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Improvement Panel: ‘You’ve a month to turn things around’

Improvement Panel: ‘You’ve a month to turn things around’

🕔05.Nov 2015

The new Birmingham council leader is given advance warning today that the city is “at a crossroads” and the pace of delivering the Kerslake Review reforms must be quickened.

In a blunt message that the council under the leadership of Sir Albert Bore failed to deliver the culture change demanded by Kerslake, the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel says it “would not hesitate” to inform Local Government Secretary Greg Clark if it considers future progress “to be inadequate”.

In a letter to Mr Clark, the panel chair John Crabtree makes it clear that the weight on the shoulders of the new council leader will be considerable, and whoever gets the job will only have a couple of months to turn things around.

There is no explicit mention of Government commissioners being sent to take over the council should the panel issue a further poor report in January, the issue is left hanging in the air. However, in the summer Mr Clark warned he might sanction further Government intervention if the Kerslake recommendations were not being delivered.

The panel has decided the council is still not consistently providing the right kind of political leadership.  In a letter which appears to indicate the council truly has entered ‘the last chance saloon’, Mr Crabtree tells Mr Clark:

In my last letter I said that the ‘so far unmet task was for the Council to consistently provide the kind of political leadership that actively encourages challenge, innovation, energy and enthusiasm – a form of leadership that will enable all staff and councillors to take forward the change programme at pace, in a way that unifies everyone across the Council and throughout the City.’

Although some further progress has been made that ambitious task remains unmet and the Council, under its new leadership, must take the opportunity now available to grip the task and meet it with energy and enthusiasm.

The letter continues:

In my last letter I reported the Panel’s serious concern that the political leadership of the Council may still not have understood the scale of the task facing the Council, and the enormous culture change needed right across the organisation by politicians and staff at all levels if the residents of the City were to be well served.

The imminent change in the Council’s political leadership represents both an opportunity and a challenge. None of the issues facing the Council, or the demanding improvement journey it has only recently embarked on, will be resolved simply because the political leadership changes.

However the change does offer the opportunity for a fresh start, and for all councillors, including opposition councillors to engage fully with the new approaches to partnership, to engaging with residents and to operating in a fully   transparent and accountable way.

The letter can be read in full here: Rt Hon Greg Clark MP 5 Nov 2015

Significantly, when writing that all councillors must be fully engaged, Mr Crabtree has ‘bolded up’ the word ‘all’ to emphasise to Mr Clark the panel’s frustration that one of Kerslake’s key recommendations – that all city councillors regardless of party allegiance must be involved in decision making and policy formulation – has been all but disregarded.

Not only have opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors complained about being ignored, a lack of consultation from the council leader has also frustrated most of the ruling Labour group, including cabinet members.

Almost no councillors have been involved in the 2016-17 budget making process. The task of drawing up options was given by Sir Albert to financial consultants Deloitte.

There are five candidates fighting to become leader of the Labour group and the city council.

They are John Clancy, Ian Ward, Barry Henley, Mike Leddy and Penny Holbrook.

The 78 Labour councillors meet on November 23 to elect a successor to Sir Albert. The winner will be formally elected council leader on December 1. One month later, Mr Crabtree will write again to Greg Clark reporting on the council’s progress.

Mr Crabtree makes it clear that both wider-Birmingham and the Government must be reassured that the council is on course to deliver the culture change demanded by Kerslake. He  says:

The new Leader of the Council needs to quickly become an active and effective player in order to gain the confidence of partner organisations across the City and to ensure acceleration in the pace of progress.

One critical task facing the winner will be to deliver the council’s budget for 2016-17 and to plan a spending programme up to 2020, taking into account savings of about £250 million demanded by the Government.

Mr Crabtree warns:

The new Leader will face a crucial few months in which the Council needs to demonstrate to its residents that it has the commitment and energy to drive forward the improvement programme, broker a different and more productive relationship between politicians and the Council’s senior managers, face up to the extremely challenging budget situation and evidence a transformation in its ways of working.

The Panel is clear that the Council is at an important crossroads. With a leadership election and senior staff changes imminent it faces significant uncertainties and transitions.

We will be expecting that the coherence of the Council’s budget preparations, its overall direction and the pace of progress will not be adversely affected.

However, should this not be the case we will highlight it immediately.

The letter does credit the council with some successes.

It praises the involvement of Birmingham University and Birmingham City University in the independent city leadership group demanded by Kerslake. The group is now called Birmingham Partners.

Mr Crabtree says:

The support of the two universities sends a clear message about the independence of the group and helpfully allows the Council to participate within the network on an equal footing with other partners. Now that this arrangement is established the Council needs to work with the steering group to increase the pace of activity.

The letter notes “important progress” in pushing forward with training programmes for councillors. So far just over half of the 120 councillors have attended or committed to attend courses.

Mr Crabtree warns:

We have made it clear to the leaders of all three political groups that they should be acting as role models to their group members. They should be actively and constructively engaging with the development programme and ensuring that all their members do likewise.

We will be revisiting this issue with the three group leaders before our next report to you and hope to be able to report that 100 per cent of councillors are constructively involved with a long term member development and culture change programme across the Council.

Birmingham city council chief executive Mark Rogers and leader Sir Albert Bore issued the following statement in response to the panel’s letter:

Much progress has been made since the panel last wrote to Secretary of State and we’re pleased that this progress has been acknowledged.

The work continues and the recent appointments of senior officers as part of the ongoing Future Council programme underline our commitment to wide-ranging and fundamental change. The recruitment programme to boost our senior management capacity continues.

We recognise that ongoing engagement with members, residents, community groups, businesses and staff is vital and we now have an extensive schedule of events looking at the Future Council programme and our forthcoming budget. Many of these events are face-to-face but we have also increased digital engagement to reach a larger city-wide audience.

As the panel acknowledges, progress has been made to nurture successful partnerships with organisations across the city. We value our work with partners and continue to develop and strengthen these relationships. We are also rebuilding and re-shaping existing partnerships as we work towards realising a shared vision for our city.

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