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Mark Rogers’ Birmingham City Council inbox

Mark Rogers’ Birmingham City Council inbox

🕔03.Mar 2014

Mark Rogers is Birmingham city council’s first social media-savvy chief executive, so it was to be expected he would mark his first day in the biggest job in local government with a Twitter announcement.

Rogers told his 615 followers: “Year One; Week One; Day One – looking forward to doing my bit for prosperity, fairness and democracy in Birmingham.”

He’d already made clear his intentions in an interview during his final days as chief executive of Solihull Council by telling the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives that his mission was to create prosperity in Birmingham “for the many, not the few”.

It’s a safe bet that if Rogers carries on tweeting, he’ll soon pick up an army of followers.

It’s also possible, given the financial and organisational problems facing the council, that Mr Rogers may never again be as popular as he is today. So he needs to make his presence felt while he can.

Here is a brief run through of some of the more pressing problems in the Mark Rogers inbox:

The End of Local Government as we Know It. Well, yes, Sir Albert Bore’s apocalyptical warning may be a tad over the top, but it is an undeniable fact that the Government’s austerity programme is putting unprecedented pressure on the council budget. Bore estimates savings of £822 million must be achieved during the period 2010 to 2018, which represents about two-thirds of the controllable budget in 2010-11. Whether some services do have to be ‘decommissioned’ remains to be seen.

Culture Change. The scale of the financial crisis makes a radical change in the way the council operates inevitable, not least because a third of council jobs have disappeared since 2010 and thousands more will be lost over the next four years. Old, huge, departments have been axed or amalgamated and the remaining officials told they must get out of their silos and all work together with a bit of lateral thinking. This has been said many times before, with varying degrees of success.

Big Society. The Labour Party set out to trash David Cameron’s vision of a society where those that ‘can’ help those that ‘can’t’ because such sentiments attack the notion that the public sector knows best. But Labour appears to be coming around to the view that volunteers will increasingly run community libraries, sports centres and swimming pools in future as well as take responsibility for sweeping the pavements and picking up litter.

It’s a bit more complex than that, though, particularly where social services is concerned. Birmingham is shifting towards encouraging (forcing?) frail older people to stay in their own homes rather than move into care, and will be ‘signposting’ them to voluntary services instead.

Service Birmingham. The council’s contract with Capita to run ICT services and a contact centre costs an awful lot of money – £126 million last year alone, and £1 billion since 2006. Could this service be delivered more cheaply by another company or in-house, once the cost of terminating the Capita contract is taken into account? Someone’s got to make a decision pretty soon.

Devolution. Everyone is talking about devolution and localism. Well, ok, political nerds are talking about devolution and localism as a way of replacing top-down central government control by local communities empowered to make their own decisions about what’s best for their area. Birmingham is pioneering this approach and has established District Committees and is also talking about devolving further to ward and neighbourhood level.

The problem is, given the financial difficulties facing the council, there is bound to be friction between councillors in the districts and the cabinet. The devolved structure allows the Conservatives to run Edgbaston and Sutton Coldfield, while the Liberal Democrats control Yardley. This is not to the liking of many Labour councillors.

Asset Sales. Birmingham city council faces a £1.1 billion bill to meet equal pay compensation demands from thousands of women workers who were underpaid compared to men employed at the same job grade. Almost £450 million has been repaid so far, leaving £750 million to be found. With the Government refusing to allow the council to borrow more, the only answer would appear to be to sell big items like the NEC Group, a share in Birmingham Airport and possibly the Grand Central shopping centre at New Street Station. It’s a controversial one, to say the least.

Regeneration. It’s all happening, at least in the city centre it’s all happening. There are metro tram extensions all over the place and the Birmingham Curzon HS2 station will be the largest regeneration scheme in the country. The New Street Station refurbishment, complete with a John Lewis department store, will be complete very soon.

And yet even with the huge commercial and retail wealth of the central core, it is perfectly possible to travel just a few miles in any direction to discover ingrained social deprivation, structural unemployment and a low skills base, particularly in areas where most people are either from the ethnic minorities or a white working class background.

Political Management. As the most senior public servant of the council, Rogers job is to implement the will of the ruling politicians. As the person appointed on Sir Albert’s watch, we might assume that should be reasonably straightforward, at least in terms of the relationship and a shared understanding of vision and direction. However, that task may become more challenging as Labour bankbenchers become increasingly irritable with the way things are run and austerity bites deeper. With Coun Clancy almost certain to challenge for the leadership again in weeks, Rogers’ political management skills will be needed and he may be the Chief Executive who’s in post when Coun Bore decides its time to enjoy his retirement.

Here, then, is the nub of Mr Rogers’s challenge. Just how does he create wealth and prosperity for the many, not the few? It is a question that is posed every time Birmingham city centre undergoes a ‘renaissance’, but has never been satisfactorily answered in the past.

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