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The letter Mark Rogers should write to the improvement panel, but never would

The letter Mark Rogers should write to the improvement panel, but never would

🕔09.Mar 2016

The Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel meets tomorrow (March 10) to quiz city council leader John Clancy and chief executive Mark Rogers about progress in delivering the culture change demanded by the Kerslake Review.

Cllr Clancy and Mr Rogers are not submitting a written report this time, but Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale imagines what Mr Rogers might say to panel chair John Crabtree:

Dear John,

As you are aware, there won’t be a formal letter from me in advance of this week’s improvement panel meeting setting out Birmingham city council’s response to the Kerslake Review. I thought I would write anyway to bring you up to date with the latest developments at “the mad house”.

The new Leader, John Clancy, has told me I have to get on with running the council while he is out and about meeting and greeting in Birmingham and the rest of the country. No, really, he has. And if you think that came as a bit of a shock to me, you should see the look on the faces of my leadership team.

It’s all very different from the previous set-up where dear old Albert divided his time between telling Brussels how to run the EU and telling me what was best for the people of Birmingham. Whoops, sorry, that should be what’s best for the citizens of Birmingham. Cllr Clancy is quite clear on that point, and he’s even had the 2016+ Business Plan and Budget book littered with references to citizens. It’s all very revolutionary, a bit like France in 1789, without the guillotine, obviously. Well, not as yet anyway. Let’s hope it doesn’t go Maoist!

But I digress. What you will want to know is the progress we are really making towards delivering the Kerslake reforms, as opposed to the sanitised story put out for public consumption.

It will of course take time to roll back from the bad old days “when officers thought they were councillors, and councillors thought they were officers”, but changing the culture of an organisation like Birmingham city council is a little like changing the course of an ocean liner in storm-force winds when the fuel is running low and the crew is on the point of mutiny.

You get what I’m saying here, John. It’s not easy and if Greg Clark thinks it is tell him to come up here and try my job for size. No, second thoughts, don’t tell him that at all. Just say the usual thing – we are making progress, but there is some way to go.

Quite apart from the culture change and the dash to build partnerships – Cllr Clancy is holding numerous meetings day and night with various organisations and stakeholders, and I’m confident that we will get some firm announcements soon, possibly – the real issue is the extent to which the council leader has political backing from the Labour group for some very difficult spending decisions.

The absence of a workable four-year financial plan for the council lay at the heart of the Kerslake Review. The requirement for a strategy which the controlling political group can unite behind, and one that can gain at least tacit cross-party support from the opposition, is even greater now given that we must to make further savings of about £250 million on top of £550 million already found. That’s £250,000,000 and £550,000,000 in real money, by the way.

The true test of the new council leader’s mettle, and political capital, is fast approaching. The budget book sets out proposals to save £34 million by 2019-20 by re-writing the contracts of the entire council workforce, cutting sick pay and holidays and extending the working week, as well as getting rid of what are commonly called Spanish Practices.

Negotiations have begun with the trade unions and it seems highly likely that the council leader will be forced to make some concessions in order to avoid industrial action. The hands of the unions will be strengthened in particular as we approach 2018, the year of the council’s first all-out elections, when the Labour party will be concerned to avoid the sight of rubbish-strewn streets, or at least, streets more covered in rubbish than is generally the case.

As you, the panel and the Secretary of State will be aware, there is not much ‘wriggle-room’ in the four-year spending plan and any substantial concession could throw the budget off course with disastrous implications for Birmingham.

There are also sensitive political considerations to take into account as far as proposals to “reconfigure waste collection services” are concerned, in particular a move towards outsourcing fleet and waste services to save £17.6 million. Taken together with the workforce contracts renegotiation, some £51 million of the £250 million savings required rest on extremely difficult negotiations with the unions.

And to throw yet another uncertainty into the mix, getting on for £90 million to be saved from adult social care relies on hitherto unprecedented joint working arrangements and budget sharing with the NHS in Birmingham. Sadly, your panel has no authority to probe health services as to their commitment to this bold plan, but I would be most interested in the answers were you able to do so.

When other controversial proposals are taken into account, notably substantial savings on the home to school transport service and services for children with special educational needs, more than half of the £250 reduction rests on delivering reductions that the council has considered in the past, but failed to push through. As Kerslake put it, continually kicking the can down the road.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, the can has been kicked into a cul-de-sac and there is nowhere else for the council to go other than to make unpopular but necessary decisions. As I have said publicly, we are getting there on Kerslake, but the job is nowhere near completed.

My final thought? If only the politicians would spend as much time considering the important strategic decisions required and less time obsessing over lollipop patrols, we would be in a better place. But of course, I couldn’t possibly say that publicly.

Yours ever,

Mark

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