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Ides of March improvement panel meeting excites Kerslake conspiracy theorists

Ides of March improvement panel meeting excites Kerslake conspiracy theorists

🕔25.Feb 2015

It is probably a mere coincidence that the improvement panel charged with making sure Birmingham city council delivers the reforms demanded of it by the Kerslake Review is to meet so close to the Ides of March, some 2,059 years after the assassination of Julius Caesar, writes Paul Dale.

Those of a superstitious nature may regard the middle of March as a time when nasty things happen to civic leaders, although murdering someone in cold blood is obviously at the top end of the nastiness scale.

Caesar, who was stabbed to death in the Senate in BC 44 by as many as 60 conspirators including Cassius and Brutus, was reportedly warned of his impending death by a seer or soothsayer.

On his way to the Senate, an over confident Caesar passed the seer and reportedly joked, “The ides of March have come,” indicating that the prophecy had not been fulfilled, to which the seer replied “Aye, Caesar; but not gone.” The rest, as they say, is history.

There are a good many soothsayers among Labour councillors who fear the entire Kerslake exercise and the appointment of an improvement panel is nothing more than the first act in a Government-led plot to take over Birmingham city council in the run-up to the General Election and the local elections on May 7.

Ever since Kerslake reported last December and the toxic nature of his findings around poor leadership and lack of vision became clear there have been plenty of people in the Council House who took the view this was a political act designed to wreck Labour’s election chances and they see the substantial bulk of Communities Secretary Eric Pickles behind the plot.

This view is by no means confined to the more excitable councillors. No less a commentator than the academic David Bailey, Professor of Industrial Strategy at Aston Business School, told a News in Brum public meeting on Kerslake last week: “There’s a real danger in the run up to the General Election that the Government will send in commissioners to run this city.”

When the panel meets on March 18 it must consider whether or not to sign off an action plan setting out how the council intends to implement the 11 recommendations in the Kerslake Review.

The action plan, or Future Council Plan as it is now known, promises a radical culture change with the council casting aside arrogance to embrace humility and partnership working. One by one the plan addresses Kerslake’s recommendations and proposes a strategy to deliver them.

Is there really any chance that the panel, chaired by a bastion of the establishment in the shape of former Wragge & Co senior partner and West Midlands High Sheriff John Crabtree, will reject the action plan? If the panel did throw the document out, the ball would certainly be passed back to Mr Pickles and it is possible that direct Government intervention could follow as a result.

Far be it from me to knock a fine conspiracy theory, but surely the chances of a ‘no’ from the improvement panel are so remote as to be almost incalculable. I say this for several reasons, not least because the panel has been in close contact with the council leadership, both at a political and officer level, and a decision was taken to release publicly the draft action plan.

It would be a high risk gamble indeed if the council attempted to bounce the panel into accepting the plan by unilaterally releasing it, so it must be assumed that the general thrust of the document has already been unofficially approved. Council leader Sir Albert Bore indicated as much when he spoke at a cabinet meeting: “On March 18 the panel will meet to decide whether it is in a position to sign off the action plan and report to the Secretary of State accordingly. This is a clear statement of intent.”

If the Government really was intent on humiliating Birmingham by sending in commissioners, it would probably have done so by now for all of the evidence it requires is in the Kerslake report and also in the investigations into the Torjan Horse affair by Peter Clarke and Ian Kershaw.

Those who are thinking along these lines and expect that some kind of intervention is imminent would do well to note the words of Eric Pickles at the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee yesterday. Mr Pickles went out of his way to make it clear that sending in commissioners, as has happened in Rotherham, was absolutely the last option and that all other avenues of improvement had to be explored first.

Mr Pickles told MPs it was “easy to make grand gestures” and take over councils, but a far more difficult issue was “how do you get out of it?” His main concern was to hand back as many services as possible in Rotherham to local democratic control as soon as possible.

You can believe Mr Pickles, or not, as the case may be. But if this is really someone who wishes to smash Birmingham into the ground, he is hiding his true intentions quite brilliantly.

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