Recovery and renaissance, but serious issues remain beyond the core
As the leader of the council and his chief executive take joint hold a keyboard to underline Birmingham’s recent advances, their commitment and optimism face dual and daunting challenges. Chamberlain Files editor Kevin Johnson looks beyond the core to see what might overshadow recovery and renaissance.
It’s difficult to find a report about Birmingham that doesn’t mention the words ‘booming’ or ‘renaissance’. We’re as guilty of it as anyone here at the Files. Indeed, you’ll see such words used several times today alone on these pages. But life is, of course, not that simple as Cllr Clancy and Mark Rogers are all too well aware.
In an apparent response to a question posed by the BBC as to whether the city has recovered from the 2008 crash, John Clancy and Mark Rogers set out a persuasive answer of ‘yes’. As might be expected, HS2 and trams together with plans for Paradise, Smithfield and Curzon form part of their evidence. As do statistics on foreign direct investment, people re-locating from London and new business start-ups.
The BBC’s answer to the question is balanced, as we might expect from the nation’s premier broadcaster. It highlights many of the positive developments from the last eight years, but it also points to continuing issues with skills as well as image and identity.
The council leader and chief executive are careful in their blog to say that the rest of the city beyond the centre must reap the rewards.
The transformation of the central core is stunning, but a greater challenge is rebalancing growth across the entire city, and making sure that growth is inclusive and brings benefits to all. That means a 40-ward economic growth strategy, not a one ward strategy.
The challenge of delivering ‘inclusive’ growth is not unfamiliar. In his backbench years, Cllr Clancy was the standard bearer for those who believed there was too much focus on investment and regeneration in the city centre and that trickle down (or across) was not in evidence. Now, here he stands resplendent in three-piece suit pointing to cranes on the skyline.
The chief executive, meanwhile, is arguably the most engaging and personable holder of that office the city has ever had. His speeches, blogs, interviews and tweets (and there’s lots of them) hardly conceal his personal commitment to wanting to address the social and economic challenges faced beyond the core.
So, you might be entitled to ask, what politically and administratively are they doing to address these ‘beyond the core’ challenges since it is clear that both have recognised the plain facts for years and believe the Council has a key role in addressing the problems those facts expose?
It’s one of the questions the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel (BIIP) might be asking, although it will also want to know how the Council can put sustainable policies and plans in place to achieve a 40-ward strategy.
The Panel, formed in the aftermath of the Kerslake Report, will be reporting in the next few days. Anyone expecting a clean bill of health, a pat on the back for the new political leadership and a round of applause for the restructured senior management team is likely to be disappointed. It is also unlikely the Panel will be suggesting they disband in their letter to the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid.
The key concern is the Council’s ability to deliver a budget with all the cuts planned for the current year and the remainder of this parliament. There are lots of ideas for new financial vehicles and models and for resizing commitments like that to Capita, but none will deliver quickly and, in some cases, perhaps not at all. Politics is about choice and some of the most difficult choices remain to be made by politicians.
Whilst the re-setting of the member-officer relationship has made progress, there is still some way to go. There are serious concerns about the ability of officers to deliver the agenda of the political leadership as well as the budget. At the same time, the coherence and capability of the Cabinet is under question.
So, Cllr Clancy and Mark Rogers should herald Birmingham’s core successes. Indeed, they should continue to promote Birmingham’s renaissance and boomtime from every platform. But such achievements will pale into insignificance for them if they are unable to address the endemic and fundamental challenges of both their city and their city council.
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