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Kerslake: Panel to be suspended, direction positive but risks remain

Kerslake: Panel to be suspended, direction positive but risks remain

🕔04.Aug 2017

The Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, set up in the wake of the withering Kerslake Review of Birmingham city council, has recommended that it should suspend its operations in the light of positive developments at the local authority.

The Panel, chaired by John Crabtree OBE who now also serves as the Queen’s representative in the region, says that the overall direction of travel at the Council in implementing reforms is positive. It has particular praise for the interim chief executive, Stella Manzie (pictured), and interim chief finance officer, Mike O’Donnell.

The Panel also points to a recent assessment by Ofsted in relation to Children’s Services as similarly indicating a “story of progress and forward momentum in many areas. Such external validation is an encouraging sign.”

Mr Crabtree and his three colleagues highlight the political stability at the council. Their letter to the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, says the leader of the Council is “demonstrating strong political leadership and is working constructively with the interim chief executive. The prospects for further improvement are good.”

However, the Panel says risks and challenges remain – with the financial situation causing most concern.

The Council understands that financial pressures remain the most prominent risk, and associated with these are concerns about implementing the Council’s future operating model.

Mr Crabtree issued a statement explaining the assessment provided to the Cabinet minister responsible for local government:

Our assessment overall is that the Council’s broad direction of travel is positive and prospects for improvement are good.

However, the Council recognises that it still faces many significant risks and challenges, as well as opportunities. These include the delivery of challenging revenue budgets for 2017/18 and future years and the implementation of the Council’s future operating model.

In the light of recent positive developments, but also in the context of the continuing risks and challenges the Panel has suggested to the Secretary of State that it should suspend its current operation with only the Vice Chair and the Panel’s adviser staying in touch with the Council.

Whilst the Panel still has concerns about the current year in terms of hitting budget, Chamberlain Files understands there is much greater anxiety about 2018/19 and beyond. The Council will need to undertake further radical reforms that go beyond simply stopping services, including implementing a successful “future operating model.”

The letter to the Secretary of State makes no reference to the current refuse collection crisis and ongoing industrial action. It says:

The results for the financial year 2016/17 showed an overspend of £72m on directorate controllable spend, reduced to a net overspend for the Council as a whole of £29m after taking account of corporate underspends and use of contingency provisions.

In relation to the current financial year the Council has to deliver savings of £71m, and this rises to savings of £171m in the period to 2020/21. As at June 2017 the Interim Chief Finance Officer estimated that for 2017/18 £10m (14%) of the planned savings was undeliverable, with a further £4m (6%) at risk.

The Council’s financial position remains extremely challenging. However we are satisfied that the Council’s political and managerial leadership has gripped the task of ensuring that the current year’s revenue budget is delivered without further unplanned use of reserves. The Council will also need to maintain a strong focus on achieving the substantial savings required for 2018/19 and beyond.

As well as financial priorities, the Panel says that the Council will need to maintain focus on:

  • Implementing the Children’s Trust
  • Recruiting highly experienced and capable senior officers to senior posts
  • Developing a strategic approach to community and social cohesion
  • Ensuring a permanent shift in maintaining trustworthy partnership working.

Chamberlain Files has not seen a response from the Communities Secretary, but it would be a reasonable assumption to believe he is set to agree to the Panel’s suspension recommendation. Vice Chair Ms Done has been at the forefront of the Panel’s work challenging the budget and financial management. It is unlikely she will stray too far from monitoring continuing progress.

The Improvement Panel has called for a focussed progress report in December 2017. The report to the Communities Secretary also calls for a more in depth review and public report within twelve months. It says:

It is the robust evidence of positive and sustained impact and of embedded effective management of the Council’s risks and opportunities that is awaited.

The Panel says that the Council’s own progress report, Priorities, persistence, progress also published today is a “credible account of the Council’s current position, recent developments and future plans.”

The Council leader, John Clancy, will be relieved at the Panel’s verdict. In particular, the final words in the conclusion to the Panel’s letter will be a cause for satisfaction in the Council House:

A style is being nurtured which emphasises open information-sharing, constructive working together, challenge and clarity about actions.

The Council currently has in place highly experienced senior managers with impressive track-records and a political leadership which has made clear its commitment to decisive and timely action to confront these risks.

Councillor Clancy reacted to the report, saying:

I would like to thank the Panel for its hard work now that it has reached the end of its time in Birmingham.

The latest report to the Secretary of State is the most positive assessment of Birmingham City Council’s performance since the Independent Improvement Panel was established, underlining the council’s strong political and managerial leadership and concluding that our prospects for the future are good.

This is a significant step forward and an important vote of confidence as we continue our improvement journey.

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