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Why we must not rise to Birmingham ‘third class city’ jibe: keep calm and carry on

Why we must not rise to Birmingham ‘third class city’ jibe: keep calm and carry on

🕔19.Nov 2013

Fraser Nelson, editor of the right wing Spectator magazine, has penned a vicious attack in the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph, describing Labour-led Birmingham as a third rate city.

In his polemicMr Fraser repeats a lot of claims made by other people, in particular Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, who recently stated somewhat improbably that Birmingham had become “one of the worst places in the developed world” for children to grow up in.

The Telegraph article prompted a mini-chain reaction, with Birmingham council Labour leader Sir Albert Bore firing off a “rebuttal” in which he stated that Mr Nelson’s article was “so ill informed that I feel I must respond so that people know the facts”.

There then followed an account of Birmingham’s triumphs over the past few decades, at least in the view of Sir Albert. These included a long overdue resurgence in manufacturing, growing trade links with China, improved school exam results, transformation of the city centre etc.

A minor side show in the Nelson fallout involved a sparky exchange on Twitter between former West Midlands Minister Ian Austin, and Tony Smith, the left-leaning policy adviser to Sir Albert Bore. John Morris, international relations officer at Birmingham Airport also got involved, inquiring as to whether Mr Nelson had ever actually been to Birmingham.

Mr Austin, a Black Country Labour MP, it should be noted, had ‘helpfully’ tweeted a link to the Nelson article in order to underline his view that education in Birmingham hasn’t been good enough for years.

Had there been a bit of judicious news editing at the Telegraph, Mr Nelson’s article might never have appeared since it gives all the appearance of being a cuttings job – a trawl around old ‘news’ in order to give the impression of making a vital new contribution to the Birmingham debate.

Sadly, the piece is pretty much a compilation of the Birmingham-bashing stories we have become used to over the years.

There’s something about the post-war planner Herbert Manzoni ripping out the Victorian heart of the city centre (check), the essential jibe about cars and horrid concrete flyovers (check), there’s the Prince Charles Central Library is an incinerator for books quote (check), and there is also, of course, extensive quoting of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s views about the shortcomings of Birmingham children’s services (check), and finally the evergreen portrayal of Manchester as a huge success story and Birmingham as a municipal disaster (check).

Only the funny accent and Ozzy Osbourne were omitted, which was a bit remiss of Mr Nelson, but possibly he is saving that for another day.

There was nothing new at all in the article. The Daily Telegraph ought to have suggested that Mr Nelson come up with something fresher. A thousand words on the dangers to the economy of tapering quantitative easing would have done the job. But when you are Speccie editor you can pretty much write whatever you like in the Telegraph, I imagine.

Sir Albert Bore’s angry response was predictable, but ill-advised. Journalists love to hunt in packs and generally relish, I am ashamed to say, the sight of blood. Mr Nelson and the Telegraph will feel they have scored a direct hit and Birmingham may move sharply up the news agenda as a result.

Birmingham’s failing children’s social services department is increasingly a topic of national debate. Sir Michael Wilshaw’s extraordinary attack was followed by a critical BBC programme as well as a smattering of articles in national newspapers suggesting that responsibility for looking after vulnerable children is to be taken away from the city council and handed to an independent trust, as happened in Doncaster recently.

We should assume that these articles were based on briefings from government sources and that the groundwork is being prepared for a significant announcement. Ofsted inspectors are due to visit Birmingham children’s services imminently and you will not even get odds should you wish to place a bet on yet another blistering report.

A gloomy council cabinet meeting this week heard that Birmingham is still failing by some distance to hit a range of key performance indicators around the length of time taken to assess children at risk, and in the north of the city only 22 per cent of children in need case files are judged to be up to scratch.

Birmingham has a serious shortage of social workers and inevitably the council will find it more and more difficult to recruit well-trained staff given the reputational damage inflicted by the seemingly never ending trail of Serious Case Reviews into the deaths of vulnerable young children.

Children’s services cabinet member Brigid Jones appeared down and deflated when she admitted: “We are very short of staff at the moment. We simply don’t have the people we need to get the job done on time.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s idea, backed by Mr Nelson, is to split Birmingham up into three or four stand-alone councils. He argues that Birmingham city council is just too large to run an effective social services department, although quite how several new departments would necessarily do a better job isn’t explained at all.

Change on this scale might not be confined to social care. If the Government really wants to get its teeth into Birmingham during the run-up to the 2014 council elections, might Communities Secretary Eric Pickles lose patience and impose an elected mayor on the city? There are strong rumours that, quite apart from the social services debacle, Mr Pickles is alarmed at the city council’s £3 billion-plus debt, which is growing even larger and eating into the amount of money available to spend on servicves.

Reorganising local government across Birmingham would cost a fortune and the upheaval of moving from one huge local authority to several smaller ones would take time achieve. This is time that social services simply do not have.

Peter Hay, the new strategic director for children’s services, has been blunt in his assessment. Birmingham does not have enough good social workers, he told a media briefing. He also stated that, sadly, not all vulnerable children could be protected. Some will always slip through the net, however good the quality of social work may be.

Putting it another way, of the 15,000-plus referrals a year to social services in Birmingham the vast majority of cases are dealt with efficiently and children are protected. That’s worth repeating: most vulnerable children in Birmingham are being safeguarded.

This is not, of course, what the politicians, or journalists, wish to hear. They crave for guarantees that there will never be another case like the deaths of toddlers Khyra Ishaq and Keanu Williams. Anyone attempting to give such a reassurance is either a fool, does not understand the complexity of social care, or falls into both categories.

Part of Birmingham’s problem, and something that will not be solved by structural reorganisation, has been the short termism displayed by council leaders from across the political divide who have generally panicked at bad news and replaced social services directors and senior managers time after time. There has been precious little continuity and new initiatives such as family integration teams haven’t been given an opportunity to bed in.

Peter Hay must be given political support and, crucially, time and space to do the job. Sniping from London will continue, but Birmingham must be brave enough to take the flak, keep calm and carry on.

Cover Image: via zimbio.com / creativeengland.co.uk

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