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Wealth creators won’t come to ‘dirty Birmingham’ claims Lib Dem leader

Wealth creators won’t come to ‘dirty Birmingham’ claims Lib Dem leader

🕔01.Jul 2014

Can rubbish-strewn streets and graffiti really be the biggest issues in Birmingham today?

Liberal Democrat leader Paul Tilsley thinks so, and told the city council cabinet that inward investment and wealth creation would suffer if “the tone of the city” was allowed to deteriorate.

That brought gasps of astonishment from Labour councillors, in particular Brigid Jones, cabinet member for children’s services, who said she fundamentally disagreed with Cllr Tilsley and added that the plight of services for vulnerable children was far more important than litter.

Cllr Tilsley, though, surely has a point. Birmingham, in common with most councils, runs opinion surveys asking people about the issues that are most important to them. And year after year, a desire for clean streets and tidy neighbourhoods is close to the top of the wish list.

That’s not surprising if you think about it. The state of the public realm is something that we all notice every day, while the so-called bigger issues around social services and housing only ever affect a minority of people.

Even the state of Birmingham schools, where GCSE performance has slipped below the national average and Trojan Horse inquiries continue to reverberate, may only be an issue for voters with school-age children, while the parlous state of children’s social services is thankfully something that directly affects only a tiny proportion of Birmingham families.

Litter, dirty streets, graffiti, and the tidiness of neighbourhoods are seen by most people as fundamental matters. Keeping the place clean is what councils are there for isn’t it?

Remember the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent that did for Jim Callaghan’s Labour government? It was the piles of rotting rubbish on the streets and the dead bodies lying unburied that contributed to Mrs Thatcher’s General Election victory as much as unease over uncontrollable trade unions.

It was no accident that the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives fought this year’s city council largely on the subject of Labour’s £35 a year ‘garden tax’ imposed on the collection of garden waste, and the epidemic of rubbish piles that erupted across Birmingham dumped by angry residents who refused to pay the charge.

Cllr Tilsley was commenting on the council’s end of year report for 2013-14, detailing performance against improvement targets. The report wasn’t very good. Out of 60 targets, only 20 were met.

This is what Cllr Tilsley had to say: “The street scene is probably the most important thing that we have in the city. That gives the confidence for people to invest in the city, to be happy in the city and, generally speaking, lifts the tone of the city. We seem to be failing, unfortunately, on these very essentials.

“Graffiti, rubbish on the streets, recycling, we are falling down. We are not presenting Birmingham as a place where people will feel proud to be citizens and will want to invest in.”

It was left to deputy council leader Ian Ward to state the blindingly obvious. It is inevitable given the scale of budget cuts imposed on the council by the Government that service delivery will continue to suffer at the very noticeable sharp end of street services.

Some £200 million has been removed from the council’s coffers over the past two years and a further £450 million will disappear over the next two years. This year’s budget included a £2.2 million cut in funding for street cleaning and a £1 million saving by imposing charges for bulky waste collection, plus of course the £35 fee for garden waste collection.

Sensing that lopping £2.2 million from the street cleaning budget might be going a bit far, Labour council leaders decided at the last minute to restore a one-off £500,000 to clean up “heavily littered hot spots”. It would appear that the extra money has made little difference in practice.

The small print of the council’s year-end report contains explanations for failing to hit street cleaning targets. Budget reductions, fewer staff and old vehicles prone to break down are blamed for the poor performance. This is a pattern that is likely to be repeated in the years to come.


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