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Is this Birmingham’s 1812 turning point? No cannons and chimes yet, but Kerslake reforms get fresh impetus

Is this Birmingham’s 1812 turning point? No cannons and chimes yet, but Kerslake reforms get fresh impetus

🕔14.Dec 2015

If meetings of the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel were set to music, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture would surely be a suitable choice, writes Paul Dale.

The panel’s first two sessions might just as well have been staged in the icy wasteland outside of Moscow with French troops gathering on the outskirts preparing to deliver a knockout blow – or in Birmingham’s case, the Government commissioners coming up the M40 about to take over a dysfunctional city council.

But things have moved on since then. And while the latest panel meeting wasn’t quite held against a climactic volley of cannon fire and ringing chimes as the invaders were sent packing, there was a visible sense that Birmingham might, just might, have escaped to fight another day.

The mood music accompanying the first few weeks of new council leader John Clancy’s administration is upbeat and “can do”, which is a huge and welcome change from the gloom and uncertainty surrounding the harrowing final months of his predecessor Sir Albert Bore.

Clancy’s speech to the panel was greeted with polite applause – a first for one of these meetings. Not content with that, the audience also applauded Mark Rogers, the chief executive.

Even Robert Alden, leader of the opposition Conservative group, received a smattering of applause from an audience that appeared, at least, to be of a predominantly left of centre disposition. Alden, in a gracious speech, praised the start made by Clancy and referred to a “significant change” in relations between Labour and the opposition groups, sentiments that were echoed by Paul Tilsley, the Liberal Democrat group leader.

Cllr Alden even bragged about having been given Clancy’s personal contact details, which he said had never happened before under the previous council leadership.

Whether the applause was a sign of relief, or hope, or both, remains to be seen.

Cllr Clancy set out to press the right buttons for the panel. He says he understands and accepts the Kerslake Review’s criticism of the council’s many governance failings, history of poor leadership and inability to form meaningful partnerships, and is determined to deliver the step change required.

He probably has three months to convince Communities Secretary Greg Clark that he and the council are on the right course. If he can do this, and Clark has already expressed his backing for Clancy, then the improvement panel will remain in place until the pace of reform becomes unshakeable and it is clear there can be no turning back, which could be towards the end of 2016.

The points hammered home by the new leader were, broadly, that the council has to move into partnership mode and accept it doesn’t have all the answers, and that there must be a new settlement between the politicians and council officers.

A key criticism in Kerslake focused on a tendency for councillors to behave as if they were council officers, and for council officers to behave as if they were councillors. Instead of getting out of the Council House to work with communities in their wards, too many councillors were intent on politicking and mischief making in the Council House.

Cllr Clancy made it clear that he intends to empower the chief executive to run the council, which may not go down too well with some members of his own Labour group, or indeed some Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

This is what he had to say:

The organisational aspects of the council are not something I should be managing or micro-managing. It’s for me to lead politically and set policies, it’s for the chief executive to run the city council not me.

He has to run this organisation and be answerable to me when things go wrong and when things go right. That’s what I told him on day one.

This is something that has to permeate through the whole of the political class. We have been too focused on what’s happening in this building. We could not leave the Council House, we could not let it be.

We need a dynamic step change. The shackles are off on both sides.

Cabinet members need to be clear what they are accountable for, and likewise officers.

On the thorny matter of partnership working and leadership, Cllr Clancy said:

A year ago businesses saw the city council as a huge problem. Businesses, partners and other institutions didn’t know how to interact with the council. They had no way in.

The council did things to them or excluded them and we were poorer as a result.

I am determined to be a civic leader amongst many civic leaders, where the city council doesn’t run Birmingham but leads it. I want to seek out new partners across this city.

He promised a “common process of joint endeavour” with more cross-party working, another key Kerslake theme, and said he would make the council turn its back on secrecy and move to a default where every document and contract is published unless there are overwhelming reasons why this should not be the case.

It was left to Mr Rogers to answer an important question from the panel, which was how will we measure your progress when we return in March?

Rogers identified three areas – a coherent, concise and understandable vision for Birmingham must be in place; a medium and long-term financial strategy setting out how the council can continue to deliver services with less money and less staff must be up and running; partnership working and engagement with others will seem like the norm rather than a one-off exercise forced on an unwilling council.

And if anyone was in any doubt about the mountain to climb, all in the room sat in shocked and embarrassed silence as a grandmother, in tears, told how social services had failed her grandson with a litany of unmet appointments and unanswered phone calls and letters.

You can have the best vision and partnerships in the world, but if you can’t get the most basic of stuff right, what does it all mean?

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