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Time goes by so slowly as council grapples with Kerslake reforms

Time goes by so slowly as council grapples with Kerslake reforms

🕔12.Jun 2015

For some reason I couldn’t get the Righteous Brothers and Unchained Melody out of my head during the two-hour public session of the Birmingham city council improvement panel, writes chief blogger Paul Dale.

Time goes by so slowly,

And time can mean so much.

Time was certainly plodding away during the meeting, as it would when one set of people – the panel – is asking questions that another set of people – the council leadership – either don’t really wish to answer, or don’t have a satisfactory answer for.

It would be unfair to accuse city leader Sir Albert Bore and his deputy Ian Ward of being deliberately evasive, but they certainly didn’t properly answer direct questions about why the pace of implementing reforms set out in the Kerslake Review has been rather slow, nor could they say when the improvement plan will have been delivered in full and the new vision for the Future Council is embedded in the hearts and minds of councillors and council employees.

There was an awful lot of “we are on the cusp” of great things and broad hints of jam tomorrow, but the panel members did not appear to be fully convinced by this.

Panel vice-chair Frances Done asked two blunt questions.

The first was about a promise given to the panel in March that additional senior management support desperately required by chief executive Mark Rogers would be delivered as a matter of urgency. “That hasn’t happened”, Ms Done noted, dryly.

The explanation for this was as implausible as it was laughable. The General Election, apparently, had disrupted delivery of many of the Kerslake recommendations because the politicians were off campaigning and naturally couldn’t give as much time as they wished to the tricky business of transforming the council.

Ms Done and the panel may take the view that the delay in beefing up senior management capacity is simply not good enough. Mr Rogers talked about an agreement he had with Sir Albert and Cllr Ward about gaps in strategic capacity and how they could be filled.

I am on the cusp of detailed roles and funding requirements and how to fill the gaps.

Cllr Ward then told the panel that if they were to return in January they would see that the management changes had been pushed through. By next January, though, the Kerslake Review will be more than a year old and one of its key recommendations – additional support for Mr Rogers – will have taken 12 months to deliver in full.

The capacity issue is one thing, and it clearly takes time to recruit the right people, but delay in appointing an independent Birmingham leadership group as required by Kerslake is very odd indeed. Cllr Ward said he did not want “the usual suspects” on the body, which has been re-christened the Birmingham Partnership Group, but there was not really any adequate explanation as to why, six months after Kerslake published his report, this body has not been formed.

This is actually one of Kerslake’s most important recommendations because it gets to the heart of the “council always knows best” criticism and aims to create strong city-wide leadership. What is proposed is not a powerless talking shop. As Kerslake put it: “The group should approve the new long-term City Plan and be used to hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account.” Kerslake gave a little explanation about why he felt a leadership group was important:

The council has an attitude to partnerships of ‘if it’s worth doing, the council should do it’. This paternalism alienates partners, means the council is failing to reconfigure services effectively and is missing opportunities to work with partners and communities to deliver the services people need.

Ms Done’s second question, asked Sir Albert for his views on comments made to her by “observers” who felt the council leadership (that is, Sir Albert) did not understand the scale of transformation or the pace of change required. There was, she thought, a chance that problems surrounding the mainstream transformation of the council and lack of leadership capacity would hamper Birmingham’s ability to contribute to a West Midlands combined authority.

Sir Albert ignored the question completely and began to talk about the council’s success in setting up a partnership with schools, the police and the NHS to identify children at risk of abuse. He went on to set out how discussions were taking place with the three local enterprise partnerships comprising the West Midlands combined authority.

What he did not say was ‘I can assure you we do understand the scale of what is required here and I will personally make sure our response to the Kerslake Review is stepped up a gear’.

On the matter of the combined authority the council’s view appears to be, and forgive me if I have misunderstood this, the Birmingham economy is so important and the economic boom that is apparently taking place is so impressive, that this trumps any concerns there may be about leadership capacity. In other words, Birmingham will have to be at the forefront of the combined authority because it is the economic powerhouse of the West Midlands.

That in itself is an interesting notion and helps to explain why the council is putting so much effort into concocting a “narrative” around the favourable news about the Birmingham economy. Of course, the final decision on whether Birmingham’s leadership is up to the task of contributing fully to a combined authority will not be made here in the West Midlands at all, but by Local Government Secretary Greg Clark in London.

The next public meeting of the improvement panel will be on September 11. I’m thinking it may be an altogether more lively affair if Sir Albert, Cllr Ward and Mr Rogers cannot demonstrate a faster rate of progress.

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