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‘We’re still behind, but the pace is picking up’, council bosses tell Kerslake panel

‘We’re still behind, but the pace is picking up’, council bosses tell Kerslake panel

🕔11.Sep 2015

The senior leadership of Birmingham city council has issued a defiant “we’re getting there” message in reply to criticism over slow progress in delivering the Kerslake Review governance reforms.

Council leader Sir Albert Bore, deputy leader Ian Ward, and chief executive Mark Rogers appeared before a public session the of Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, the body appointed by the Government to oversee a culture change at Britain’s largest local authority.

It was the first public meeting of the body since June, after which panel members raised concern about the pace of reform and questioned whether council leaders recognised the scale of change required to move the organisation from insular inward-looking to a body comfortable with partnership work and community involvement.

In a report to the Secretary of State following the June meeting, panel chair John Crabtree said he continued “to observe a council where the politicians with most influence are focusing too much on the inner political workings of the authority rather than engaging widely and enthusiastically with external partners and the communities of Birmingham”.

And he added:

While the panel commends the energy and commitment demonstrated by the chief executive and his team, there remain questions about whether the senior political leadership of the council fully understands the scale of change required.

Today’s meeting was an opportunity for Sir Albert and Mr Rogers to assure the panel that progress on the Kerslake front is moving at a fast pace, and they did not miss the opportunity to do so.

They spoke about member and officer development programmes to instil a new way of working where councillors and officers will be expected to spend much less time in the Council House and more time in communities finding out what it is people really want from their council.

They also insisted that greater involvement of all councillors in policy making, including backbenchers from the opposition Tory and Liberal Democrat groups, is now a reality.

However, the claim was challenged by Conservative group leader Robert Alden who pointed out that the executive management team drawing up next year’s budget and the 2020 Future Council plan has no representative from the opposition benches.

My colleague Kevin Johnson touches on the points raised by Councillor Alden in relation to the continuing lack of transparency.

Sir Albert underlined the cabinet’s commitment to delivering the Future Council plan, which sets out how the authority will have to operate in five years’ time with a far smaller budget and fewer staff. He told the panel:

I believe the pace we have injected into the Future Council Plan is something I hope you can recognise. We have accelerated the pace. The pace will be maintained.

We have acknowledged that we did get some things wrong. We sincerely believe we got some things right too.

I think we are seeing a shift in the culture and mind set away from internal focus to external focus.

Residents and communities will experience in the coming months a more listening and collaborative behaviour from the council. Members will be better equipped to play a community role because of the training programmes we are putting in.

By December we will have a series of citizen panel meetings to identify what people most require from us. I do think at the end of the day there will be significant change. I hope the residents of Birmingham will understand that.

The development programme will ensure that individual members beyond the cabinet will have a clear view that they do need engagement beyond the council.

Mr Rogers said:

As the most senior officer in the organisation I would suggest you are seeing much greater pace across the whole programme. Both officers and council members have agreed to undertake development work and self-assessment.

It is my view your criticism and the criticism of the Secretary of State that we haven’t moved quickly enough around strategic capacity is now addressed.

We accept we are behind where you would want us to be at this time. However, we will not get behind again.

We aren’t yet perfect. But things are starting to move. You should be pleased and we should be pleased that the programme to get the council to where it needs to be by 2020 is being delivered to time and with the budget we have.

He described Birmingham Partners, the independent leadership group demanded by Kerslake to hold the council to account, as “group of committed people across the city”. Members include most of the largest organisations including the chamber of commerce and the universities, but Mr Rogers said it would be “insulting” to describe the group as “the usual suspects”.

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