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Lights, camera…..inaction

Lights, camera…..inaction

🕔19.Sep 2012

Exciting plans to broadcast  the proceedings of Birmingham City Council’s committees have hit something of a stumbling block, I hear.

Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore justified his decision to order district committees to hold their meetings in the Council House during the day rather than in the suburbs during the evening by announcing that all sessions would be streamed via the internet.

It would not matter that the meetings were not held locally at a convenient time since anyone interested in following the proceedings could simply log into a computer and watch.

That was in July, but nothing has happened yet. Neither have plans for regular screening of scrutiny committees progressed very far, although Prof Carl Chinn’s magisterial denunciation of the betrayal of Birmingham’s working class was broadcast live with the assistance of someone in the corner of the room holding a video camera.

The problem, according to my man with the Cecil B DeMille canvas chair and eyeshade, is that the council’s IT providers, Capita-led Service Birmingham, have ‘got involved’. A number of ‘conversations’ are said to be taking place, and as anyone with any knowledge of Service Birmingham will know, talk costs money.

There will be cost implications, and these could be rather higher than expected, I am told.

So, when will a global audience be able to see and hear the deliberations of councillors in, say, Hall Green, discussing whether the drains are working or how many times the streets should be swept?

The odd thing is that this could happen now. The council chamber is already equipped with cameras and microphones, with meetings regularly screened live to the rest of the world. All that the district committees have to do, surely, is hold their meetings in the council chamber?

And if they can’t do that, then the man who so magnificently captured Prof Chinn could be recruited to go along to all of the committee meetings with his camera and tripod.

Memo to Sir Albert: a little less conversation, a little more action please.

OUTSPOKEN Labour councillor Mike Leddy has let the cat out of the bag over potential financial problems surrounding Birmingham’s £2.7 billion Highways PFI.

Coun Leddy, a former car worker and shop steward renowned for bluntness, began to talk at a scrutiny committee about an ‘affordability gap’ in the 25-year contract with Amey, the company with the task of transforming the city’s crumbling roads and street lights.

Leddy ploughed on as officers shuffled papers and looked nervously at each other.

How much, he demanded to know, might the affordability gap cost council tax payers?

Finance officer Peter Davies was left to explain. Under the terms of the contract the council pays Amey a certain amount each month, with the figure tied to a number of moveable factors including the rate of inflation and the cost of electricity.

An allowance for inflation has been set at an average 3.1 per cent during the lifetime of the contract. Unfortunately, the Retail Price Index has been rising at a faster rate.

Leddy’s view is that the Bank of England’s quantitative easing programme will drive up inflation in the long term. He’s obviously been reading the Guardian again.

More seriously, the cost to the council of electricity rose by 40 per cent last year. This has entailed paying significantly more to Amey than had been expected.

Pressed further, Davies explained: “There are some big risks because the numbers are big. We have had two years where it (inflation and cost of electricity) is in excess of the business plan. My take would be if we get to year four or five and we still see that trend we would flag it up.

“Up to now it is recoverable. But the longer you get into it the less time you have to recover. If we are in a difficult position in year four leading into year five, that’s when we would flag it up as a significant issue.”

I’m assured that the dangers here are very much in the sights of council leader Sir Albert Bore, who of course had no role in approving the PFI contract which was drawn up under the leadership of the former Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition.

Already under pressure to deliver £400 million of Government savings, the last thing Sir Albert needs is an additional hefty bill to mend the roads.

THE boardrooms of Birmingham are under pressure to find some work for the former Tory city council leader Mike Whitby, I hear.

A number of feelers about non- exec positions  have been put out to leading blue chip firms, as well as cultural organisations, according to someone familiar with the situation.

Sadly, like the knighthood that never was, nothing yet has come Whitby’s way although it can surely only be a matter of time before the old boy’s talents are recognised.

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