Tensions between the offices of the Lord Mayor of Birmingham and the leader of the city council that became a long-running sore during eight years of Conservative-Liberal Democrat rule have been highlighted by an inquiry.
A power struggle between the historic office of the Lord Mayor and the executive leader of the city council threatened to “weaken” the role of both functions, according to a scrutiny investigation.
Although he is not mentioned by name, the inquiry report reflects the sometimes uneasy relationship between offices of former city council leader Mike Whitby and the Lord Mayor’s Parlour between 2004-2012.
And in a thinly-veiled tilt at Coun Whitby’s presidential style, the report warns: “Overall the key message is that the personality of the head of the Executive is the biggest factor affecting the above, and in how fully a Lord Mayor can carry out their expected duties.
“There has undoubtedly been erosion of the role in recent years.”
Lord Mayors were not always told in advance about VIP visits to Birmingham “where it would have been suitable for him/her to attend”, and correct precedence was not always given to the First Citizen, the inquiry found. Council officers were forced to spend time negotiating between the two offices over individual invitations and events.
Question sare also raised about cuts to the £490,000 civic hospitality budget which the report claims “resulted in there being little left to host events after the costs of Remembrance Day and the Annual General Meeting are accounted for”.
The scrutiny committee, consisting of former Lord Mayors and senior city councillors, is the second investigation into the relationship between the civic and executive functions in two years.
The first probe, in 2010, called for closer working relationships and better communication between the two offices – something that the latest investigation found had not happened.
Relations between the Lord Mayor’s parlour and the council leader began to deteriorate in 2007 when Coun Whitby pushed through a controversial change to the council constitution.
A new clause stated that the Lord Mayor must not be “seen to be taking a lead or civic role in matters that are in the lawful domain of the leader of the council or any other cabinet member’s portfolio”.
Critics claimed the change would allow Coun Whitby to take precedence over the Lord Mayor at any number of civic events and VIP functions. The council leader rejected the charge, describing claims that he was intent on usurping the Lord Mayor as “very sad”.
The latest scrutiny report points out that the Lord Mayor of Birmingham should always have precedence, unless the Queen is in the city. “This means that the Lord Mayor takes precedence over all other councillors and officers of the council at all events.”
The report states: “Evidence suggests that in recent years there has been some tension between the Parlour and the Leader’s office. This has been evidenced around the allocation and acceptance of invitations and the observance of protocol at events.
“An important element is the Lord Mayor’s political neutrality and his/her ability to represent all Birmingham citizens, free from perceived agendas or personal promotion. Having a First Citizen above political controversy is a vitally important quality of the role and it is one that distinguishes the Lord Mayor from an executive lead.
“It is in Birmingham’s interest to ensure that both positions are well managed and work to support the needs of the city. It is therefore important that the city council set clear parameters, to give clarity to those outside the organisation, to reduce confusion and embarrassment and to ensure that officers do not have to spend time negotiating on individual invitations or visits.”
The inquiry suggests that the Lord Mayor should have a dedicated press officer and website to promote civic fundraising events and publicise the First Citizen during his year in office.
It also recommends establishing a framework for partnership working between the Lord Mayor and council leader.
Birmingham’s new Labour administration welcomed the scrutiny report. Deputy council leader Ian Ward said: “I am pleased that so early on in my role I have the opportunity to reaffirm the Labour led Council’s commitment to strengthening the future of the civic function and the role of the Lord Mayor. I support the recommendations made in this review, most notably the first recommendation that the council reiterates its support for a strong Lord Mayor.”