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Improvement panel heaps praise on Clancy as Birmingham turns the corner

Improvement panel heaps praise on Clancy as Birmingham turns the corner

🕔11.Jan 2016

John Clancy’s leadership of Birmingham city council has gained a huge vote of confidence from the improvement panel set up to oversee the Kerslake Review governance reforms.

In a letter to Communities Secretary Greg Clark, the panel chair John Crabtree issues by far the most optimistic report yet about the council’s future prospects, indicating a step change since Cllr Clancy took over on 1st December.

Previous letters to Mr Clark during 2015 criticised the council for slow progress in delivering the culture change demanded by Kerslake, particularly improved partnership working and setting a realistic medium-term budget, and raised doubts about whether former leader Sir Albert Bore and his closest allies accepted or even understood the scale of reform required.

Mr Crabtree’s concerned tone during most of last year even raised the prospect of the Government sending in commissioners to run Birmingham city council, with Mr Clark admitting further intervention might be necessary.

But that threat seems to have significantly reduced. In his latest letter to the Communities Secretary, Mr Crabtree says Cllr Clancy has committed himself fully to implementing the Kerslake recommendations and has acknowledged that the pace of improvement needs to quicken.

He says the panel is encouraged by a change of direction and highlights two key improvements:

  • The boundaries that should exist between the roles of councillors who set the strategic direction of the authority and officers who implement policy have been strengthened. Cllr Clancy has made it clear that in future Birmingham politicians will spend much more of their time looking outward, leaving the chief executive and officers space to manage day to day service delivery.
  • A strongly more open and transparent approach to the council’s operations with a dramatic reduction in the number of items considered by the cabinet and committees in private.

He also praises Cllr Clancy for resisting the temptation to make wholesale changes in the cabinet. Mr Crabtree says it is important, given the challenge of implementing Government spending cuts, that there is stability at the top of the political leadership at least until the end of the municipal year in May.

By the time of the next assessment in March Mr Crabtree says he hopes to see “a much more open, transparent and streamlined approach to how the council conducts business so freeing up a great deal of senior officer capacity that is currently engaged in unnecessary bureaucratic processes”.

The panel expects that leading members and backbenchers of all political parties will be far more engaged outside of the Council House than they are inside, listening to the views of local communities.

Mr Crabtree says the panel is encouraged that the latest council report setting out how the Kerslake recommendations are being addressed was signed by Conservative and Liberal Democrat opposition leaders as well as by Cllr Clancy, the Labour council leader.

There are, however, warnings in the letter about issues that must still be faced.

Mr Crabtree points out that the council business plan and budget for 2016 and beyond, setting out savings totalling £250 million, contains proposals that may be difficult to achieve in the timescale set out.

A plan to rewrite contracts for the entire council staff, reducing sick pay and holidays and increasing working hours, is estimated to save £34 million a year and its implementation will be crucial if budget forecasts are to be met. The proposal is likely to be met by strong trade union opposition.

Much is also riding on plans to save £92 million from the adult social care budget by 2019-20.

The letter notes:

There is still much to be done to translate the current budget statements into clear statements and narratives about what the changes in approach will mean for the public, partners, all elected members and staff.

The panel plans to spend the next few months examining the council’s long-term financial strategy to see whether it is “both realistic and deliverable” and to determine whether the “political will and management capability is in place to deliver such major reforms”.

There is also a warning that all city councillors must take part in training and a member development programme, as recommended by Kerslake. Mr Crabtree states:

In March we will wish to be able to report that all members are not only signed up to involvement but are positively engaging with the programme, to achieve real development of their own skills and reflecting what members should themselves expect of the council’s senior managers and staff.

Responding to the latest report from the improvement panel, leader of Birmingham City Council Cllr John Clancy said:

It is encouraging the panel is supportive of the inclusive, transparent and collaborative approach that I have outlined and begun to implement since becoming Leader of the Council.

It is crucial that we establish clear boundaries between elected members, who should spend much more time looking outward and setting the strategic direction for the council.

There is still more to be done to deliver on the recommendations that the panel are monitoring but we are all fully committed to the improvement plan including providing effective leadership with partners.

Meanwhile Birmingham City Council chief executive Mark Rogers commented:

The Panel’s letter sets out clearly that we have made further progress, albeit that there is still more to be done. Working closely with the Leader, Cabinet and the wider council, my team and I are focused on delivering the more improvements at pace and, in particular, ensuring that the long-term future council strategy and supporting budget plans are in place and that a positive and progressive culture change is embedded across the organisation.

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