Slimline council admits ‘we are no longer the obvious deliverer of public services’
Birmingham city council can no longer be regarded as the natural deliverer of public services.
That statement contained in the 2016-17 budget papers is the rather startling, but honest, assessment of the council’s plight as it continues to shed thousands of staff and prepares to slash spending by a further £250 million by 2020.
The council business plan and budget 2016+, which was approved by the cabinet today, makes it clear that the UK’s largest public authority is moving rapidly towards a new era in which it will either work in partnership with others to deliver services or rely on ‘signposting’ citizens to provision by the private and voluntary sectors.
The statistics are extraordinary. In the nine years from 2011-12 to 2019-20, the council will have reduced spending by £815 million. Turning the clock back to February 2011, as the then Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition set its penultimate budget, if someone had told them they would have to cut almost £1 billion from the budget over nine years, no one would have believed such a thing possible.
Matters have improved recently following a Government decision to introduce a Fairer Funding Methodology which will give Birmingham some £163 million more in grant over the next four years than it had expected to receive.
The city council’s Labour leader John Clancy welcomed the change of heart, but pointed out that the fairer funding system only begins this year. Had it been backdated to 2014-15, the council would not have to make any spending cuts next year, he claimed.
Opposition Tory and Liberal Democrat councillors have been quick to point out that the council still does not have a comprehensive long-term spending plan up to 2020, as demanded by the Kerslake Review.
However, the business plan sets out a vision for change:
The leader and chief executive are clear that our culture must always be one of openness, honesty and engaging on every occasion with citizens. This will ensure that we aspire to create a citizen focused culture working collaboratively to make a positive difference every day to people lives.
A key part of that vision is our commitment to working in partnership with others to achieve shared aims – our role, with other civic and civil leaders, is to agree the vision for Birmingham and, with them lead the city as a joint enterprise. It is not to run the city.
It makes clear that the council in future will only be able to concentrate on a small number of important topics:
Arising from our longer term thinking, we are focusing on a small number of big issues for the city including the provision of decent, affordable housing, investment in our transport infrastructure and a city for young people, learning and skills.
Within the Future Council programme of change our priorities will be to create a culture of openness and participation, transform the council’s use of technologies and reform the way we commission services.
We will also show leadership in creating a united Birmingham, a city that has no place for intolerance and fanatical extremism and which values both diversity and unity as strengths. We will prioritise action to strengthen community cohesion by reinforcing our commitment to reduce the economic and social disadvantage and inequalities that can add to conflict and tension.
One ray of sunshine amid the gloom is the decision to award an 11 per cent pay rise to carers, who are among the lowest paid workers in Birmingham.
The figure is less than the council’s Birmingham Living Wage, which will be £8.25 an hour from April 1, but above the National Living Wage of £7.20 from 1 April. The difference between the current minimum wage and the Birmingham Care Wage is more than £1,600 a year, based on a 40 hour week.
Cllr Clancy said:
When this administration introduced its Birmingham Living Wage policy it was generally understood that social care was an area where it was hardest to achieve and therefore initially outside the scope of our efforts to ensure workers got a fair deal.
But it has always been our ambition to include private sector care staff working on council contracts. It is morally the right thing to do so, despite the continued assault on local government finances and the difficult cuts we have to make, this cannot be an excuse to do nothing.
The budget papers do not shy away from Birmingham’s structural economic problems, which remain serious even though the city centre is apparently booming with record inward investment.
Birmingham is a major centre for employment, with around half a million jobs located in the city. Despite this, the employment rate for its residents is low and has historically been below the national average – this manifests itself in the city having high economic inactivity and unemployment rates and higher than average levels of deprivation.
For Gross Value Added (GVA) per head, Birmingham (£21,093) is well below the UK (£24,958) and has the third lowest figure amongst the core cities. Forecasts show that this is expected to grow by 27 per cent to £26,788 in 2030, lower than the 34.6 per cent growth expected for the UK.
The city also has a low resident employment rate and high unemployment rate when compared to the UK and other cities. The employment rate in the city (61.1%) is well below the UK average (72.1%) and the second lowest amongst the English core cities.
The budget report lists a number of radical changes to the way the council works:
- From an all-purpose council to a strategic council, working with others to deliver fewer, predominantly targeted, services.
- From a big to medium-size employer – fewer staff (and fewer councillors).
- From fixing problems later to delivering earlier targeted prevention.
- From running services to influencing service provision – from being mainly a service provider to being a gateway to services and support.
- From council-led to partnership-led.
- From mainly top down service management to more citizen-focused and responsive services.
- From small numbers of big providers to a diverse network of providers.
- From dedicated services to shared services – both back office and frontline – without presumption that Birmingham City Council is the direct deliverer.
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