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Uncertain future as sheer scale of Birmingham council’s failings laid bare by damning Kerslake Review

Uncertain future as sheer scale of Birmingham council’s failings laid bare by damning Kerslake Review

🕔09.Dec 2014

Birmingham city council, which only a few years ago promoted itself under the improbable strap-line of ‘on the road to excellence’, is no longer in charge of its own destiny writes Paul Dale. 

That much is obvious from the Kerslake Review recommendations, which are published today and make it clear that the reforms and organisational changes Britain’s largest local authority must put in place will be imposed top-down by the Government through an ever-growing number of commissioners.

There will be a debate about the fairness of Kerslake’s findings, and council chief executive Mark Rogers is already trying to propagate the idea that ‘the future is in our hands’.

But, as Mr Rogers must realise, but the bottom line is that the council’s future course will largely be decided in Westminster. Birmingham may eventually emerge into the sunlit uplands of devolution and citizen power some years hence, but not until the Whitehall mandarins have devised a suitable blueprint for governance.

It is a coruscating review of the council’s failings. The most ominous passage is at the end under a section called ‘Next Steps’ and is as follows: “We think it is essential that the council will accept and seek to implement our recommendations in full. On that basis, further statutory intervention will not be immediately necessary.”

The first action point on Sir Bob Kerslake’s list is to establish an independent improvement panel to “provide the robust challenge and support the council requires”. In other words, the council is to be placed under the guidance of an improvement board because, as Kerslake says, it has failed over many years to run Birmingham effectively.

Two of the panel’s members will be the existing government-appointed commissioners for children’s social care and education – Lord Warner and Sir Mike Tomlinson. It’s worth recalling at this point that Warner and Tomlinson are already overseeing schools and social care because the Government has decreed that the city council is unfit to do the job without a controlling hand from London.

They will be joined by another commissioner, or possibly commissioners, to take oversight of Birmingham city council reporting directly to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and to residents on the council’s progress.

Almost as far reaching, and potentially even more controversial, is a recommendation to establish an independent Birmingham leadership group. This group, whose members are yet to be identified, would approve a new long-term City Plan and will “hold all involved in delivery of the plan to account”. Such a civic leadership group consisting of “credible independent voices” is badly needed, according to Kerslake.

The word ‘independent’ appears to be a key message. The body responsible for approving a City Plan will be independent from elected councillors and its purpose is to hold councillors to account. No doubt council leaders will be consulted about the content of the plan, but ultimate decisions about the document will, it seems, be passed to an independent board. Has this happened anywhere else in the country?

It would appear therefore that the council’s strategic planning responsibilities are being transferred upwards from officers and elected members, who are deemed to have failed to deliver the goods for too long, to boards of unelected ‘experts’ appointed by or on behalf of Mr Pickles.

Underpinning all of this is a clear warning from the Kerslake Review that although the option of carving Birmingham up into smaller local authorities has been dropped for now, if the council fails to follow through on all of the review’s recommendations “the problems will continue to recur and the question of size and structure will inevitably be asked again”.

It is little wonder that council leader Sir Albert Bore and chief executive Mark Rogers have not taken kindly to this. For Sir Albert, who likes to consider himself a grand strategist and political organiser, the following extract from Kerslake’s report will be difficult to swallow: “The council’s vision for the future of the city is neither broadly shared nor understood by the council’s officers, partners or residents. Instead there is a multiplicity of strategies, plans and performance management processes which lead to unnecessary complexity and confusion and are not followed through to delivery.”

In a joint statement the pair said they had a particular concern about the Kerslake Review: “This is the presumption, inherent in many of its recommendations, that the people of Birmingham and their city council should be instructed on local affairs from Whitehall.

“We cannot immediately accept detailed proposals that are overly prescriptive and would undermine or jeopardise local consultation and negotiation.

“We consider that in a number of instances the report is unduly prescriptive about what are essentially local matters to be addressed by the council, with our partners and local people.”

There is also the matter of a proposed Local Government Boundary Commission review of Birmingham, with an indication that the city’s 120 councillors might be purged to 100 or less and that the current system of re-electing one third of councillors each year be replaced with ‘all out’ elections where the entire council is chosen once every four years.

Privately, Sir Albert, Mr Rogers and deputy council leader Ian Ward are shocked by the robust language in the document. Sir Bob Kerslake is one of the country’s senior civil servants, but his report could hardly be said to be diplomatic, or very complimentary.

It accuses the council of a lack of shared vision for the future of the city and of adopting a high-handed paternalistic approach to partnership with local businesses and other organisations.

It points to a failure to take big strategic decisions to tackle the problems Birmingham faces, in particular “while other local authorities managed equal pay claims efficiently, BCC deferred until the scale of the problem became almost unmanageable”.

And in a light blue touch-paper and retire to a safe place moment, the report refers to the council’s culture of “organisational disobedience”, a clear reference to the failure of officials to take much notice of the instructions they are given by elected members in the cabinet – and by implication the utter failure of elected council leaders to make sure the policies they have set out are enacted in a timely and efficient fashion.

Of course, Sir Bob fairly points out that the blame for this catalogue of under-performance cannot be laid solely at the door of Sir Albert and the Labour administration he has led since 2012. Birmingham’s Tory-Lib Dem coalition from 2004 to 2012 does not emerge smelling of roses and is blamed for failing to address the equal pay saga, which ultimately left the council facing a £1.3 billion compensation bill, and it is implied that money was wasted on building a £187 million library which costs council tax payers £10 million a year in debt charges.

Sir Bob also asks why the coalition and the current Labour controlled council failed to follow other local authorities by contracting out refuse collection and street cleaning, thereby generating millions of pounds in savings.

It is important to ask, in a week where fresh attention has been paid to that perennial parlour game of trying to ‘brand’ Birmingham and tell the story’s city, how much extra damage the Kerslake Review will inflict on the image of the largest city outside of London.

Coming in the wake of the continuing failure of children’s social care and three inquiries into the Trojan Horse affair, which all criticised council officials and councillors for failing to step in when it became clear that hardline Islamists were taking over Birmingham schools, the Kerslake Review will provide more ammunition for those with an interest in kicking Birmingham.

A wider question to consider is whether Sir Albert Bore can weather the storm and survive as council leader. It is interesting to note that other councils where improvement boards were appointed by the Government – Hackney, Hull and Waltham Forest – saw their leaders resign or forced out shortly afterwards.

The absence of an obvious successor able to command majority support from the Labour group may save Sir Albert once more. It is possible though that this latest avalanche of bad press for Birmingham may galvanise the city’s eight Labour MPs who will not relish yet more ‘basket case’ headlines ahead of the General Election.

Ultimately, Sir Albert’s fate may lie in the hands of the Labour Party. A tap on the shoulder from the comrades in grey suits after the May council elections, perhaps? It would be grossly unfair, though, for Sir Albert to carry the entire can for mistakes that were not made on his watch.

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