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Labour shifts gear as Birmingham Council leader’s £100m cuts plan heard in ‘stunned silence’

Labour shifts gear as Birmingham Council leader’s £100m cuts plan heard in ‘stunned silence’

🕔29.Feb 2012

It would appear that the opposition Labour group on Birmingham City Council has hired the services of a new speechwriter, possibly in anticipation of taking control of Britain’s largest public authority in May.

There is no other way to explain the confident performance by veteran labour leader Sir Albert Bore, whose speech at the annual budget-fixing meeting amounted to a surgical attack on what he sees as the many failings of the city’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Deputy Labour leader Ian Ward even told a joke. OK, it was hardly Frank Carson stuff, but radical new territory for the serious-minded Ward. Who, he wondered, would write the Liam Byrne ‘all the money’s gone’ note after the May elections? Would it be Tory council leader Mike Whitby, or his cabinet finance colleague Randal Brew?

Sir Albert stuck the knife in as soon as he stood up to reply to Coun Whitby’s speech, which set the budget scene and made the case for £100 million of savings on top of £210 million already agreed.

It would be unthinkable, Sir Albert suggested, for Chancellor George Osborne to be heard in the kind of “stunned silence” with which Tory and Lib Dem councillors treated Coun Whitby’s speech. He had a point. The council leader was on his feet for half an hour, but did not receive a ripple of applause from his own side, never mind sustained cheers. In fact, nobody in the council chamber uttered a word of comment until he sat down when coalition councillors delivered just about the minimum amount of applause they could safely get away with.

This was the 12th Birmingham City Council budget-fixing meeting I have attended. Sir Albert Bore, council leader between 1999 and 2004, delivered the first four, and Coun Whitby the remaining eight.

It would take a heart of stone not to feel some sympathy for Mike Whitby, since it is clear that reading set speeches does not come easily to him. He is best at making short, impromptu addresses.

This time, as on many previous occasions, his delivery was passionate but far too fast and before very long all of the full stops and commas disappeared. Sentences were rolled into one breathless tirade. Millions of pounds became billions, dates were muddled, the express train ran on, seemingly out of control, until finally hitting the buffers when the council leader ran out of time and sat down.

It appeared to be pretty much the same budget speech as the one he has delivered for the past three years, with new figures and dates inserted. The message, essentially, is that Birmingham is facing an unprecedented spending squeeze thanks to the profligacy of the last Labour government, but through hard work and determination the Tory-Lib Dem coalition has managed to lay the groundwork for economic development and job creation, largely through unlocking the sovereign wealth funds of rich Middle East countries.

By my reckoning, Coun Whitby took the credit for almost 150,000 new jobs that he said were coming on stream in Birmingham over the next few years thanks to projects such as the New Street Station refurbishment, HS2 high speed rail, the redevelopment of Paradise Circus, Icknield Port Loop, and Longbridge, as well as employment opportunities set out in the Big City Plan.

Sir Albert’s speech was also heard in silence. In fact, it was the most subdued budget on record and didn’t liven up until after tea when the usual suspects began to throw mud at each other.

Having rubbished the coalition’s international aspirations – “Birmingham is not a global city” – Sir Albert chided Coun Whitby for appearing personally to take the credit for every regeneration scheme in the city, whether he had any input or not.

It was good knockabout stuff, and had Sir Albert stuck to attacking the council leader’s supposed vanity he would have been on safe ground. Unfortunately, he proceeded to commit two grave tactical errors that may return to haunt him during the May council elections.

Sir Albert attacked the coalition’s policy of keeping council tax bills “artificially low”, which he said had cost Birmingham £70 million since 2005. If Coun Whitby and his cabinet had delivered the average council tax increase for metropolitan authorities, there would by now be an additional £70 million to spend on protecting services, he suggested.

It is true that Sir Albert did not state that Labour would increase council tax bills sharply next year. A large increase would in any case have to be approved by a referendum, under provisions in the Localism Act. But in politics, perception is everything and Labour of all political parties can hardly risk becoming implicated in tax-and-spend policies. You can bet that Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors are already ordering election leaflets warning about Labour’s tax bombshell.

Labour did not propose an alternative budget as such, but put forward instead a proposal to switch £6 million of proposed spending to support social services and regeneration projects. It could be argued that it was somewhat remiss for a party that expects to gain control of Birmingham in a matter of weeks to not set out a budget.

Sir Albert, in his second tactical error, appeared to suggest that it would have been all too difficult to do so. He said: “The response of the Labour group is not to promote an alternative budget because the level of cut in Government funding makes that an impossible task. Instead, the Labour group has looked for ways that will make the budget fairer to those residents who would otherwise suffer greatest due to the cuts in services they are most in need of.”

This begs a big question: if it is an impossible task now for Labour to promote a budget for Birmingham because of a lack of Government funding, how much more difficult will it be in May?

The real reason, I believe, for the gloomy silence was that councillors on all sides of the chamber realise just how serious is the financial predicament facing Birmingham. The fact is that, between 2010 and 2014, the council will face almost a 30 per cent cut in Government funding and have to find ways of reducing budgets by more than £400 million. Nothing on this scale has occurred before.

This cannot be achieved without severely reducing the council workforce. The latest estimates suggest that the non-schools workforce will be cut by a quarter over the four-year period, which could mean the loss of almost 7,000 jobs. Neither can a 28 per cent funding cut be achieved without harming front-line services, whatever Coun Whitby says to the contrary.

As Sir Albert Bore noted towards the end of his speech, the reduction in government grant is such that “some of the worst excesses (of the spending cuts) cannot be avoided”. The best that could be offered was to mitigate the impact in a city afflicted by some of the worst social deprivation anywhere in the country, he admitted.

Having sought to dampen aspirations about how much he can achieve, Sir Albert must now set about publishing a detailed policy manifesto for the May council elections so that voters can see exactly what a Labour-led council would do differently to a Tory-Lib Dem council. It is not good enough for Labour candidates to turn up on the doorsteps proclaiming that it is all too ghastly to contemplate how to address Government cuts.

We have been promised that Labour will indeed enter the election campaign with one of the most detailed manifestos on record. A manifesto, incidentally, that will inevitably be seen as a template for Sir Albert were he to become Birmingham’s first elected mayor in November. The details are awaited with interest, and will doubtless be dissected by the city’s political community over the coming weeks.

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