Sandwell replaces Birmingham as West Midlands’ ‘problem council’
Six months ago, the state of Birmingham city council was just about the only thing that Communities Secretary Greg Clark had to worry about in the West Midlands.
The council’s commitment to the governance culture changes demanded by the Kerslake Review was dependent on the Government approving a devolution deal for the region. In fact, a clear warning that Birmingham had to keep improving is contained in the draft devolution deal signed by the seven West Midlands council leaders, Mr Clark and Chancellor George Osborne.
Now, half a year on, Birmingham council under new leader John Clancy appears revitalised, is fully signed up to Kerslake, and is ready to take its place in the combined authority cabinet alongside the six other metropolitan councils.
The Kerslake improvement panel, set up by Clark’s predecessor Sir Eric Pickles to “hold Birmingham’s feet to the fire” and ensure reforms really are put in place, is taking a summer breather and will return in the autumn with a final report for the Communities Secretary.
If the Government believed in November 2015 that Birmingham might be the weakest link, Ministers must by now be looking nervously 15 miles to the north-west where Sandwell Council appears to be imploding in crisis after crisis following the death at Easter of leader Darren Cooper.
The council has published the findings of an independent investigation by solicitors Gowling WLG (formerly Wragge & Co) into allegations of breaches of the councillors’ code of conduct, accompanied by a second report giving a legal opinion on Gowling’s findings, which the council sought from James Goudie QC.
The Gowling report, which took 15 months to prepare, accuses Sandwell Labour councillor Mahboob Hussain of six alleged council code of conduct breaches. Cllr Hussain, who has been suspended by his party, denies any wrongdoing and there is no suggestion he has committed any criminal offence.
Gowling investigated alleged irregularities in sales from 2011-2013, including three old public toilet blocks and a former coroner’s office in Smethwick.
A police investigation was concluded in March with no further action being taken.
Publication of Gowling’s report was delayed after legal action by “one of the parties named”, the council said, but was eventually published “in the public interest”.
The report focuses on the sale of three former council-owned public conveniences for £35,000 to a friend of Mr Hussain, two days after a district valuer said they were worth £130,000
There is no evidence Mr Hussain “obtained any advantage” and Mr Jones was a “passive bystander”, Gowling said.
It is alleged Mr Hussain tried to “persuade” the council to seek to buy a strip of land, which he knew was owned by his son – who also previously worked for the council – and the relationship was not revealed. The sale did not proceed, Gowling said.
If this is not embarrassing enough, Sandwell Council is facing an unresolved leadership crisis.
The Labour group, which has 70 out of 72 councillors, met at the end of last week to elect a leader but the meeting was adjourned following a dead heat between Steve Eling, who has been acting leader since Cllr Cooper’s death, and Cllr Yvonne Davies – both had 34 votes.
The election is due to be re-run tonight (May 23).
If Greg Clark is keeping a watchful eye on events in Sandwell, he must also be concerned about the strange attitude the rest of the West Midlands councils appear to be taking towards the combined authority and the metro mayor.
Having agreed that an elected mayor to get things done is essential to the success of the £8 billion devolution deal (they wouldn’t have got a deal otherwise), it is an open secret that the council leaders are doing their best to water down the mayoral powers even going so far as to limit the mayor’s salary to between £40,000 and £50,000.
West Midlands Combined Authority will shortly undertake consultation on the powers of the mayor. Mr Clark, among others, will be keeping a close eye on the robustness of the questions asked of the public.
The irony that the West Midlands should be considering such a hair-shirt approach to the mayor’s salary just as former cabinet member and Labour big hitter Andy Burnham has announced he will seek his party’s selection to run for Greater Manchester metro mayor, where incidentally police commissioner and acting metro mayor Tony Lloyd is paid £100,000 a year, is almost too great to bear.
The main political parties will select a candidate for West Midlands metro mayor later in the summer, but it has to be said that no one is showing much interest at the moment.
MEP Siôn Simon appears to be the favourite for the Labour nomination, at least as far as his supporters are concerned even if Mr Simon is maintaining a faintly ridiculous refusal to admit he is even interested in the job. A former MP for Birmingham Erdington and one-time junior minister, Mr Simon might be a safe pair of hands, but has little profile beyond political circles and will need to work hard to secure interest in his leadership potential and policy ideas.
He may find himself up against the likes of Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne – the ‘all the money’s gone’ man – who is said by friends not to have ruled out a challenge.
More threateningly for Mr Simon, the possibility of former Respect party chair Salma Yaqoob seeking the Labour nomination cannot be ruled out. Her application to join the party is pending and leader Jeremy Corbyn is said to be a supporter.
The Conservatives are hardly over-blessed with big hitters in the West Midlands. The odds are narrowing on GBSLEP chair and John Lewis MD Andy Street being handed the Tory ticket. Rumours abound in Birmingham political circles that he will get the nod, and Street has failed to rule himself out although in the unlikely event of the West Midlands voting for a Conservative mayor Mr Street, whose 2015 salary topped £1.2 million, might find the £40,000 mayoral stipend little more than loose change.
And talking of rich people, former CBI boss and short-lived Minister in the Gordon Brown government Lord Digby Jones, whose earnings are unspecified but thought to be quite substantial, is said by friends to be quite likely to throw his hat in the ring as an Independent.
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