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Sir Albert sees grounds for optimism amid the cuts, but Labour rank-and-file mood is grim

Sir Albert sees grounds for optimism amid the cuts, but Labour rank-and-file mood is grim

🕔03.Mar 2015

Delivering his fourth austerity budget speech on the trot Sir Albert Bore sought to tread a careful line between the desperation of savage spending cuts and the sunnier prospects of Birmingham’s booming economy, reports Paul Dale.

He had done his best to protect the weak and the vulnerable against the Chancellor’s unfair slashing of the city council grant by £100 million between 2014 and 2016 and even found an additional £21.5 million for children’s social services.

In a long, almost certainly too long, address to the annual budget fixing meeting Sir Albert lingered over “the brighter side of the coin” with a 4.2 per cent growth in Birmingham’s economic output, far better than Manchester and Leeds.

Birmingham is the top destination outside of the south-east for business relocation, exports from the West Midlands are at record levels and there was more foreign investment in the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP area than in any other LEP in the country.

This is a time of great economic opportunity for Birmingham and pressing ahead with plans for a Greater Birmingham combined authority will help the region achieve its full potential, he claimed.

But Sir Albert’s speech failed to ignite a sullen Labour group.

Most unusually, on not one occasion did councillors break out into spontaneous applause, or any applause at all, until Sir Albert sat down and then the reaction from Labour members could only just be described as lukewarm. Some, noticeably, simply sat on their hands and stared at their navels.

As is well known, Sir Albert will face a challenge to his leadership at the annual Labour group meeting on May 11 following the local elections. Backbencher John Clancy is the sole declared challenger, at the moment. Rumours persist of a compromise candidate coming forward to challenge Sir Albert, perhaps even a deal being struck with Cllr Clancy.

Certainly, the council leader appeared tired and his delivery was unexciting. With no applause, and therefore no opportunity to pause and pace his delivery, Sir Albert just plodded on through 13 pages of A4 and received an underwhelming response from the chamber.

The mood was not helped by the traditional public gallery protest from a small group of socialist demonstrators chanting ‘Labour, Labour, shame on you for turning blue’. As is the custom, they were eventually ejected by security staff.

The council’s financial position remains critical, and the appointment of an improvement panel following the Kerslake Review will shape the next eight months for better or for worse.

Sir Albert said he could not over-emphasise how important it would be to demonstrate a “clear plan of action and by the end of the year demonstrable improvements across all the Kerslake recommendations”.

No one should be under any illusions about the scale of challenges ahead and the need to make difficult and radical decisions, he warned.

Further spending cuts of £253 million are required by 2017-18 of which only £55 million have been identified. Birmingham city council’s spending will have been reduced by £820 million between 2010-11 and 2017-18.

Sir Albert expects to talk to shadow Communities Secretary Hilary Benn before the General Election to see whether Birmingham could cut a more generous deal with a Labour government. But there is no great confidence that austerity will be very different under Chancellor Ed Balls than Chancellor George Osborne.

Sir Albert cited a report by the Independent Commission on Local Government Finance which described public services as being “on the edge of collapse” and warned that services that are part of everyday life may not be around much longer.

It was apocalyptical stuff, which fitted perfectly Sir Albert’s ‘this is the end of local government as we know it’ agenda which he has been pushing for three years now.

He said he didn’t understand Kerslake’s claim that Birmingham city council is no good at forming partnerships. Sir Albert pointed to the complex partnership arrangements in place to deliver the Paradise Circus regeneration scheme, the Grand Central shopping centre and the Snow Hill ‘Canary Wharf’ scheme.

He was at least not ducking a fight, for the concentration of office and retail-led city centre redevelopment at the expense of the suburbs forms the central part of Cllr Clancy’s criticism of the Bore leadership style.

For the record, the 2015-16 council budget will deliver about £116 million of spending cuts and some 1,000 jobs will disappear. Council tax bills will rise by 1.99 per cent and council house rents by 2.2 per cent.

And if Sir Albert isn’t feeling the love from his own group, he certainly can’t look to the Tories for comfort. Conservative leader Robert Alden dedicated most of his speech to a personal attack on Sir Albert who he said “can never be the future because he doesn’t understand what went wrong on his watch and is in denial about the serious nature of the Kerslake Review”.

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