The life and times of Paul Tilsley, aka Birmingham’s Old Codger
Forty-two years after he was first elected to Birmingham city council, Paul Tilsley has announced at the age of 70 he is standing down as leader of the Liberal Democrat group. Chamberlain Files chief blogger Paul Dale traces the long career of the man who has been a political fixture for a generation.
Paul Tilsley first joined Birmingham city council in 1968, having secured a famous Liberal victory in the apparently safe Labour seat of Aston.
The ambitious 23-year-old had arrived at exactly the right moment. Nationally, Harold Wilson’s Government was struggling against rising inflation, unemployment and failing to contain a dire post-war economic crisis. Voters were turning against Labour, even in the party’s heartlands.
One of the first issues he had to deal with was planning the A38 Aston Expressway that would link Birmingham city centre to the M6. The road, which opened in 1972, ripped through the heart of terraced housing, a seven-lane motorway dividing the Aston community, and Tilsley would later say he had come to regret the way the project was handled by the council.
Hard work, dedication and considerable campaigning skills enabled the Liberals to cling on in Aston until 1982, when Tilsley finally lost the seat to Labour and spent six years off the council until 1988 when he was elected in Sheldon, a ward he has represented ever since.
He also represented Aston on the West Midlands County Council from 1973 to its abolition in 1986, by which time he was leader of the Liberal group.
Tilsley couldn’t have known it in 1982, but Aston would feature heavily again in Liberal fortunes some 22 years later when it became the centre for the ‘banana republic’ postal votes fraud scandal, a shameful episode which turned out to be Labour’s lowest point.
Paul Tilsley had to wait a very long time to get his hands on the levers of power. Other Birmingham politicians of his generation, fearing the two-party system would not be broken, quietly left the Liberals to join the Conservatives where they had a better chance of gaining power – John Lines and Ken Hardeman being the two best known examples.
But Tilsley remained true to his Liberal beliefs and when he finally made it to an executive position, becoming deputy council leader in 2005 in a Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, he joked about wanting to hit the ground running having served a 37-year apprenticeship to prepare for the job.
The coalition was formed in June 2004 after Labour’s majority under Sir Albert Bore disappeared. The Liberal Democrats had gained strength in inner city Muslim-dominated wards following a backlash against the Labour Government’s support for the Iraq War.
But the 2004 election left the Conservatives some way short of the numbers required to form an administration on their own. Tory group leader Mike Whitby, certainly on the left of his party, persuaded Liberal Democrat group leader John Hemming to join forces to form what they called the Progressive Partnership.
When Hemming became MP for Birmingham Yardley in 2005, Tilsley as deputy group leader found himself catapulted into the deputy council leader’s office. There were plenty of people in the Council House, officers and elected members, who wondered whether Tilsley, with a reputation for, putting it kindly, straight talking and describes himself as having a very dry sense of humour “which can mean trouble” would be able to form an effective alliance with Whitby.
Astonishingly, it worked and the differences and rows between the two were never made public although relations between the Liberal Democrat and Conservative groups were strained at times.
Cllr Tilsley’s seven years as deputy council leader saw him set up an audit committee as well as an improvement board and he took over from Hemming as chair of the Birmingham Strategic Partnership.
The BSP, which brought together the business sector, other public bodies and the universities, disappeared when Labour regained control of the council in 2012. Its demise and the absence of effective partnership working became a critical theme running through the Kerslake Review, and even now the council is still attempting to bring together a city strategic body in the shape of Birmingham Partners.
The biggest decision taken under Tilsley’s watch was the awarding of a contract to Capita to take responsibility for modernising and running the council’s hopelessly outdated ICT services, although the groundwork for this was laid under the previous Labour administration. A joint venture company, Service Birmingham, was formed and its responsibilities were extended to cover handling the council’s payroll duties.
Arguments continue to rage over Capita and Service Birmingham. Cllr Tilsley likes to point out that the venture has saved a gross figure of £1 billion by modernising ICT. Critics, in particular the new Labour council leader John Clancy, say the £80 million a year the authority pays to Capita is unsustainable and must either be sharply reduced or Service Birmingham must be axed and responsibility for ICT services passed to local firms.
For Birmingham city council, the period from 1999 to 2015 will always be ripe territory for mud-slinging. Cllr Tilsley insists the 2004-2012 coalition spent most of its time attempting to sort out problems inherited from Labour. Sir Albert Bore was just as insistent from 2012 to 2015 that his administration had its work cut out addressing the problems it inherited from the coalition.
That’s politics for you, and it should be stressed that the £550 million of spending cuts since 2010 and halving of the council workforce would not have made life easy for whoever was in power.
An obvious benefit for any politician bowing out at the top before being forced to go is that you get to read your obituary. One thing is certain, there are unlikely to be in future many Birmingham politicians, if any at all, prepared to devote their entire lives to public service for relatively little financial reward.
Paul Tilsley’s extraordinary career not only spans four decades, it covers an unprecedented time of change for local government, not always for the better.
When he began in 1968, the council ran on mountains of paper shuffled by thousands of employees. That’s been replaced by computers and far fewer staff. Even Cllr Tilsley has embraced social media. His Twitter handle is @1oldcodger, which seems appropriate.
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