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Special Feature: Implementing Kerslake, part II

Special Feature: Implementing Kerslake, part II

🕔18.Aug 2015

In the second part of our special feature, Paul Dale looks at the progress being made by Birmingham City Council with recommendations 4 to 7, covering size of the council, finance, HR and devolution. 

Recommendation  4

The Secretary of State should move Birmingham city council to all out elections replacing the current election by thirds. In the interest of effective and convenient local government the Local Government Boundary Commission for England should conduct an Electoral Review that reflects existing communities to help the council produce an effective model for representative governance. It should aim to complete its work to enable elections by May 2017.

Eric Pickles seized the moment before the 2015 General Election to order Birmingham to move to all-out elections from 2017. That was later shifted back a year to 2018.

Last month the Boundary Commission published its recommendation that the size of the council should be reduced from 120 to 100 councillors, putting paid to attempts by the three political parties to protect the status quo, and even to increase the size of the council to more than 180 members. All attention is focused now on the second stage of the review, re-drawing ward boundaries. The commission has said Birmingham’s new set up will probably be a mixture of one, two and three member wards.

Recommendation 5

Birmingham City Council needs as a matter of urgency to develop a robust plan for how they are going to manage their finances up to 2018-19 without recourse to further additional funding from central Government. This should:

Evaluate current policy choice and propose significant further reductions in costs and measures to tackle levels of demand.

Involve residents and partners.

Ensure that the council regularly reports on progress to the independent improvement panel.

Ministerial acceptance in full of the Kerslake review, including the section about managing finances “without recourse to additional funding from central government”, put paid to any lingering hopes that a future Communities Secretary might come galloping to Birmingham’s aid with a bag of money, and the faint prospect of a Labour government rescue plan disappeared on May 7.

The improvement panel has said one of its major concerns relates to slow progress in developing the long term financial strategy required to balance the council’s books in the period 2016-18. However, the panel did note a “thorough and professional” approach to avoid the salami-slicing of previous budgets and recorded that “the council has recently got back on track with the challenging timetable and recognises the intensity of effort now required to achieve the planned multi-year programme of service reform”.

Balancing the budget against a backdrop of falling Government grants will be a major challenge for the controlling Labour group and council leader Sir Albert Bore. Next year, 2016-17, will according to Sir Albert be the crunch year when difficult decisions must be made about which services to close down entirely.

The improvement panel will want to see a far more imaginative and strategic approach, starting from scratch in a zero budgeting exercise to work out which council services people really require, which services should be prioritised, and what could be handed over to the private and voluntary sectors. Anything less than starting afresh will be regarded as salami slicing by another name.

Recommendation 6

Birmingham City Council should strengthen their Human Resources (HR) function in the following ways:

The strategic role of workforce planning and HR should be vested in an existing cabinet member. The cabinet should not delegate this role. Members’ role in workforce issues, beyond the cabinet, should be limited to scrutiny, appeals and the appointment of the chief executive, strategic directors and directors. The cabinet should ensure strategic workforce planning supports the council’s priorities.

The whistleblowing processes that are being put in place in the child safeguarding service should also be mirrored in the councils other services.

BCC should appoint a senior person to lead people change and workforce planning. This individual should be responsible for the development of the workforce plan the leader has stated is needed, revising existing HR policies and, with the corporate leadership team, ensuring these are applied corporately. The workforce plan should be informed by the strategic plan for the future operation and size of the council.

As part of the simplification of the overall corporate planning framework, the responsible cabinet member, chief executive and the corporate leadership team should be responsible for delivering the council’s priorities by ensuring a clear line of sight from the council’s strategic priorities, annual business planning and the performance management system.

Lord Warner has highlighted the acute problem in frontline social care. BCC is still relying on too many expensive agency staff. The workforce plan needs to explore if there are similar gaps in other frontline areas and, if so, cover how they will recruit and retain permanent staff.

Sorting out the failing HR department was the very first priority for the improvement panel and the council leadership. Sir Albert Bore struck early in 2015, abolishing the employment and human resources committee. Kerslake had condemned the committee’s chaotic approach to HR matters and said it had failed in its primary responsibility to manage the workforce. Committee chair Muhammed Afzal lost his job and is now a backbencher.

Political responsibility for HR is now in the hands of deputy council leader Ian Ward.

The appointment early in the year of Sarah Homer as interim strategic director addressed Kerslake’s request that a senior person should be recruited to lead people change and workforce planning.

Recommendation 7

Birmingham City Council should establish a new model for devolution:

 The council needs to focus on getting basic services right, including getting on with improving children and education services. To do so, 12 services should be organised in the way that is most efficient for that service, where appropriate these services should draw on the quadrant model to help align planning and resources with other agencies;

The 10 district committees should not be responsible for delivering services or managing them through service level agreements. Instead, if they are to be retained, they should be refocused on shaping and leading their local areas through influence, representation and independent challenge of all public services located in the District, including those of the council;

 The districts should be provided with a modest commissioning budget to purchase additional services that help meet local priorities. Services commissioned will not necessarily need to be managed or provided by the council. They will need to effectively manage their own finances and meetings must be open to the public and outside of the town hall.

The number of city-wide scrutiny committees should be reviewed in the light of this and potentially reduced to no more than three.

Councillors should concentrate on regular, direct engagement with the people and organisations in their wards and role as community leaders.

Kerslake was not impressed with Sir Albert’s cherished system of devolution. He said the arrangements were confused and very few people understood them. In particular, financial restraints imposed on the council meant district committees – ten mini councils – could not work.

He wanted the districts to be reorganised, losing executive powers, to become bodies of “influence, representation and independent challenge and scrutiny of all public services operating in the district” with modest discretionary commissioning budgets.

The change in the role of district committees demanded by Kerslake has been delivered in full.

The number of scrutiny committees has been cut, but to five rather than the three proposed in the review.

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