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Kerslake’s withering attack on Birmingham council: ‘Lack of vision, paternalistic and poor decision making’

Kerslake’s withering attack on Birmingham council: ‘Lack of vision, paternalistic and poor decision making’

🕔09.Dec 2014

Birmingham city council has a culture of “organisational disobedience” and a record of poor decision making over a number of years according to a withering report by one of Britain’s top civil servants, reports Paul Dale. 

Sir Bob KerslakeA review of the council’s governance arrangements led by Sir Bob Kerslake, permanent secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, to point to a failure to take big strategic decisions to tackle the problems Birmingham faces.

It accuses the council of a lack of shared vision and of adopting a high-handed paternalistic approach to partnership with local businesses and other organisations.

The review pins failure not only the current Labour administration, in place since 2012, but also accuses the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2004 to 2012 of making bad errors including serious policy mistakes in 2008 that failed to deal with Single Status legal claims from thousands of low-paid female employees and left the council facing a £1.3 billion compensation bills.

The review makes eleven recommendations including the appointment of an independent improvement panel to provide the “robust challenge and support the council requires”.

Members of the panel would include Birmingham’s current Government-appointed commissioners for education and children’s services, Sir Mike Tomlinson and Lord Warner. The panel, effectively a body consisting of overseeing commissioners, would provide regular updates on the council’s progress to the Secretary of State.

Three key recommendations are:

  • Establish an independent Birmingham leadership group to approve a new long-term City Plan and to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account
  • The Local Government Boundary Commission should conduct an urgent review of ward boundaries with a view to cutting sharply the number of Birmingham city councillors from 120 to below 100
  • The council should cease to re-elect one-third of councillors each year and move to elect all councillors once every four years from 2017 – a reform that would make it easier for political control to change but would also give a level of certainty about which party or parties control Birmingham for a full four years.

It is thought likely that the Kerslake Review recommendations will be accepted in full by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who set up the inquiry after doubts about the effectiveness of the council’s governance capabilities were highlighted by inquiries into the Trojan Horse affair.

Mr Pickles may show zeal for “reforming” Birmingham, but whether all or indeed any of the recommendations are enacted by a new government after next May’s General Election must be a matter of uncertain speculation.

Birmingham council’s political and officer leadership could scarcely conceal their anger at Kerslake’s findings, which they described as “overly directive” and failing to recognise any of the city’s achievements.

Sir Albert Bore, the Labour leader of the city council, said: “A lot of the talk about the way Birmingham city council operates is based on perception rather than reality. The language is quite hard-hitting and at times it is not an accurate reflection of how we see some of these matters.”

Sir Albert, in a joint statement with deputy council leader Ian Ward and chief executive Mark Rogers, said Birmingham would only be able to succeed by “taking responsibility for our own improvement” and that Sir Bob’s recommendations were unduly prescriptive about what were essentially local matters to be addressed by the council and its partners.

The review accuses the council of using Birmingham’s size as an excuse for failure. It states:

We have found that for successive administrations Birmingham city council’s members and senior officers have failed to take collectively the big strategic decisions needed to tackle the problems the city faces and to be sufficiently clear with residents about the choices that need to be made.

Above all, everyone in Birmingham city council needs to take personal responsibility for confronting and changing the mindset that says the council’s problems are unique to the city and can be explained by its size.

The review rejects dividing Birmingham into three or four separate councils.

But it does call for radical organisational changes and warns that the different roles of members of the cabinet, scrutiny committees and officers have become blurred over the years. There is implicit criticism of Sir Albert’s decision in 2012 to abandon the traditional cabinet structure in favour of members with responsibilities across departmental boundaries.

The review points out that there is no single cabinet member with responsibility for HR, IT and property and that decisions about such important areas must be taken by the corporate centre. He adds that a senior post to lead the economic work of the council must be established to relieve the workload placed on Mr Rogers.

Sir Bob indicates that the council is highly unlikely to have its poor finances bailed out by the Government and that a robust cost-cutting plan up to 2018-19 is urgently needed.

The review concludes that devolution based on 10 district committees is not working. The committees should be refocused on “shaping and leading their local areas through influence, representation and independent challenge of all public services based in the district, including those of the council.”

Some of the review’s sharpest criticism is reserved for the council’s approach to working in partnership with other organisations: “The council has an attitude to partnerships of ‘if it’s worth doing, the council should do it’. This paternalism alienates partners, means the council is failing to reconfigure services effectively and is missing opportunities to work with partners and communities to deliver the services people need.”

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