IT DIDN’T take very long for Sir Albert Bore to find himself accused of Machiavellian-type behaviour.
The new Birmingham City Council leader hasn’t been in office for a month yet, but claims that he is using political trickery to secure his power base are already rife.
Thus the pattern of Sir Albert’s previous tenure as leader from 1999 to 2004, where he had to constantly field accusations of being up to something devious, is being repeated at an early stage.
The latest allegation comes from the Liberal Democrats, who reckon that Sir Albert’s determination to control everything around him is so great that he has cleverly removed decision making powers from his Labour cabinet colleagues.
Lib Dem deputy group leader Jon Hunt has been examining the small print of changes to the council constitution, the handiwork of Sir Albert, and points out that unelected chief officers have been given new powers to by- pass cabinet members and approve spending of up to £500,000 on individual projects.
It used to be the case that officers could nod through spending decisions up to £150,000, which is a relatively small sum in the case of Birmingham City Council.
But the new constitution gives delegated authority to chief executive Stephen Hughes and chief officers to approve any single item of expenditure up to £150,000 and to approve items up to £500,000 “in consultation with the relevant cabinet members”.
It is the words “in consultation with” that are causing a storm, since they suggests that the cabinet member will merely be asked for his or her opinion and will have no power to block spending proposals.
Coun Hunt launched a broadside, claiming that the changes reduced cabinet members to mere “puppets on a string”. He wants the £28,000-a-year special responsibility allowances paid to members of the cabinet to be halved in order to reflect their “reduced responsibilities”.
He claimed: “The changes mean that no cabinet member will be allowed to make financial decisions on their own. Instead the decisions that they used to make will be made by the council’s elite team of senior officers.”
Coun Hunt makes the point that, under the previous system, a cabinet member had to hold formal meetings at which they agreed a range of financial decisions. These were subsequently published and could be challenged by scrutiny committees, who could call them in.
Call-ins happened frequently, much to the embarrassment of the former Tory-Lib Dem council coalition, on issues such as setting of fees for leisure centres, details of contracts for parks and allocation of grants for voluntary organisations.
An angry Coun Hunt continued: “The alarm was raised when cabinet members were given a range of fancy titles and whole departments such as housing and leisure, sport and arts disappeared from the cabinet. I confronted council leader Sir Albert Bore about this at the last council meeting and found his answer utterly unsatisfactory.”
The council’s website already has a section detailing spending decisions taken by officers. Coun Hunt and his Lib Dem colleagues are demanding that the chief executive and his senior management team be dragged before full council meetings and probed in public about any spending decisions they may have made.
Sir Albert remains intensely relaxed about the changes, describing Coun Hunt’s claims as “nonsense”.
The council leader insists that the new system merely tidies up the former rules and that the only material change is to allow officers delegated responsibility for spending decisions up to £200,000, when the figure was previously £150,000.
As far as decisions between £150,000 and £500,000 are concerned, cabinet members will still have the final say, he insists. Any expenditure over £500,000 will automatically come to cabinet for approval.
Sir Albert agreed that it would be politically unthinkable for unelected officials to overrule elected cabinet members. “An officer will write a report recommending spending, say, £400,000 on an item, and the cabinet member will either say yes or no,” he added.
This is not, of course, made clear in the constitutional changes where the reader is entitled to assume that officers can spend up to £500,000 after merely consulting the cabinet member.
Sir Albert’s explanation for this? “The wording is not as tight as it could have been.”
NO SHOW at the city council Business Management Committee from Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors, who are presumably licking their wounds after suffering a crushing defeat at the local elections last month.
The absence of Tory group leader Mike Whitby, colleague Anne Underwood and Lib Dem Mike Ward was not explained. Conservative deputy leader Robert ‘Bobby’ Alden did turn up, demonstrating that he is fully in touch with his feminine side by wearing a fetching pair of pink trainers, but he is not actually a member of the committee.
It was a pity because Coun Whitby and Coun Ward would have witnessed a chippy exchange of views between council leader Sir Albert Bore and chief executive Stephen Hughes had he been there.
Sir Albert, pursuing his claim that the Tory-Lib Dem coalition left office with a £20 million black hole in the council budget, says he has uncovered evidence of a secret plan to slash £900,000 from the Democratic Services Unit. Proposals, said to be completely unworkable, include cutting councillors’ expenses by £300,000 although it is far from clear why this could not or should not be done.
It was also proposed, horror of horror, to save money by reducing the number of council meetings.
Mr Hughes said he was “very clear” that no such proposals had ever been agreed. There is no “fully forged plan” to cut the Democratic Services budget, he insisted.
Unhappy with the first draft of a report on the savings to the Business Management Committee which he felt failed to come clean on the savings, Sir Albert demanded a re-write to include specific information about the proposed cuts.
And pulling himself up to his full height, he continued: “I have asked every cabinet member to ensure that any further reports are detailed. I will not sign off any report coming before this council unless details of these savings are identified.”
Let the last word go to Mr Hughes, who certainly could not be accused of defending his officials on this occasion.
“There was never any prospect of achieving a 10 per cent reduction in councillors’ allowances. It was a ridiculous thing to put forward.”