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Just good friends: Clancy launches beer and sandwiches diplomacy

Just good friends: Clancy launches beer and sandwiches diplomacy

🕔02.Dec 2015

Last Sunday, two days before he would be elected leader of Birmingham city council, John Clancy went to the pub.

So far so normal – after all, time for such simple pleasures of life will be severely limited in future.

What made this unusual, possibly unprecedented in the history of the council, was his choice of drinking companion.

Clancy, the new Labour leader, took opposition Conservative group leader Bobby Alden for a pint.

It is not known whether Clancy, a keen darts player, produced his arrows and challenged Alden to the best of three, but what can be said with certainty is the occasion symbolised the culture change the new leader hopes to usher in across the council.

He knows that the image set at the outset is so important. Shortly after being elected to replace Sir Albert Bore as council leader, Clancy was at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s 130th birthday celebrations. Pictures of joyous scenes quickly appeared on social media, showing Clancy’s supporters, with Waseem Zaffar to the fore, larking about with Tory councillors, including Bobby Alden and Ken Wood.

A beaming Zaffar wrote that the picture indicated a “new era and a new way of working” with cross-party support for the museum, “a fantastic Birmingham institution”. It was a cathartic moment.

This will be the first council administration to push communications through social media. Cllr Clancy has been quick off the mark with a leader’s blog. Chief executive Mark Rogers has written an entertaining blog since beginning the job. By contrast, Sir Albert’s Twitter communiques were few and far between, while deputy council leader Ian Ward appears to treat Twitter rather like a Trappist Monk.

One of the Kerslake Review’s key criticisms identified the failure of the council’s former leaders, both Labour and Tory-Liberal Democrat, to involve opposition councillors in the running of Birmingham, or to play any meaningful role in developing a city vision for the future.

The obsessive secrecy strangling the leader’s office became so bad in recent months that important policy aspects and budget details were kept even from most members of the controlling Labour group. Meetings of the Birmingham independent Improvement Panel were marked by embarrassing moments when Sir Albert’s insistence that he was talking to Cllr Alden and Liberal Democrat leader Paul Tilsley were greeted with replies of “oh no you aren’t”.

Who will ever forget the stunning admission offered up by deputy council leader Ian Ward during the Labour leadership election campaign that he had not seen the West Midlands draft devolution submission because Sir Albert Bore was keeping it to himself?

No one should be in any doubt that under Clancy the Labour party will still run Birmingham. But he is serious about bringing Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors into the fold wherever possible.

There is even talk of allowing opposition members to chair some scrutiny committees, although to be fair Sir Albert wanted to do just that in 2012 but was knocked back by the Labour group.

Cross-party working can be championed by the council leader, but it takes more than one to tango. There will have to be an acceptance by rank and file Labour councillors as well as Tory and Liberal Democrats that a new style of inclusive politics is at hand, and hammering home such a radical culture change will not be easy.

Cllr Clancy is expected next week to announce a new cash fund to be paid directly to Birmingham’s 40 wards for the purposes of cleaning up local areas. It will be up to local councillors how they spend the money. They could target certain streets, sanction a general clear-up, or spend the whole lot on one project deemed to be of importance by the community.

Clancy certainly ‘gets’ Kerslake, understanding in particular the urgent need for the whole of Birmingham to pull together. This is what he said in his leadership acceptance speech

I don’t want to run this city. I want to lead this city. That means instead of the council doing things to the city, it needs to start doing things with the city.

It needs now to look to the city’s citizens, businesses, charities, other partners and its young people and to help us with finding the answers to the many financial and other challenges we now face.

Fighting poverty and building economic security and building sustainable wealth in this city is a joint enterprise. The council can’t do it. The city itself must do it together.

A government can fight poverty, a council can fight poverty, a charity can fight poverty. But businesses fight poverty too, and we should not forget that.

And in a Brummie version of JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you” inauguration speech, Clancy continued:

This city has tremendous challenges ahead. This city council will not be the one with the answers to these challenges. All of us in this city will together be able to find the answers.

I ask all of the citizens, its young people, its businesses, its charities and social enterprises:

What can you do for this city? Can you step-up yourselves to meet the challenges and help the council, your representatives in this chamber as we remodel and re-imagine what we can do? All of us can in some way, great or small become civic leaders. You don’t have to become an elected politician to become a civic leader.

It’s all marvellous stuff, and why not? You don’t become leader of the biggest local authority in the country every day and Clancy has had ten years to think about what he might say.

But the hard slog begins now, and the immediate priority is to get the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel off the council’s back by showing the Government that the council is no longer dysfunctional and has moved forward sufficiently with the Kerslake governance reforms.

Challenged by local media to “hit the ground running”, Clancy has certainly done that. The day after being elected Labour group leader he met Communities Secretary Greg Clark and Tory devolution guru Lord Heseltine, as well as improvement panel chair John Crabtree and vice-chair Frances Done.

He has spoken at length with Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP chair Andy Street, which turned out to be a somewhat challenging conversation given Clancy’s well reported doubts about the purpose and democratic accountability of LEPs in general.

Today, the first appointment on the first day of his council leadership is with Paul Faulkner, chief executive of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce. Clancy will seek to demolish straight away any suggestion that he is anti-business. On the contrary, as he said in his acceptance speech:

I want to work in particular with businesses across this city great and small and in all 40 wards. They are part of civic society and I’d like to invite them too to step up, to become once more part of our civic leadership. And help build a city where as a result of common endeavour we build an economy and a security which helps businesses grow better as a result.

Clancy surprised opponents within his own group by keeping the cabinet intact, for now. He will have to work therefore with two of those who fought him for the leadership, and criticised him for being inexperienced, even in one case suggesting Government commissioners running Birmingham was a near certainty should Clancy become leader.

In reality, no one expects the current cabinet to survive much beyond Christmas. I expect a ‘January sales’ clear-out and a new team to be in place very shortly. Watch this space.

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