Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors are in a tremendous strop over the Labour administration’s decision to force District Committees to meet in the Council House.
Doesn’t sound like the end of the world, does it?
A simple guide to the great devolution row: the council used to have ten Constituency Committees responsible for running a few local services like parks and libraries. They met in the constituencies, usually in the evening. No one much went and the committees achieved very little other than overspending their sizeable budgets.
Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore has replaced these bodies with ten District Committees, which will have even larger budgets and take charge of a far wider range of local services. He is insisting they meet at the Council House during normal office hours, presumably so that a close eye may be kept on them.
This has thrown Conservative Sutton and Liberal Democrat Yardley into an explosion of anger about Labour supposedly riding roughshod over local wishes. Even though meetings are generally attended by fewer than half a dozen members of the public, the Tory and Lib Dem councillors live in hope that their deliberations will one day become the hottest ticket in town and they worry that people will find it inconvenient to travel to the Council House.
Insults were flying fast and furious at cabinet. Anne Underwood, Tory chairman of the Sutton District Committee, accused Labour of “petty minded” politics, and added ominously that the Sutton committee had voted unanimously to meet in Sutton. The home rule for Sutton mob even included the “new Labour member for Vesey”, as Coun Underwood habitually refers to Coun Rob Pocock whose name she seems unable to utter publicly.
Liberal Democrat group leader Paul Tilsley, a member of the Yardley committee, spoke of the “thin end of the wedge” and hinted that this could all be part of an evil plan by Labour to one day cede Sheldon to Solihull Borough Council, although he did not elaborate on how he came to such a conclusion.
Even Liberal Democrat councillor Jerry Evans, who is not in the cabinet and has nothing to do with Sutton or Yardley, got in on the act with a press release condemning Labour’s “control freakery” and Sir Albert’s “centralising diktat”.
Actually, Sir Albert’s argument seems reasonable enough. If these committees are eventually to run 80 per cent of council services, as he has promised, it is essential that senior council officers are on hand at meetings to dispense advice to councillors.
Having highly paid officials decamp all over Birmingham to attend meetings at night, running up hefty expenses bills as well as time off in lieu, is not a good idea.
Sir Albert has rather cleverly promised live web streaming of the district committee meetings so that anyone anywhere in the world who is interested in their deliberations may follow events as they unfold. This, as you may imagine, has not placated Sutton or Yardley.
What on earth will happen next? Might Sutton and Yardley issue a Unilateral Declaration of Independence and form their own governments, like latter-day Rhodesias? Could South Yardley Library and Sutton Town Hall become hotbeds of revolution?
The irony, of course, is that in their haste to get a pointless bandwagon rolling the Tories and Lib Dems appear to have taken their eyes off what’s really going on. Labour’s District Committee localisation programme represents the biggest change in local government administration in Birmingham for 15 years and is partly a return to the old committee system – although Sir Albert and the cabinet will always have the final say on any important district decision.
It remains to be seen what will happen when either Sutton or Yardley district committees decide to spend money on something not to Sir Albert’s liking. And since these bodies will, apparently, have control over housing management, youth services, community libraries, sport and leisure services, refuse collection and street cleansing, you would imagine there is plenty of scope for trouble ahead.
LABOUR’S promised ‘forensic’ investigation into the financial arrangements surrounding Service Birmingham – the city council’s Capita-led IT joint venture company – is continuing at a pace, I hear.
Accountants have been appointed to delve into the various contracts which are worth £1 billion.
They will be considering whether the city council has negotiated a good deal from Service Birmingham in the light of long-running rows about the performance of the new call centre and the enormous cost of the IT programme.
The cabinet member for commissioning, contracting and improvement, Stewart Stacey, is far from amused at the latest financial bombshell. A ‘refresh’ of the IT server and storage programme will cost the council a staggering £4.3 million.
City Strategic Director for Resources, Paul Dransfield, put it somewhat laconically: “It may be a surprise to some members that, despite its cost, the joint venture agreement with Service Birmingham does not include the provision of hardware for the servers or storage that the ICT systems use.”
Coun Stacey stuck to a few pithy words, but the meaning was clear: “As I discover more and more about Service Birmingham I am more and more amazed by the terms and conditions of the contract.”