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Council: it’s not all rubbish

Council: it’s not all rubbish

🕔17.Aug 2017

Yesterday’s announcement of a suspension of industrial action by Unite the union in the dispute with Birmingham city council over refuse reforms will come as welcome news to residents. But what does it tell us about the capacity of the council to carry through reforms, asks Kevin Johnson?

The last few weeks have seen the pages and airwaves of local media, er, littered with stories about bin bags piling up and rats running riot.

The dispute has become a national story, yet again projecting images of Birmingham as a city unable to manage its most basic affairs onto the country’s screens and pages.

‘Doing the bins’ is just about the most basic local authority function and probably the most recognisable council service. So, missed collections and a misfiring contingency plan, a seeming inability to modernise refuse services and manage an industrial dispute do not inspire confidence.

The council has seemed at sixes and sevens in dealing with the industrial dispute. The council leader, John Clancy, has appeared absent as the most senior officer and Cabinet member responsible have been largely left to front the council’s position.

Media reports indicate it has been claimed that it was only through the personal intervention of Cllr Clancy negotiating with top Unite officials that the suspension has been possible.

The deal is not fixed, with a special Cabinet meeting to be held next week, whilst council leaders, top officials, the union and opposition parties will doubtless continue to debate whether any agreed changes to working practices and patterns have been worth the turmoil or will deliver the required savings.

As my colleague Neil Elkes over at the Birmingham Post has pointed out, Conservatives and Lib Dems will have been stockpiling images of city streets strewn with bin bags in readiness for next year’s first all-out council elections.

It might seem ironic that news of the council emerging from its Kerslake nightmare was announced in the midst of Bingate.

The Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel’s announcement that it was suspending most of its work came as welcome news to council leader John Clancy.

The Panel’s formidable Vice Chair Frances Done will, however, keep a close eye on council finances and she and the Panel will be ready to step back in if progress stalls.

The Panel remains concerned by council finances, not least the 2018/19 budget. The financial sustainability of the local authority is predicated on it being able to undertake reforms including the proposed Future Operating Model.

The refuse crisis will seem like a minor skirmish compared to the far more complex changes to structures and systems that lie ahead.

Chamberlain Files understands that progress made in the implementation of Kerslake recommendations has been due, in large part, to the Interim Chief Executive and her working relationship with the council leader. “It’s as much about who has gone as about who has come in” was how one well placed source with knowledge of the Panel’s thinking described the situation in respect of the council’s senior management.

The endorsement by the panel, in particular of Stella Manzie and John Clancy, will give them confidence they can see through the job.

Council insiders indicate the latest letter to the Communities Secretary was at the top end of their expectations, with their strong political and managerial leadership recognised as they saw it. As one source remarked, “quite a change from 18 months ago.”

John Clancy’s Labour group faces a tough challenge in next year’s local elections. It is still not clear if Ms Manzie will apply for the role of permanent chief executive when recruitment starts after the summer. Sources indicate that she remains “tight lipped” at the prospect.

Refuse reform is not the only big project on the council agenda.

Birmingham’s bid for the 2022 Commonwealth Games – or at least to be England’s bid – continues with enthusiastic backing from the council’s deputy leader Ian Ward and West Midlands Mayor Andy Street as well as local media.

But questions remain over who will pay for the Games if Birmingham is successful. It is anticipated the city will have to find around £150-200 million, even if Government invests around £500M, to make the budget balance.

Whilst the bid is being presented as Birmingham’s on behalf of the West Midlands, the other six regional councils have made it clear they will not be paying.

Bid insiders tell Chamberlain Files that no significant work has been done on identifying other sources of finance, including among the business community. It might be reasonable to assume the Chamber of Commerce – whilst backing the bid – will be opposed to any levy on business rates.

This would reduce “catastrophically” the council’s chances of funding the Games, according to one well placed source. The Mayor has been asked to intervene with Government for more funding, but as one insider reflected “no one is holding their breath.”

Elsewhere, the council has announced that it is setting up an energy company and another vehicle to manage its property investments.

The Green Party’s candidate in the West Midlands Mayor election, Cllr James Burn, called on Birmingham City Council not to go it alone in their decision to launch their own energy company. He wants to see it work with other councils and the Combined Authority.

Opposition parties point to the failures of other cities, such as Nottingham, in pursuing similar initiatives.

Meanwhile, property specialists have indicated their concerns to Chamberlain Files questioning whether the council has the commercial expertise to manage a portfolio.

The council leader’s priorities are to continue the improvements to children’s care with the establishment of a Children’s Trust and to roll out an ambitious new housing strategy.

The refuse crisis and the Improvement Panel are both suspended, not done.

Big challenges – and opportunities – are in every direction.

Elections are around the corner.

But council leader John Clancy might be excused a momentary sigh of relief.

Perhaps more importantly, residents will simply be looking forward to their rubbish being collected.

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