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Sir Albert trapped in Groundhog Day horror, but ‘end of local government’ can’t be delayed for ever

Sir Albert trapped in Groundhog Day horror, but ‘end of local government’ can’t be delayed for ever

🕔13.Jan 2014

The leader of Birmingham City Council, Sir Albert Bore, could be forgiven for thinking that he has somehow slipped into an updated version of the film Groundhog Day.

For Sir Albert, like the fictional TV weatherman in the film, faces exactly the same trials and tribulations each and every day in 2014 that were thrown at him in 2013.

He’s dealing with the same unprecedented Government grant cuts, with an estimated £460 million in savings to be found over the next three years on top of £375 million already identified.

In order to decide how future cuts can be found he’s set up a number of service review bodies, just as he did a year ago.

He’s warned that the service reviews will have to come up with plans to ‘decommission’ services in 2015-16 because there can be no more ‘salami slicing’ of budgets – which repeats word for word his prediction this time last year.

He’s told Birmingham’s 10 devolved district committees that he’s concerned about their lack of progress and put them on notice that they simply have to knuckle down and decide which services they wish to preserve and which ones they want to close down or transfer to the private or voluntary sectors – again, repeating last year’s dire warning.

He’s promised to cut £20 million from the core contract of Service Birmingham/Capita, just as he has promised since late 2012. Negotiations, we hear, are continuing and presumably will be completed before the 2014-15 council budget is set in March since the £20 million is required in order to balance the books.

And this May, Cllr Bore will face a challenge to his leadership from Cllr John Clancy, who also stood against the council leader, and lost, in May 2013. Almost certainly, it will again be a two horse race, as was the case in 2013. Most probably, but not definitely, Sir Albert will win again.

This seemingly endless circle of stern warning about the end of local government followed by what appears to be another final throw of the coin before Armageddon hits home has given useful ammunition, and some amusement, to Cllr Clancy and his cheerleader-in-chief, Professor David Bailey.

Bailey, whose mission to force Bore to publish full details of the council’s contract with Capita is taking on its own Groundhog Day persona, has parodied Bore by asking whether Birmingham is yet facing the end of the end of the end of local government, or whether we are simply at the end of the beginning of the end?

You have to suppose, though, that 2014 will be the year in which the council finally faces up to axing non-statutory services, particularly in light of George Osborne’s recent announcement of his determination to strip out yet more costs from local government. Will there be rescue on the horizon with a 2015 Labour government racing cavalry-like over the hill? I wouldn’t bet on it.

The council’s budget consultation booklet for 2014-15 contains proposals for future years as well. The plan is to strip out £8 million from public health services by 2016-17 and to save £5.6 million by axing housing support services for older people in sheltered schemes.

Sir Albert’s apparent determination to chivvy along the district committees and make councillors take responsibility for decisions about reducing or ending services will be a central feature of Birmingham politics in 2014.

The council leader told the main scrutiny committee: “I want to see rather more decisions being taken by the district committees rather than the committees simply noting decisions taken by officers.”

His aim is to devolve 80 per cent of decision making to the district committees, leaving the cabinet free to concentrate on grand strategy and, crucially, forming closer links with other public bodies. One of the reviews currently underway is examining how the districts can unpick city-wide Service Level Agreements that presently make it difficult or impossible to alter contracts for refuse collection, street cleaning and grounds maintenance.

This is good news, you may think, for backbench councillors who constantly complain about being kept out of the loop by the cabinet and having little to do other than case work on behalf of their constituents. Under Sir Albert’s plan, councillors outside of the cabinet will have real power, real budgets and real responsibilities.

The flipside of this is that the district committees are being handed power just at a time when the only thing they really have to decide is which public services to dispose of. Yes, the councillors will have their taste of power. But it won’t be a pretty sight.

Deputy council leader Ian Ward recently quoted an estimate from the Local Government Association that the money available to run things like road maintenance, local libraries, parks and leisure centres will fall by 90 per cent by 2020. Ward added that he found it difficult to imagine many of these services would exist for much longer.

According to the Conservative-controlled LGA, councils in England and Wales need to find £10 billion in savings over the next two years on top of £10 billion already removed from budgets under the Government’s austerity programme.

Cover Image: Groundhog Day (1993)

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