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Political leaders cast differences aside to keep commissioners out of Birmingham

Political leaders cast differences aside to keep commissioners out of Birmingham

🕔08.Dec 2015

Birmingham’s three political leaders have joined forces in an unprecedented display of unity to convince the Government that the city council will deliver governance reforms set out in the Kerslake Review.

Almost exactly a year after Lord Kerslake produced his damning indictment of poor leadership, failure to take tough decisions and a lack of any vision for Birmingham, the council’s new Labour leader John Clancy, opposition Tory group leader Robert Alden and Liberal Democrat leader Paul Tilsley have proclaimed their determination to work together for the good of Birmingham.

In a report to the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel the party leaders say “creditable” progress has been made in delivering Kerslake’s 11 recommendations, but there is still has a long way to go to produce in full the culture change demanded by Communities Secretary Greg Clark.

The report and a public meeting of the panel next week will be crucial factors when Mr Clark decides what next to do about Birmingham city council. It is feared he could send in commissioners to run the council if he deems progress towards reform to be insufficient.

The improvement panel twice warned this year it feared that the council, under its former leader Sir Albert Bore, failed to understand or even accept the scale of change required.

Public meetings of the panel were marked by Sir Albert insisting he was meeting Kerslake’s demand that all councillors should be involved in responding to the review and in policy making, only to be told by Cllr Alden and Cllr Tilsley that this was not happening in practice.

Of the 134 actions proposed by Kerslake, 82, or 61 per cent have been achieved and 17 are in progress and on schedule (13%). Eleven actions (8%) were not due to have started yet. However, 21 (16%) have seen some slippage and 3 (2%) that were due to start have not yet started.

The party leaders hope their display of unity will convince Mr Clark to give the council more time to deliver the required culture change – crucially, improving partnership working and moving away from a ‘we know best attitude’.

The fresh approach is the latest example of Cllr Clancy’s inclusive approach to leadership.

He made a point of meeting with Mr Clark and improvement panel chair John Crabtree immediately after winning the Labour group leadership on November 23. He also held meetings with Cllr Alden and Cllr Tilsley to stress the requirement for a fresh start in relations between the political groups.

Cllr Clancy is determined to disprove claims made during the leadership election campaign by some of his opponents that a combination of his inexperience and a radical policy programme would result in the Government sending commissioners to run the council.

The latest report to the panel could hardly be more different in style or context to the September letter written by Sir Albert Bore, in which he concluded:

I am personally really pleased with the progress we have all made in the last couple of months or so.

In the December letter to the improvement panel, the party leaders say:

We all commit to working together to achieve the further changes required. It is our shared belief that, as shown in this report, the city council is turning a corner and has increased the pace of change to start creating the excellent council you deserve in the years ahead. We have laid the foundations and we are determined to finish the job of improvement.

But restoring the city council’s reputation as a leader in local government will require much more than one year of work on specific recommendations. We are all fully aware of the scale of the challenges facing the organisation and the need for truly radical change if those challenges are to be met. This means we need to plan for the long term and commit to a consistent and sustained process of change over the years ahead.

We all accept that drastically reduced resources mean that the organisation must be significantly smarter in the years ahead and we agree that this means a shift from an all-purpose council to a more strategic one, influencing and working with many other service providers.

We are each committed to creating an organisation that works in partnership with others with the purpose of empowering communities and supporting greater independence for residents.

Above all, we recognise that realising this vision will require a profound change in the culture of the city council, the way in which we operate and the values and ethos that we bring to our roles.

We aspire to a culture of openness, honesty and engagement in which a good councillor and a good officer is one who understands the aspirations and ideas of those outside the organisation and helps them to achieve them. We must focus on what we are trying to achieve together, not on the internal concerns of the organisation.

The three say they believe progress on Kerslake has been “creditable” given the financial pressures the council is operating under.

The letter highlights the council’s Forward Together 2020 Vision document as an example of a radical new approach to changing the way the authority will have to work in future, with far smaller budgets and fewer staff.

The political and officer leadership have worked together throughout the year to agree a proposed vision for how the council should operate, and what are we going to look like as a council in 2020 and what are the key rules that will shape how we get there.

The work on the vision and design principles have fed into how we have approached the development of a the council of the future – which begins to set out how we can get from where we are now to the kind of council we want to be in five years’ time.

Councillors of all parties agreed on some of the key principles – that the council faces significant financial and organisational challenges and as a result will need to be much smaller, much smarter, more strategic and must get much better at working with partners and other service providers, and will also need to make difficult decisions about the services that we continue to deliver.

The three group leaders have agreed that they will work together on the long term vision for the council – so whilst there may be political differences about the way in which we make changes for 2020 (and beyond), everyone agrees that changes have to be made, and that we need to think about the long term as well as the short term.”

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