bad.

Absolutely nothing has been done to change the culture of the council. We are very autocratic with decisions travelling upwards to the top.

It’s simply been badly run by Albert and Ian.

He added:

Thinking through who should replace Sir Albert raises the question, should we have more of the same or something different? They know I correctly called the errors made by the administration sometimes years before they became crises.

That means I could avoid the fiascos like green waste, bus lane fines, and debt so high that council tax barely pays the interest bill.

Among the “bad decisions” taken by Sir Albert and Lord Whitby, Cllr Henley said building the Library of Birmingham and the New Street Station refurbishment and Grand Central shopping centre stood out because the council had borrowed beyond its means and now faced a “crippling” debt pile.

Cllr Henley said:

Our interest bill is now so vast that it is almost the size of the income we get from council tax and this is limiting our room for manoeuvre.

We shouldn’t have spent £187 million on a library. We shouldn’t have spent £500 million of our own money on New Street Station. I don’t know why I am the only person saying this. We don’t have the money and if interest rates rise we will be in trouble because we are £3 billion in debt.

It was clear from the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel letter to Local Government Secretary Greg Clark in July that the panel feared senior politicians didn’t understand the importance of the Kerslake Review and the culture change demanded of the council.

Cllr Henley said:

The July letter from the panel said senior politicians still don’t get it and that of course is Albert and Ian. But Ian appears to have been on the road to Damascus because he is now disagreeing with Sir Albert.

If I was the Government would I give Ian Ward breathing space? No. He is a driver in the current situation. I would say ‘I am sorry Cllr Ward you have had a long, long time to prove that you can do it and you haven’t.

Cllr Henley continued:

Whitby and Bore gave people with nil experience significant roles. People with no track record of making decisions were put in the cabinet and expected to learn on the job. Almost all of the decisions were wrong. That’s because when you put people in the loop who don’t know how things work the decision making process is wrong.

He described telling Sir Albert that his shake-up of the cabinet in 2012, getting rid of the housing and HR members and introducing cross-departmental responsibilities, wouldn’t work.

Cllr Henley said:

Albert tables papers at Labour group meetings even though the rules say they must be distributed seven days in advance. He says I didn’t finish this until 9.30 last night. It’s always 9.30.

He produced a nine-page paper on the new cabinet posts. I said to him ‘from 40 years’ of management experience I can tell you the technical name for something like this, it’s total bollocks.

That’s proved to be the case because it just doesn’t work and that’s why you have crisis after crisis, there is no mechanism to look at risks department by department.

There is no one responsible until it becomes a full blown crisis.

Cllr Henley would like to return Birmingham council to the former committee system, which he said was responsible for good decision making because more councillors were involved and gained experience over a long time and officers were free to get on with their job.

He accepts however that the Government is unlikely to sanction such a radical change when the council is under pressure to deliver the Kerslake reforms and meet the requirements of the Birmingham independent Improvement Panel.

He said:

When we look at the city and see the Hyatt hotel and Millennium Point, they were delivered on the advice of officers under the committee system. The political leadership may try to take the credit but the people who did the work were officers.

In the committee system you learned everything the committee did by receiving papers and challenging the performance of officers.

In common with the three other leadership contenders – Ian Ward, John Clancy and Mike Leddy – Cllr Henley is promising to involve the Labour group and the wider Birmingham Labour party more in drawing up policy. He is also demanding that the council’s senior officers be made accountable for their decisions and hinted he would take on more the role of a company chairman if he becomes leader.

As the leader you are not running the council. It is the job of the chief executive Mark Rogers to do that. The chief executive has to be accountable but there has been a singular failure of accountability with Rogers and his predecessor Stephen Hughes.

Last January we had a group meeting on the Kerslake action plan. Kerslake said you must have a vision statement in place by May. The action plan said the vision would be in place by December.

I told Albert to make the chief executive prepare a proper action plan. It didn’t happen.

Out of the four leadership contenders, it is clear Cllr Henley has significant management experience over a long period of time. He has held numerous executive positions in the UK and abroad, and is currently deputy chair of the Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust.

He is a Doctor of Business Administration and his thesis, ‘Reducing the risk of post-acquisition financial failure’ could come in handy were he to become council leader on December 1.

Warning there “is no reason why the Government won’t send in commissioners to run Birmingham” if the council fails quickly to get to grips with the Kerslake reforms, Cllr Henley said:

I am the only one with a track record of turning round dysfunctional organisations and handling big budget.

He wasn’t “frightened” of the council’s financial difficulties, with budget cuts of about £250 million looming, and insisted there is still plenty of scope to save money particularly through moving more council services online.

Cllr Henley pointed out that council staffing levels have fallen from 21,000 to 13,000 in about five years, but “the bins are still being emptied, the roads are being maintained the city is still functioning with a third less people”.

He added:

We have to go lower and that means more and more automation and more productivity. There is more money to be saved. I am not at all frightened about the budget.

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