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Summer Report: Birmingham City Council

Summer Report: Birmingham City Council

🕔21.Aug 2014

In the final part of a special series on Birmingham City Council as part of our end of term reviews, chief blogger Paul Dale looks at how the authority is dealing with its most serious and continuing challenges.

The green shoots of economic recovery may be well and truly established in most of Birmingham by now, but many of the city council’s key strategic issues remain as challenging as ever.

On the plus side, 2013-14 saw record new business start-ups and a 68 per cent increase in inward investment, buoyed by the city centre enterprise zones and the regeneration possibilities being opened up by the arrival of HS2 at Curzon Street.

Tracks for the Metro tram extension from Snow Hill to New Street are being laid and work will soon begin on the redevelopment of Paradise Circus, which will be the biggest city centre regeneration scheme since the new Bullring was built and will finally open up direct pedestrian links between New Street and Centenary Square.

It would be quite wrong to suggest that the past year has been all bad news for the council. But, even the sunniest optimist would recognise some familiar dark clouds over the Council House.

The council managed to hit only 20 out of 60 performance improvement targets, with some familiar failures around adults and children’s social services, staff sickness levels and GCSE results.

No one is in need of a crystal ball to detect the biggest problem of all, children’s social care. The past 12 months has seen little if any improvement in services for vulnerable young people which have been under Government special measures for more than five years.

The best that the council can claim is to have stabilised a sinking ship. Or as the new strategic director for People, Peter Hay, put it: “We’ve stopped it falling over a cliff.”

Social services just about remains under the direct control of the local authority after Children’s Minister Ed Timpson decided it would be all too difficult to hand responsibility for running care to the private or voluntary sector. The possibility, though, must remain uppermost in Minister’s minds if rapid improvement does not occur over the next year.

A year ago, Peter Duxbury, the latest in a long line of officials hired to turn the failing department around, left abruptly after just 15 months in the hot seat. He was replaced by Peter Hay, strategic director for adults and communities, who 10 years ago had been a successful and much respected director of Birmingham social services.

Mr Hay immediately wrote to staff setting out “significant challenges ahead “in a climate where the council would have less money to spend. He warned, though, that he “would not buy impossible as it’s a vision of hopelessness”.

The ink on Mr Hay’s letter was hardly dry before Mr Timpson appointed a team of experts, led by Professor Julian Le Grand, to review children’s social care in Birmingham.

The Le Grand Review stopped short of recommending taking the department out of council control, but did conclude: “It is essential that immediate action is taken to make children’s services safe, particularly around the concerns I raise in my report about insufficient leadership capacity, variable social work practice and referrals and high thresholds for identifying at-risk children.”

Le Grand’s suggestion that the Government appoint an education commissioner to oversee improvements to children’s social services was accepted, and Lord Norman Warner was given the job.

The Le Grand review contained a devastating critique of Birmingham’s latest attempts to put children’s care on a sound footing. Le Grand and his team “did not see one plan that coherently and accessibly laid out how the drive for improvement specifically in children’s social care was to be structured, organised and delivered”, and the report went on to note: “Overall, the plans that we have seen are worthy in intent but seem either aspirational in tone and vague in specific content, or immensely detailed but lacking in strategic overview.

“None seem to lay out in readily accessible form the specific steps that are currently being taken or need to be taken to deliver the required service improvement.”

If the Le Grand Review wasn’t bad enough for the council, worse was to follow. Ofsted inspectors visited in March and issued a highly critical report on May 23.

The study found “widespread and serious failures that leave children and young people at risk of harm”. The service, inevitably, was declared ‘inadequate’.

The nub of Ofsted’s savage criticism can be found here: “Structures, systems and processes for supporting social workers are inadequate. The legacy of poor management and practice in Birmingham children’s services remain.

“These failures have become so entrenched that, despite recent efforts to improve management practice and outcomes, the progress being made to date is too slow and has had little or no impact. There have been too many ‘false dawns’ that have raised expectations but have ultimately failed to deliver adequate care and protection for vulnerable children in Birmingham.

“Although there is a range of plans and strategies in place to improve safeguarding and care for children and young people, there has been a significant and unaccountable delay in implementation. “As a consequence, help and support to the most vulnerable children and young people in Birmingham continues to be inadequate.”

Over, then, to the ever-optimistic Mark Rogers, Birmingham city council’s new chief executive.

In one of his latest blogs, entitled ‘Birmingham Bites Back’, Mr Rogers suggested that, this time, the council really is getting to grips with children’s services: “For sure, the council has some very big challenges, the most significant of which is the long-awaited improvement of children’s safeguarding services. But please note: the causes of prolonged failure have now been recognised and accepted – and a new leadership convened and galvanised (‘The Quartet’).

“Further, enter stage left Lord Norman Warner who has the credentials, maturity and connections to help us with the leap from diagnosis to cure.”

It remains to be seen whether a galvanised ‘Quartet’ can deliver the goods and succeed where the council has failed so dismally for so long. If it does, Mr Rogers will have earned his £180,000 wage packet. If it does not, the consequences will be extremely serious for the council.

Lord Warner, in his first formal report since becoming commissioner, praised the Quarter but also issued a dire warning about Birmingham’s under-funded children’s social services. He reckons the cost of delivering the required improvements could be £120 millon, which is four times more than the council has set aside.

And if the pressure of turning around children’s services wasn’t enough, Birmingham has to contend with a second government-appointed commissioner. Sir Bob Kerslake is conducting a review of governance arrangements at the city council in the wake of the Trojan Horse affair.

He will be looking at why council officials and councillors failed to prevent the Islamisation of schools and whether the management structures in place at the local authority are fit for purpose.

Paradoxically, Sir Bob’s appointment has been welcomed by those close to council leader Sir Albert Bore who see Kerslake’s review as an ideal opportunity to re-visit some old ambitions. Namely, the division of the council into quadrants, effectively four separate councils, under the control of a city-wide elected mayor.

Such an arrangement would require Government support and legislation, but would also fit in neatly with the view of Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw that Birmingham city council is simply too large an entity to provide efficient governance.

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