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Election fever Birmingham-style: Pavement politics and the cabinet member for traffic jams

Election fever Birmingham-style: Pavement politics and the cabinet member for traffic jams

🕔15.Apr 2015

At the final Birmingham city council meeting before the elections on May 7 members were understandably keen to discuss the really big issues of the day. And they don’t come much bigger than bins, pot-holes, flytipping, pavements and traffic jams, writes Paul Dale.

Forget for a moment the severe strategic problems facing the council – Government-imposed commissioners are now running Birmingham schools and children’s social services, an improvement board is overseeing, well, much needed improvement, and there is the headache of a £1.2 billion bill for equal pay compensation claims.

But as any fool knows, all politics is local. If you can’t collect the refuse, clean the streets and keep the traffic running freely, then what can you do?

In many ways the council is a microcosm of national politics. It suits the Tories and Lib Dems to blame Labour for wheelie bin incompetence and filthy streets. It suits Labour to claim that it is simply faced with picking up the mess it inherited from the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, which left office three years ago, and that this is made much harder by the Tory-Lib Dem government’s austerity spending cuts.

A number of councillors presented petitions at the start of the meeting, mostly demanding residents’ parking zones, or traffic controls, or trees to be lopped, or some other vitally important environmental improvement for their patch. Some of these councillors have rarely contributed in the chamber recently, but there is an election to be fought and leaflets to be designed and delivered explaining to voters what their elected representatives are up to on their behalf.

It was therefore a busy old afternoon for Tahir Ali, the cabinet member whose portfolio covers development, transport and the economy. Or, the cabinet member for fines and traffic jams as Tory councillor John Lines quipped.

Asked by Labour’s Victoria Quinn to show “solidarity” with car users stuck in traffic jams across Birmingham thanks to city centre redevelopment and motorway road works, Ali burbled away about opening up the M6 Toll road free of charge for HGV lorries, which would then free up the M6 and have a knock-on effect in the city centre.

Quinn thought the business case for doing so was clear, but she did not explain why Midland Expressway, private owners of the toll road, would willingly wish to offer free passage to lorry drivers. Neither could Ali expand on how the “absolute common sense” of free passage on the toll road could ever be achieved.

There were several questions about the outrage of replacing fine old paving stones in Birmingham’s conservation areas with horrid Tarmac. Yes, that’s right. Tarmac.

As the months pass by the small print of the multi-million pound contract the former Tory-Lib Dem coalition signed with Amey to deliver the highways PFI is gradually being unpicked. An edgy stand-off exists between the council and Amey over alleged loopholes in the contract and arguments about what exactly the private company is and is not contracted to do in respect of looking after roads and pavements.

It was confirmed by Planning Committee chairman Mike Sharpe that whoever drew up the Amey contract made no specification for “like for like” replacement. In that case Amey is within its rights to plaster Tarmac across conservation areas if it wishes to do so and there is nothing the council can do to stop this other than pleading very nicely with Amey to invest in some Yorkstone paving, which seems unlikely to work.

Cllr Sharpe, Labour, reminded the chamber that “it wasn’t this side that drew up the contract”.

True, but a little unfair. The complex and lengthy contract with Amey was drawn up by council lawyers and overseen by the council’s relevant chief officers. It’s a bit steep years later to blame councillors for the lax behaviour of officials.

Labour are employing similar tactics with the Library of Birmingham, which cost £189 million to build, funded pretty much entirely by the public purse, and is now closed on Sundays and doesn’t open until 11am in the week because the council says it cannot afford to meet the running costs.

Who built the library? Who signed off the business case? Well that will be the former Tory-Lib Dem coalition which now stands accused of underestimating the running costs and overestimating income generation. That may be so, but who decided to cut £4.6 million from the library budget over the next three years? That will be the current Labour administration which is yet to explain why it felt unable to protect the library from spending cuts.

And finally, in the real world, perhaps the most interesting question at the council meeting came from the Hall Green Labour councillor Barry Bowles who wanted to know why the number of young people being permanently excluded from schools in Birmingham was increasing rapidly. Exclusions are up by 28 per cent this year following a 63 per cent increase last December and the council is breaking the law by failing to offer any schooling at all to seven of the excluded children, Bowles explained.

Brigid Jones, the cabinet member for children and families, said she was very concerned to hear about this and would investigate further. We await with interest the results of her investigations.

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