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Labour’s first 100 days

Labour’s first 100 days

🕔10.Sep 2012

One of the questions I was most frequently asked after the local elections in May was how long it would be before the Labour councillors now in control of Birmingham fell out with each other and began fighting like the proverbial cats in a sack.

Or to put it bluntly, how long would it be before council leader Sir Albert Bore found himself consumed by the type of vicious in-fighting that ultimately destroyed his 1999-2004 administration.

And significantly, some of those asking the questions were apprehensive Labour councillors who were not the usual rocking the boat suspects.

It seems appropriate, 100 days into Labour’s rule, to reach some early conclusions.

The first thing to say is that, given the appalling financial situation inherited by the new leadership, the ship appears to be remarkably steady.

Spending cuts amounting to £400 million must be found, and that figure will only rise in future as the Government strives more desperately to deal with the national debt.

A cross-party council ‘Team Birmingham’ delegation visited Downing Street last week to put the city’s case directly to the prime minister, which may result in progress towards an integrated West Midlands transport authority and an enlarged Birmingham Airport, but is highly unlikely to produce any reduction in the size of cuts faced by the city council.

There are tensions within the Labour group about Birmingham’s dash towards establishing school academies, although it would be pointless spending much time on resistance for as long as Michael Gove remains Education Secretary.

It is likely within three or four years that pretty much all secondary schools and a large proportion of primaries will have moved to academy status, free from local authority control, which will leave Sir Albert with a huge headache over what to do with the scores of education administrators and support staff employed by the council since the schools will then be free to buy services from any provider.

Children and Families cabinet member Brigid Jones has a plan to develop a council-led co-operative umbrella group which all Birmingham schools would be invited to sign up. Its success depends, of course, on how many schools still want the support of the council.

By far the biggest change being planned by Labour, with the greatest potential to cause trouble, is the move towards the localisation and devolution of service delivery. This is a pet project of Sir Albert’s, which he first unveiled in about 2002, and is being driven forward with plenty of determination by the council leader.

A new Local Services Directorate employing 8,000 people with a £500 million budget, will become the largest council department with a mission to make sure that the 10 District Committees oversee a step change by shifting the delivery of important local services from the centralised Council House into the heart of Birmingham’s diverse communities.

This is something with which Sir Albert’s critics have severe problems. Not because they do not support devolution, but because they believe the council leader is concocting a cynical plot which goes along the lines of ‘devolution, but only on my terms’.

To understand this it is necessary to be aware of the extreme passions that Albert Bore arouses across the political establishment. To his close band of supporters, he is a genius to be backed at all cost. To his opponents, he is power-crazed and will do anything to take and keep control.

The anti-Albert brigade, therefore, has a vested interest in assuming that devolution is, in fact, a huge and costly confidence trick. A decision by the council leader to order District Committees to meet in the Council House rather than in their districts was surely a tactical blunder that served up plenty of ‘control freak’ ammunition for his critics.

Proposals to disband 33 Housing Liaison Boards across the city have stirred up discontent among the, chiefly, left wing chattering classes and a demonstration is planned in Victoria Square to coincide with the November council meeting. The boards consisting of tenants’ representatives, local residents, councillors and housing officers exist to “monitor and improve housing services in their area”, according to the council.

What purer form of devolution could there be, you might ask. If proposals under discussion are approved by the cabinet, however, the liaison boards will disappear and their duties will be handed to the District Committees. It will be up to local managers, after consulting with residents, to recommend housing projects to the committees.

The greatest test of Sir Albert’s resolve is expected to come when the three District Committees not under Labour control seek to do something that is not to the council leader’s liking. Let us suppose, for example, that Tory controlled Edgbaston and Sutton Coldfield and Liberal Democrat Yardley decide that they don’t want their refuse collected in wheelie bins and would rather stick with black sacks. Can they do this?

Well, the answer is yes and no, with the likelihood that ‘no’ will prevail. Under Labour’s localisation arrangements, refuse collection falls into the category of “services that do not lend themselves to local management arrangements but should be responsive to local need with delegations held by District Committees”.

What does this mean? Who knows? If Yardley District Committee was to demonstrate, say, that the ‘local need’ was firmly against wheelie bins and the committee voted to retain the sacks would Sir Albert intervene from the centre? He might feel forced to do so if the council is in the position of having approved a city-wide contract to supply wheelie bins.

John Cotton, the cabinet member for social cohesion and one of Sir Albert’s most trusted acolytes, told a scrutiny committee recently that under devolution different political parties would have control of district committees and take “different decisions in their area”.

We must take Coun Cotton at his word, although there will be a few eyebrows raised at his optimism. Ordering district committees not to meet in their local communities does not appear to be a good way to demonstrate political commitment to devolution.

It is not impossible to envisage a position arising where rebellious district committees, possibly even Labour-controlled ones, have their powers limited or are even closed down by the cabinet for failing to behave. Such an outcome would be disastrous for Sir Albert and for Birmingham.



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