Friends united in joint bid to convince improvement panel its work is done
The fourth public meeting of the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel was marked by an unprecedented display of chumminess between the city council’s Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat group leaders. Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale reports on a big day for the three amigos.
As is often the way with such events, the most interesting question to the panel came at the very end of the meeting.
When, a member of the public wanted to know, would the panel be packing its bags and leaving Birmingham, safe in the knowledge that the city council’s problems of poor leadership, a lack of decision making and no understanding of partnership working had been ironed out and the future was in safe hands?
To nobody’s great surprise, panel chair John Crabtree ducked the question.
The best he could offer was to explain that the panel will be issuing its fourth progress report in the week beginning 21st March. The report will help Communities Secretary Greg Clark decide whether the panel’s work is done, or as seems more likely whether the body should remain in place for a little longer to make sure that reform really is built into Birmingham’s DNA.
There was, perhaps, a clue in Mr Crabtree’s opening question to council leader John Clancy, chief executive Mark Rogers, Tory group leader Cllr Robert Alden and Liberal Democrat group leader Jon Hunt.
Mr Crabtree wanted to know what action they were going to take jointly over the next six months “to ensure the council’s commitment to rapid improvement” changes the lives of residents.
Perhaps it was a coincidence, but by mentioning ‘six months’ Mr Crabtree appeared to align himself with those that feel supervision will remain in place for a little longer and that Cllr Clancy’s wish to “bid a fond farewell” to the panel will not be fulfilled just yet.
Certainly, the council’s political and officer leadership went out of its way in an attempt to convince the panel that one of the key criticisms in the Kerslake Review, a lack of cross-party working, is being addressed.
Clancy, Alden and Hunt, sitting next to Mr Rogers, resisted bursting into a rendition of ‘here we are again, happy as can be, just good friends and jolly good company’ but the mood music that a bright new era of co-operation has arrived was clear enough.
That co-operation didn’t quite stretch to Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats agreeing a cross-party four year financial plan and budget for 2016-17, but there is always the chance that some sort of unity package might be approved next year.
For the first time, the three party leaders are meeting monthly with Mr Rogers to discuss strategic issues facing Birmingham and will work together to plan the best way to devolve decision making to community level, another recommendation from Kerslake.
Cllr Clancy was on familiar ground, explaining how he had told Mr Rogers to get on with running the council to enable the council leader to get out of the Council House as much as possible and listen to the views of “ordinary Brummies”. He claimed to have spoken to “thousands of people” about what needs to be done in the 100 days since becoming council leader.
“I won’t take on the role of a manager, that’s his job”, Clancy said, looking at Mr Rogers.
The Clancy message is that the “council must and will continue to change” and he promised to listen and “unleash the wealth of the citizens”.
We have made great strides in getting a shared vision of a city where every child, every citizen and every place matters.
We have created more roles for cross-party working. We have started to work together to discuss the evolution of devolution at the most appropriate level and to allow real devolution to thrive.
The ultimate aim, he said, was to make sure residents “have the ability to shape services in their own areas”. This wouldn’t happen overnight but the council was committed to meaningful devolution even if that meant taking risks along the way.
Eighteen months ago, when he was still a backbencher, Cllr Clancy allowed the impression to get around that he was a bit of a Philistine as far as Birmingham’s cultural gems are concerned. Nothing could be farther from the truth, he insisted:
Our cultural offer will be in some sense as important as housing. Our arts and cultural offer is not a side issue I am determined as capital comes into this city we invest in the cultural offer, the retail offer and the housing offer.
As it happens, by far the most insightful contributions came from Mark Rogers, who since the departure of Sir Albert Bore as council leader is beginning to look like a man transformed.
Mr Rogers was too diplomatic to mention Sir Albert, but there could be no doubt about the elephant in the room.
He spoke of a fresh approach from the new leader of the council and the two opposition group leaders and said he was “able to get on with my colleagues in running the council”, before concluding: “That’s how it should be, and that’s how it feels.”
Mr Rogers did not explain how it was he could not in the past get on with running the council, but then he did not need to spell out past tensions. And just to make sure the message was getting home to the panel, he stressed a need to “continue to re-set the relationship between officers and members of this organisation” and hinted that an appropriate separation of powers between elected members and officers may be enshrined in the council constitution.
The chief executive had his own timetable, and it was three months rather than the six months envisaged by Mr Crabtree. He warned of a need to be “very focused” over the next 12 weeks on key budget areas, in particular plans to save millions of pounds by re-writing workforce contracts, transforming the refuse collection and street cleaning services, and integrating adult social services with the NHS.
Mr Rogers, a former social worker, added:
The most important thing is to get children’s services right. It’s the number one priority. Until the most vulnerable in the city are as safe as they can be everything else is rather pointless.
He also had a direct message to Cllr Clancy along the lines of it’s fine to meet thousands of people and talk to hundreds of organisations, but we need to see some results pretty soon. Describing the council’s interaction with potential partners as “a new romance,” Mr Rogers said, rather pointedly: “The next six months need to see the leader convert the early wins into tangible partnerships. We have to make partnership working endemic.”
Will the improvement panel pack its bags and depart at the end of March? It seems unlikely that Greg Clark will be persuaded to leave Birmingham to its own devices just yet.
But as Cllr Alden, the Tory group leader, reminded the meeting, Birmingham council cannot be propped up externally for ever. At some point the panel will have to leave, and the council will “succeed or fail” when it stands on its own.
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