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Shock Kerslake revelation: ‘I turned down job as Birmingham council chief executive’

Shock Kerslake revelation: ‘I turned down job as Birmingham council chief executive’

🕔16.Dec 2014

Sir Bob Kerslake has revealed that he turned down the chance to become Birmingham city council chief executive twelve years ago after he was rejected as the best candidate for the job.

He said council leader Sir Albert Bore went to see him in 2002 to offer him the position after the first choice for the post, American city manager Valerie Lemmie, accepted but then weeks later turned the job down having got cold feet.

Kerslake was chief executive of Sheffield city council and had been shortlisted for the Birmingham job at the end of 2001 when Sir Michael Lyons left. But Kerslake was overlooked by an interview panel and the job was offered to Ms Lemmie who accepted before changing her mind.

Sir Bob, now Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government, revealed his brush with Birmingham a week after the publication of his review into the city council’s governance arrangements and performance.

The review was highly critical of the council over many years, accusing the authority of lacking strategic vision and of failing to collectively agree on big decisions. It said radical change was needed for Birmingham to catch up with the likes of Manchester and Leeds

Writing in the Guardian newspaper, Sir Bob explained: “More than a decade ago, in preparation for a job interview for the post of chief executive of Birmingham council, I took a series of bus rides around the city. I was enthralled with the different communities I saw – Alum Rock, Castle Vale and Sutton Coldfield to name but three.

“Ultimately the job was offered to an American woman, who then turned it down. The leader, Sir Albert Bore, came to see me in Sheffield where I was then chief executive to ask if I would take it on, but by then the moment had passed and I didn’t think I would have the authority to make the changes I would have wanted to.”

Sir Bob added that his review was commissioned by Communities Secretary Eric Pickles because “there had been a feeling that Birmingham was being left behind by other councils, such as Manchester, and risked losing its second city status.”

He added: “The review had a clear and simple purpose – to look at how Birmingham was being governed and managed and make recommendations that would move the dial and put the city on a better path.

“Over a period of three months, the review panel talked to more than 350 people in and around Birmingham, looked at more than 70 written submissions and reviewed more than 250 council documents. We held meetings with different communities across the city. The emerging findings were tested with the council’s leadership as we went along.

“The conclusions we reached were clear and unequivocal. There were some real positives, not least the passion for the city of its leadership and the commitment of the council staff. The overwhelming view, though, was that the council needed to change radically. As one person put it to us Birmingham just can’t go on as it has been doing.”

He accepted that the report would provoke a strong reaction, but he believed “that Birmingham has responded well in the circumstances and is willing to pursue meaningful reform”.

Sir Bob continued: “The panel, which had lots of local government experience, made some firm recommendations. But the decisions are Birmingham’s now. Some of the challenges the city faces and some of the solutions we proposed will not be exclusive to Birmingham alone.

“One problem was cultural. In Birmingham we found a council-knows-best culture. Instead of looking to blame others or seek bailouts, the city leadership needs to develop a clear strategic vision that brings economic partners on board and lets officials focus on getting the basics – management and services – right.

“The severe financial pressures on the council, which the panel fully recognised, makes this even more important. They make the need to engage with partners and grow the local economy even more important.

“The test of success of the review is that there will be no need for more like it in the future. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to do that bus ride again with Birmingham council’s position re-established as local government at its best, leading others around the country along the way.”

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