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‘Stakes are high for Birmingham’ as improvement panel prepares to meet

‘Stakes are high for Birmingham’ as improvement panel prepares to meet

🕔08.Mar 2016

City council chief executive Mark Rogers has issued a guarded warning ahead of a crucial meeting this week of the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel – ‘we’re getting better, but the job is nowhere near completed’.

Mr Rogers admitted “the stakes are high” as the panel prepares to decide if the council is delivering the Kerslake Review governance reforms at the required pace, or whether the monitoring body has to remain in place for longer, or even if direct Government intervention might be necessary.

In a message on his blog Mr Rogers says 2016 will be “the critical twelve months during which we must convince our residents, ourselves, our monitors and government that we really do get what’s been wrong in the past and, crucially, understand what we need to do to have a successful future”.

Lord Kerslake and his team published a damning report in December 2014, accusing the council of poor leadership over many years, failing to address difficult issues and of poor partnership working.

The independent improvement panel was set up by the Government under the chairmanship of Birmingham lawyer John Crabtree, and reports directly to Communities Secretary Greg Clark. The panel issued two reports in 2015 expressing doubt that council leaders understood the challenge of culture change required in Birmingham, and Mr Clark hinted that he might consider sending in commissioners to run the council.

A third report by the panel, following the appointment of John Clancy as the new council leader, noted an improvement in the pace of change, but warned of significant challenges remaining.

This week’s meeting of the panel, at the Council House on Thursday (March 10), will see Cllr Clancy and Mr Rogers quizzed and face questions from the public about the council’s progress.

Mr Crabtree said:

After 15 months residents, businesses and partner organisations in the city will expect to hear that significant progress has been made by the council. This meeting provides an opportunity to both hear from and question the council’s leaders and I hope many people will want to take part.

Describing the meeting as “a massive test”, Mr Rogers added:

We have to be able to demonstrate that across the political and managerial spectrum we have done what’s expected of us after 15 months of external support and challenge from John Crabtree and his team.

If we have, then the panel will be able to discuss with the Secretary of State, Greg Clark, whether or not it can recommend its withdrawal – partly or in full.

The chief executive sets out three questions which he says will be vital to the panel’s deliberations:

  • Is the culture of the organisation actually changing? Key measures of this will be the extent to which panel believes that there is greater clarity about, and delineation of member-officer roles; and, where appropriate, much better cross-party collaboration.
  • Does the city council have a credible long term plan for the council itself and its budget? Key measures here will be the confidence the panel has in the work on our future operating model; and the lynchpin areas of the budget such as the savings plans for waste and recycling, adult social care and the workforce.
  • Has the corporate leadership team been able to secure the focus and drive required to ensure that improvement will continue into the long term? Key measures here will be work undertaken to ensure that there is a strong team, learning and development ethic within CLT; and the extent to which sustainable improvement is likely irrespective of the changing financial and political landscape, for example the all-out elections in 2018.

By identifying issues over the council budget Mr Rogers touches on one of the most important areas of improvement the panel will wish to satisfy itself on – are there robust plans in place to achieve £250 million in spending cuts over the next four years, and are proposals to save significant sums of money on waste and recycling, adult social care, and the wage bill deliverable?

Panel members will also want to be assured that the large number of meetings between Cllr Clancy and business and charitable organisations across the city are translating into effective partnerships.

Mr Rogers concludes:

I remain confident that we are an organisation that can restore its capabilities and, consequently, its reputation. If we continue to pull together and work hard at pace on the priorities then we have a good chance of demonstrating that we are up to the task of continuous self-improvement.

But there are still many tough discussions and decisions ahead – as well as the consolidation of those improvements already secured. No-one can feel the job is anything like done; but it is in hand and there has been progress.

It is, of course, up to the panel to adjudge where we are on the journey. My and my team’s commitment to the panel is that of an unrelenting focus on driving culture change and practical transformation.

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