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Ian Ward: ‘We need change, but not too much’

Ian Ward: ‘We need change, but not too much’

🕔26.Oct 2015

Ian Ward is seeking to position himself as the safe pair of hands candidate in the race to become the next leader of Birmingham city council, promising “change, but not too much change” and definitely no “reckless” behaviour, writes Paul Dale.

In a wide ranging interview with Chamberlain Files the current deputy leader said the council had to become more outward looking and better at partnership working than it has been under the leadership of Sir Albert Bore, and “listen to the people who think their views don’t matter”.

Failure to convince the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel that the council is serious about delivering the culture change demanded by the Kerslake Review could result in “very serious consequences” and it was entirely possible the Government might lose patience and send in commissioners to run Birmingham, he warned.

A quietly confident Councillor Ward said he expects to win the Labour group leadership election on November 23 and replace Sir Albert as council leader on December 1. There are two other declared runners, Cllr John Clancy and Cllr Berry Henley.

He has refrained from criticising Sir Albert in public, but Cllr Ward hinted at an uneasy relationship behind the scenes between the two which he said had been obvious to Labour councillors attending private meetings for 18 months.

Despite realising that “we couldn’t carry on with things as they were” and the resignation of cabinet member James McKay and Labour group secretary Valerie Seabright in the days leading up to Sir Albert announcing his decision to quit, Cllr Ward said at no stage had he ever suggested to the council leader that his time was up and he should resign.

And in a fascinating insight into events of the past six months, Cllr Ward revealed:

  • Sir Albert has never shared with him the West Midlands Combined Authority’s draft devolution submission to the Government, which went to George Osborne on September 4. The document had been “kept very close to the leader”, but Cllr Ward hadn’t asked to see it because “I trust Albert and what he is doing”.
  • He conducted a series of telephone calls with Sir Albert while on holiday in Crete earlier this month after becoming alarmed about the resignation of Cllr McKay and Cllr Seabright. He also expressed concern at the content of an interview Sir Albert gave to the Birmingham Post in which the council leader declared “I’m going nowhere”. A week later, Sir Albert handed in his notice.
  • He won’t stand down as deputy leader to fight the election and if he fails to win the contest he will “have a conversation” with the new leader about his future role.

Cllr Ward made it clear he did not believe Sir Albert’s style of leadership, seen by some as over-controlling, could deliver the Kerslake reforms which involve the council being more outward looking and forging working relationships with stakeholders.

He is bound to face questions over how, having been at Sir Albert’s side for so long and deputy council leader since 2012, he can deliver the radically different approach demanded by Kerslake. Cllr Ward said:

There has been speculation in the media for some time that there was a growing difference of approach between myself and Albert. If you speak to members of the group they will have seen that in meetings over the past 18 months.

He questioned whether the WMCA devolution bid to the Government is ambitious enough, having finally managed to get sight of the draft proposals after they were published on Chamberlain Files.

We have got to progress the combined authority. This is an absolute key priority for the city and the future of the region. We have to reach an ambitious deal with the Government if we are to improve the competitiveness of the region on the world stage and close the skills gap.

We have to look at what Manchester is getting out of this and we have to be every bit as ambitious as they are.

Asked whether it was unusual for a deputy council leader not to be given sight of a document as important as the draft devolution submission and why he had not demanded Sir Albert hand him a copy, Cllr Ward said:

Most of my focus has been around the budget process for the coming years because that’s where I have responsibility. We have had conversations and I do have the broad headlines.

I trust him and trusted what he had been doing.

Cllr Ward says he is offering “to draw on the talents of the city, reaching out to partners and stakeholders to form a collective solution to the challenges the city faces”.

He added:

My style is very different to Albert’s. I have a much more collegiate approach, and members of the improvement panel are looking for a more open and transparent approach.

I do believe I am the person with the experience and the skills to deliver what the panel are now looking for.

Asked whether he should have acted sooner to force a change of leadership, possibly by challenging Sir Albert at Labour’s AGM in May, Cllr Ward said:

I don’t think so. A lot of politics is all about timing. Other people have to have reached the same conclusion.

The events of a few weeks ago demonstrated that we couldn’t carry on with things as they were.

I never said to Albert he should resign but we got to the point where it was obvious to me that things could not carry on without some change.

He did not mention his main challenger by name, but issued a coded attack on a policy proposal floated two years ago by Cllr Clancy. Cllr Ward said it would be “reckless” behaviour to go about “rearranging the deckchairs” by debating whether the council should retain the cabinet and leader system or move back to a committee system.

The council would also send out the wrong signals if it appeared not to be fully committed to the West Midlands Combined Authority.

In both instances, the improvement panel would take a “very dim view” of Birmingham because it would be clear the council had reverted to an insular approach debating internal matters among itself rather than reaching out to stakeholders, Cllr Ward warned.

He added:

There has to be change but I think we need to be careful. It would be reckless to make the wrong sort of change. We have to build a better relationship with the improvement panel and we need to be more interactive with them.

We need to have an open and honest conversation about why we haven’t delivered what they have been looking for thus far. The message is that we have to be more outward looking and we have to be working with partners and stakeholders.

We are walking a tightrope. We need change but not too much change. We do need continuity.

He refused to be drawn on who might feature in his top team should he become council leader’

I have no deputy in mind at the moment. I am focusing on winning this election.

I am speaking to members of the group about my ideas and how I think this city can move forward. I don’t think I will be naming anyone. If members of the group want to express a preference, that’s a matter for them.

He warned of tough decisions ahead, particularly over the council budget and spending cuts of more than £200 million.

We are approaching the point now where we will be starting consultation on the budget. We will be talking about some of the main areas where we have to make budget reductions.

The thinking is let’s consider everything. This is a zero based approach. We have ruled nothing out.

Would he offer a job to Sir Albert Bore?

Albert has been an inspirational leader of the city and I have worked closely with him for 15 years and learned a lot. I absolutely believe he still has a role to play on the council.

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