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‘Haunted by Kerslake, but Albert’s regeneration legacy will stand the test of time’

‘Haunted by Kerslake, but Albert’s regeneration legacy will stand the test of time’

🕔04.Aug 2015

Sir Albert Bore was clearly rattled by my article suggesting these were dangerous times for his continued leadership of the city council as he and colleagues struggle to implement a culture change demanded by the Kerslake Review.

He took the unusual step of emailing to complain that I had “yet again got it wrong” when I drew attention to the fact that many Labour councillors only learned about the latest highly critical Kerslake improvement panel’s analysis of the council’s progress through Chamberlain Files.

Albert’s argument is that he arranged for an email to be sent to every councillor at 11.30 am on July 20, the exact time of an embargo placed on the panel’s report. Therefore, he had kept the Labour group fully informed.

My response is that Chamberlain Files published a full report and analysis of the panel letter on the dot of 11.30, which was very quickly picked up by the large number of councillors following this site via Twitter and Facebook. Most are not glued to their email accounts and by the time the Labour group met later that day some members complained that the first they heard of the panel letter, and the killer phrase that council leaders still don’t’ fully understand the scale of change required, was via Chamberlain Files.

Whether we broke the news or Albert informed councillors first is very much on the level of two bald men fighting over a comb. It doesn’t matter that much. The improvement panel’s conclusion that the council is not moving quickly enough with the Kerslake reforms and the implication that Government intervention in Birmingham’s affairs cannot be ruled out is of far greater concern.

The findings could have been shared in advance with colleagues by Sir Albert on a confidential basis, or if not the letter in full then at the very least a brief synopsis could have warned councillors that the panel was taking a less than favourable view of Birmingham’s progress and that adverse media coverage could be expected.

Those closest to Sir Albert report he is concerned about his legacy as he approaches the final stages of a long political career. He will hate that statement, of course, chiefly because he has no intention of standing down any time soon. But the post-Kerslake position the council finds itself in with emphasis on different ways of working suggests a change of leadership is inevitable before long.

I should make clear, as my colleague Kevin Johnson has done, that this is not all about Albert. Kerslake’s damning report exposes poor leadership in Birmingham over many years, from politicians of all parties, from council officials and, crucially, from a business community that hasn’t played a major role in civic affairs.

Sir Albert need not worry about his legacy – it is there for everyone to see in a city centre that has truly been transformed over the past 20 years, a period we might dub the Bore years.

Oddly enough his greatest success, helping to give Birmingham a world class city centre, remains the subject of severe criticism from rebel Labour councillors who accuse him of concentrating too much on economic development in the centre at the expense of inner city areas and the suburbs.

During the Bore years, as council leader or before that as chair of the economic development committee, the ICC was completed, Brindleyplace was transformed, the Mailbox signified a retail renaissance, the Bullring was built and ironically given Kerslake’s later criticisms was an excellent early example of a council-private sector partnership. The pedestrianisation of New Street and High Street was completed, great inroads were made into the concrete collar of the inner ring road, opening up Eastside and Digbeth for regeneration, plans for a new library and the refurbishment of New Street Station were drawn up.

Sir Albert’s leadership falls into three phases. The first phase, from 1999 to 2004, was marked out by appalling Labour group infighting and the constant threat of left wing rebellion that forced Sir Albert to face down regular challenges to his leadership and at times presented him with cabinet members in key positions who appeared to be actively working against him. Quite frankly, given the plotting against him, it’s amazing he got anything done.

His radical plans to improve adult social care and council housing were ahead of their time and subsequently rejected by a majority of Labour councillors. He wanted to place council housing under an independent trust and replace rotten, unfit old people’s homes with care in the community.

His support in the early 2000s for moving Birmingham to the control of a directly elected mayor put him at odds with almost everyone else on the city council, but he won approval to hold a consultative ballot on the issue. Fifteen years later, Birmingham and the West Midlands is beginning a journey that will probably deliver a metro mayor.

The period from 2004 to 2012 saw Sir Albert in opposition, with the council run by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition under Tory leader Mike Whitby and his Lib Dem partner Paul Tilsley.

Some of the key concerns identified by Kerslake emerged during these years. In particular, the failure to deal with an equal pay bill that ended up costing £1.2 billion in compensation, a redundancy programme that resulted in senior managers leaving and not being replaced, and the continuing downward spiral of children’s social services.

Arguments can and will be made about the extent to which the coalition inherited problems from Labour. For example, did Sir Albert address the equal pay problem when he had the chance to do so? Severe problems in children’s social care were there for all to see between 2000 and 2004 but were not dealt with. In pre-austerity years an argument could certainly have been made that the council was over-staffed, but little was done to manage a controlled downsizing.

For whatever reasons, the city council’s problems began to pile up from 2004 to 2012 and reached an inevitable climax with publication of the Kerslake Review last December.

Despite an abundance of good news – the arrival of HS2, a booming city centre economy, record foreign inward investment, a transformed New Street Station – Sir Albert’s final years in power will always be haunted by the ghost of Kerslake. One report though, however damning, cannot diminish a Birmingham regeneration legacy that will stand the test of time.

It remains to be seen if, belatedly, the leader can keep the Government commissioners away and make more rapid progress with implementing Kerslake’s recommendations; put the council’s budget on some kind of sustainable footing and play his part in pushing the combined authority faster in the devolution race. If he does, he’ll be entitled to email me and other journalists to tell us how wrong again we were.

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