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Time Statler and Waldorf praised council’s green shoots of progress, says improvement panel chair

Time Statler and Waldorf praised council’s green shoots of progress, says improvement panel chair

🕔30.Mar 2015

John Crabtree, chairman of the post-Kerslake improvement panel overseeing reforms at Birmingham city council, says he is committed to being as transparent as possible about progress once the General and local elections are over, writes Paul (Waldorf) Dale.

In a wide-ranging briefing with Chamberlain Files, Mr Crabtree stressed that he and his three panel members were pleased with the pace of progress and accepted assurances by Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore that opposition councillors and Birmingham stakeholders would be fully involved in pushing forward an improvement plan.

The briefing was ‘off the record’, but it can be revealed that Mr Crabtree good-naturedly referred to Chamberlain Files’ reporting of the improvement panel’s meeting earlier this month and decision to sign off the improvement plan as “a little Statler and Waldorf”, comparing the tone to the two old men sitting in the balcony in the TV series The Muppet Show who invariably have nothing good to say about anyone.

Our report said the panel had “damned the improvement plan with faint praise”.

Mr Crabtree drew attention to the difference in context between a report that went to the panel meeting on March 18 and a subsequent letter he wrote to Sir Albert five days later noting with approval “some green shoots of progress”.

The letter makes it clear that “the serious issues” being addressed by the council are “deep-rooted and not the product of a single administration”. The panel believes that the actions now planned to address them need to be endorsed and actively supported by all political groups and Mr Crabtree says he is pleased “our meetings with all of the council’s party leaders provided assurance about that”.

Mr Crabtree stressed that the Future Council Programme goes beyond the Kerslake recommendations and “will provide a sound basis for the council to achieve its ambition to deliver a changed council role and relationship with the city’s residents and its partners”.

The letter states:

We have concluded that, taken overall, the Improvement Plan is a reasonable basis on which the council should proceed. We are encouraged by some early progress in key areas, for example the decision taken to enable the strategic responsibility for workforce planning and HR to be vested in the cabinet and to bring members’ roles in workforce issues into line with good practice elsewhere in local government.

However, the letter contains a clear warning that the green shoots of progress could be at risk because “the much more difficult task of implementation lies ahead”.

It also sets out the extent to which Sir Albert’s personal ongoing commitment to the changes will be essential if the Future Council Programme is to work, adding:

You have assured the panel that you will provide strong political leadership as the council moves to implementation. We discussed the particular importance of this in relation to the city partnership developments.

These are at the early stages but we have seen the evident enthusiasm of partners across the city to get involved and to work collaboratively with the council to develop a City Vision and become active partners across a range of areas.

Your positive contribution to demonstrating a shift in the council’s approach to how it will engage with partners, and your presence at events which are crucial to these developments, will be welcomed by all potential partners.

The letter is critical of the lack of involvement, so far, of all 120 city councillors.

As the Kerslake Report makes clear the council needs to change its corporate culture in order to transform the way it does business with its partners and those it serves, including the city’s residents. You have accepted the importance of becoming a listening and learning council, collaborating readily with others across all aspects of the council’s business.

For this to be achieved all 120 City Councillors need to be involved and a positive contribution of the opposition parties should be both welcomed and expected.

The level of involvement of individual councillors outside the leadership in the development of the Improvement Plan has so far been limited.

However, you explained to the panel the steps you have recently taken to ensure the future involvement of every councillor, and the two opposition leaders, as the council moves forward. We are encouraged that you have established a cross party working group to support and monitor the implementation of the Future Council Programme.

If this group operates in a way that facilitates transparency, dialogue and an opportunity for all participants to contribute effectively, we expect constructive involvement from the opposition parties. The panel has received assurances from the respective party leaders about this.

There is also a warning that senior management capacity at the council “remains extremely stretched” and there could “a severe risk” to the delivery of the improvement plan if the council does not also address for the longer term the need for permanent senior managerial capacity.

Addressing Sir Albert, Mr Crabtree writes:

Your visible support for the programme and for ensuring it is appropriately resourced is essential to enabling all directorates and services of the council to be engaged in cross council cultural change and service transformation, led by the chief executive.

Mr Crabtree repeats in the letter the panel’s concerns about the council’s poor communications record and warns there is a danger positive aspects may not be brought home to citizens and partners.

We suggest that priority should be given to developing a proactive communications strategy which will form part of the Future Council Programme.

For their part, the two disagreeable old men behind Chamberlain Files have agreed to look more kindly on the Muppets.

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