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130 years on – a council with lessons still to learn

130 years on – a council with lessons still to learn

🕔17.Jan 2019

This week, Birmingham has been marking 130 years as a city. It has much to celebrate – looking to both history and the future. But, as Kevin Johnson writes, the city’s council is still “learning lessons.”

In the last seven days, Brummies might point to the announcement of Lendlease as the council’s joint venture partner in the £1.5bn Smithfield development or news that Birmingham is the leading regional city for start ups. HS2 and the Commonwealth Games may both have their challenges, but they help frame the story of Birmingham’s big ambitions.

Historically, one of Birmingham proudest boasts has been the development of municipal government and, in particular, the man from which this corner of the internet derives its name.

As Westminster heads further into the political and constitutional abyss over Brexit, it would be a relief if local politics in the city of Chamberlain provided a glimmer of sanity and hope.

Theresa May has, so far, not resigned but Birmingham city council cabinet member Majid Mahmood did that on Tuesday just as full Council started its proceedings.

Why? In a word, bins. As per.

The city council is fighting on multiple fronts, including with comrades of the ruling administration across the trades unions. Those battles could now be moving back to the courtroom.

On Tuesday, a special cabinet meeting decided to try to bring the latest phase of the waste collection dispute to a conclusion. The council ran into trouble implementing the resolution to the industrial action when “secret payments” to the GMB union were discovered.

The bins strike has already seen a leader resign and the local authority on the verge of a High Court ruling. The actions of the previous leader were the subject of a review published just before Christmas. It found his attempts to resolve the dispute with Unite to be unlawful, a result with which Cllr Clancy vehemently disagrees. The review also found that the Cabinet and senior management of the council were “dysfunctional.”

The council had, mistakenly by its own admission, excluded the GMB union from the final negotiations which revolved around changes to job grading and working practices. Payments were then made to GMB members of the workforce which in turn triggered decisions to take industrial action by both Unite and Unison.

The council is looking to join the unions in binding arbitration, but has also opted to seek a court order to halt “unlawful” industrial action as well as a “temporary” move to fortnightly bin collections.

The decision to potentially take the unions to court at Cabinet prompted the member responsible for waste to step down. He said:

I will not be party to using Tory legislation to attack our trade union comrades.

Cllr Mahmood is Birmingham’s leading supporter of Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum. There has been recent speculation that the Bromford and Hodge Hill councillor will seek his party’s nomination for West Midlands Mayor.

The same special Cabinet meeting also considered the ‘call-in’ of a decision to extend a 25 year contract with Veolia for waste disposal services. It followed a scrutiny committee chaired by former leader, Sir Albert Bore, last Thursday.

Essentially, the Cabinet had decided – with just days to go before the end of the contract – to extend it by five rather than two years as was agreed in 2016.

The tale exposed by Sir Albert and committee colleagues was a familiar one. A poorly constructed contract back in 1993 which seemed to leave the issue of whether the council or its contractor was responsible for ensuring the waste disposal plant at Tyseley was in good order at the end of 25 years open to question.

A scrutiny committee had set out a long term vision to set Birmingham on track to be a low carbon city back in 2014, but implementation had been characteristically slow.

The loss of strategic capacity and institutional memory were oft quoted as reasons for delays and poor decision making over one of the city’s biggest investments. The waste management dispute was also blamed for occupying the minds of officers during 2017.

At some point after June last year, it was somehow decided that a commitment to a two year overrun agreement should be extended to five years. Only that decision did not come before Cabinet until 11 December, with the contract due to expire this week.

Alongside all this, Sir Albert highlighted the usual story of late or no papers being delivered; too many discussions and decisions taken in the ‘Private’ section of meetings or at informal meetings and the impact of the five year extension not being properly reflected in the council’s 2019+ budget.

Separately, the council remains in dispute with Unison over plans to change working patterns in the Enablement Service. Unison’s “political escalation strategy” has been ruffling feathers among leading council figures.

Unison is leafleting the wards of the leader, deputy leader and cabinet member for health and social care and undertaking targeted Facebook advertising. Campaigners also tried to attend a pre-Christmas Cabinet meeting, armed with a ‘Bah Humbug’ Scrooge Christmas card for Cllr Ian Ward.

Unison blames the Cabinet for not adhering to “Labour values” and failing to direct its officers accordingly, whilst the council says that the union has been changing its demands.

At Tuesday’s full council meeting Ian Ward expressed his regret at the state of relations with unions. With Jeremy Corbyn enjoying closer ties to trades unions than any leader for a generation and now trying to push the Commons towards a general election, a local council leader at odds with worker’s representatives is very untimely.

The council needs to adopt a balanced budget next month for 2019/20, with a damning audit report from last August still ringing in its ears as well as the overspend on the Paradise development which has seen the project move to the oversight of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership.

Against this background, you might imagine that measures to support Birmingham city council on its “improvement journey” would be further intensifying.

It was revealed last week at a Joint Scrutiny Committee that the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel was making plans to wind up its work by the end of March.

Chamberlain Files sources have confirmed that is the plan. It is thought that the Panel cannot achieve much more and that improvements are sufficiently underway. The Panel would seem to have confidence in the latest chief executive and the senior team she is building as well as better working relationships between members and officers.

As well as senior staffing, it is thought that improvements to children’s services represent a significant sign of progress.

A self appraisal from the Council and a review by the Panel are likely to be submitted to the Housing Secretary before Easter.

Last March, it was announced that the Council and Panel would move to a collaborative model of working. That has not prevented senior figures in the council, including the leader, citing the Panel as an obstacle to its ability to operate. Critics of the Panel have taken the opportunity in recent days to question what the Panel has achieved or why it was imposed in the first place.

Some of the fundamental issues identified by Sir Bob Kerslake (as he then was) in his withering assessment of Birmingham city council’s governance failings are clearly still work in progress. It would be difficult to argue that governance, decision making, transparency, member-officer working, culture and financial management have been sufficiently cleared up in the last four years.

It is unclear how the Panel has interrupted progress in these areas or how its departure will hasten further improvement.

Council leader Ian Ward often comments there are “lessons to learn” when reflecting on the council’s latest troubles, including procurement.

It begs the question how many more lessons will a councillor of nearly 25 years need to learn before fundamental problems are successfully tackled.

It is perhaps ironic that Sir Albert Bore – the leader who failed to grasp the enormity or urgency of implementing Kerslake’s recommendations – is now the leading figure shining a forensic light on the Council’s failings.

Main pic: Brum130, Visit Birmingham/Culture Central

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