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Bullish Sir Albert gets his excuses in, but fails to address key Kerslake issues

Bullish Sir Albert gets his excuses in, but fails to address key Kerslake issues

🕔08.Oct 2015

Any day soon, probably next week, Communities Secretary Greg Clark will receive a letter which may determine whether Birmingham city council has a future as an independent body.

John Crabtree, chair of the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel, is to report to Mr Clark on the council’s progress in delivering the governance reforms and culture change demanded by the Kerslake Review, which exposed years of poor leadership at Britain’s biggest public body.

Crabtree’s comments, on behalf of panel members, will be a determining factor as to any action Mr Clark decides to take next. A mid-year report in June was not good. It warned the panel was not convinced that the council’s political leadership truly understood the scale of change required and was even capable of delivering the Kerslake reforms in a timely manner.

Another letter like that and it is probably curtains for the council. Mr Clark would surely have little option but to send in commissioners to run Birmingham, at least on a temporary basis.

One important factor to be taken into account by Mr Crabtree and Mr Clark will be the performance of, indeed the state of mind of, the leader of Birmingham city council, Sir Albert Bore.

To judge by an interview Sir Albert gave to the Birmingham Post, he is not in a good place at the moment. His attitude was described as “bullish” by the interviewer. Verging on denial might be a more accurate description.

By giving the interview Sir Albert no doubt sought to steady Labour nerves following the abrupt resignation from his cabinet of Cllr James McKay, on the grounds that the council still does not have a “simple, convincing political vision” that can “inspire citizens, get partners around the table”.  Oh, and that Sir Albert, Birmingham legend that he is, isn’t up to the task of delivering the Kerslake changes and should go.

Since Cllr McKay quit and launched his attack on the council leader, it has been noticeable that, so far, only two cabinet members have volunteered to speak out in support of Sir Albert – Brigid Jones and Tahir Ali. The remaining six have chosen to remain silent.

Sir Albert, predictably, maintains he “is going nowhere” and if the Government wants him out, they will “have to drag me out”.

The leader of the council seems determined to go down with all guns blazing. As Marshall Bosquet said of the Charge of the Light Brigade, this is magnificent but it is not war.

It is not war, it is not clever strategy, to blame the people who will be deciding your fate for the position you are in, especially when that position is entirely of your own making.

It is clear even after so many hours have been spent poring over the Kerslake Review, carefully digesting the recommendations and the reasoning behind the recommendations, Sir Albert would like to blame the Government for Birmingham’s plight.

He appears to believe that Kerslake, which emerged out of the Trojan Horse scandal, was part of a strategy by the then Tory-Lib Dem Government to do down Labour-run Birmingham, a cunning plan given fresh legs by the now majority Conservative Government.

The Government’s determination to teach Birmingham a lesson was reinforced, in Sir Albert’s mind at least, by the prominent national role he, the leader of the council, took in campaigning against the Chancellor’s ‘austerity’ public spending cuts.

Three years ago Sir Albert began forecasting “the end of local government as we know it” and the wholesale “decommissioning” of council services as a result of the financial misery being heaped on the city by George Osborne. He even produced a ‘jaws of doom’ graphic to illustrate the point.

Thankfully, as with American evangelists convincing themselves that Armageddon is the day after tomorrow, Sir Albert’s dire prediction hasn’t come true.

This is what he told the Post:

I’ve been critical of the Government cuts talking about the end of local government as we know it, and make no apology for that.

Obviously, government didn’t like what I said. So perhaps government sees Birmingham as a problem because we’ve been so vocal about government policy affecting the services we need to provide.

If that’s the case, I’m not going to apologise for that and indeed councils of all parties across local government are saying that.

He went on to put a case for Birmingham that sounds plausible, on the face of it. The city centre economy is booming with unprecedented levels of inward investment. Birmingham “is becoming one of the top places in the world for business”.

All of this is true, and is good news. But an economic recovery, boosted by the Bank of England’s quantitative easing programme and the pending arrival in Birmingham of HS2, has very little to do with the Kerslake agenda. The recovery for the city centre would have happened in any case.

Kerslake highlighted years of poor leadership at Birmingham council, and not just under Labour either. The report was critical of a habit of kicking the can down the road, failing to address serious issues, and of an imperious ‘we know best’ attitude towards partnership working.

So when Sir Albert tells the Post that child protection, education and the huge financial millstone of equal pay were all problems which he inherited when Labour took control of the council from the Tory-Lib Dem coalition he is both right and wrong.

Yes, he did inherit these problems. But the Tory-Lib Dem administration equally inherited exactly the same problems from Labour when it took control of the council in 2004.

Bluntly, as Kerslake suggests, the period from 1999 to 2014 represented fifteen years of appalling inaction over the most serious issues facing Birmingham. The equal pay question was being kicked around in the early 2000s, serious problems in children’s social care were apparent at the same time, problems in schools were known about.

The Kerslake Review exposed the blurring of dividing lines between council officers and elected members. Too many councillors were acting as if they were officers, and too many officers were behaving as if they were councillors.

It was critical, too, of very senior councillors spending too much time ‘politicking’ in the Council House and micro managing even the most minor decision making processes rather than getting around Birmingham building up alliances with community groups and other organisations.

As for a credible plan to manage redundancies flowing from the council’s financial problems, there simply wasn’t one in place from about 2009 to 2014, which resulted in a free for all scramble by officers to get out of the door with “generous severance packages”, leaving behind a critical lack of capacity at senior level.

The HR and Employment Committee, put in place by Sir Albert in 2012, proved spectacularly incapable of implementing a credible workforce strategy. Kerslake found that the committee had “failed in its primary responsibility” and highlighted comments by Sir Albert to a scrutiny committee that the council (under his leadership) “has not given enough attention to how we manage staff reductions and planning the workforce we will need in future”.

Kerslake continued:

A damaging combination of an absence of a strategic plan and the lack of a corporate grip has created the space for a multiplicity of strategies, plans and processes which has created unnecessary complexity and confusion.

So when Sir Albert uses Birmingham’s economic boom to finesse away Kerslake’s criticisms, he is pulling the wool over our eyes.

The big question the improvement panel has to consider has been clear from the moment the Kerslake Review was published:

Can civic leaders who have been in office for many years and have presided over failure be trusted to address and put right that failure?

Birmingham awaits the answer with interest, and some trepidation.

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