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Holbrook’s leadership vision: ‘I’ll blow Council House doors off and empower the people’

Holbrook’s leadership vision: ‘I’ll blow Council House doors off and empower the people’

🕔09.Nov 2015

Penny Holbrook says she wants to “blow the Council House doors off” if she becomes the new leader of Birmingham city council.

Not Michael Caine Italian Job-style, thankfully, it’s more a case of an open door policy being the cornerstone of her administration, reversing years of the council’s infamous ‘we know best’ attitude by inviting stakeholders, organisations and communities to play an important role in deciding the future of Birmingham.

Further than that, the Stockland Green councillor who has been in the cabinet for 17 months, says she would regard herself as simply “one of many leaders” in Birmingham and “wouldn’t know how to do the job on my own”.

And she will not make any changes to the council cabinet this side of May 2016, which suggests that Ian Ward, the current deputy leader who is one of the five leadership candidates along with Holbrook, would keep his job – for the time being at least.

The first among equals approach is about as far removed from the confident, some might say imperious, style of Sir Albert Bore, who has been Labour group leader since 1999 and council leader from 1999 to 2004 and from 2012 to the present day.

Councillor Holbrook was the last of the leadership candidates to declare, but insists nothing should be read into that.

You don’t have to be the first to rush into the race in order to be credible.

You have to be absolutely certain you can do the job and you want it enough.

It was important to me to the thinking what’s best for Birmingham.

The cabinet member for culture, learning and skills was promoted to the cabinet by Sir Albert in 2014, and some supporters of the four other leadership contenders have suggested that she is the de facto Bore candidate, although no evidence has been forthcoming to back up such a claim.

Asked whether Sir Albert ploughed on for far too long following publication of the Kerslake Review a year ago, which criticised the council’s poor leadership and inability to take tough decisions, Holbrook pays Labour’s ritual, seemingly compulsory, homage to the great man:

Sir Albert Bore has done a huge amount for Birmingham over many years and his legacy is visible everywhere.

But when it is suggested that Sir Albert, for all of his past achievements, is hard-wired in such a way that he is incapable of delivering the huge culture change demanded by Kerslake, the steely implication that Sir Albert isn’t much of a partnership person contained in Holbrook’s answer is clear enough:

It is obvious from Kerslake and from what our partners in the city are telling us that they want a more open organisation, and that’s the only way can do business.

We need someone who is much more open and much partnership focused.

We need a different era of leadership.

Sir Albert has made a decision to stand down and it is important now that we focus on the future.

Even so, she can’t resist a pop at councillors who conspired to bring Albert down.

We (the cabinet) were genuinely of the view that it wasn’t the right time for a leadership contest, but you have to deal with what you have to deal with.

She won’t use the word ‘distraction’ but says it is proving difficult to manage a leadership election and at the same time keep pressing ahead with delivery of the Kerslake reforms.

In common with the four other leadership contenders, she claims to be confident of victory.

I think I can win. I wouldn’t have entered the race if I didn’t think I could win. And more than that, I think I am the best person to lead the council and deliver the changes that are needed.

She is confident of winning because a majority of Labour councillors have told her privately they will support her.

She is not, though, naïve enough definitely to believe this, pointing out that if each of the candidates published a list of promised votes “there would be about 400 Labour councillors instead of 78”. Nevertheless, she thinks her somewhat modest and understated approach can win through.

Asked what she would do on the day after the leadership election if she wins, Cllr Holbrook said:

What I would like to happen on November 24 is to sit down with the other leadership candidates, having won, and say ‘OK guys, can we work together to make Birmingham better and what can you bring to the table?’

She adds:

I wouldn’t know how to do the job on my own. I only known how to do the job as part of a team, involving as many people as we can.

I see myself as one leader amongst many. There are lots of city leaders and the leader of the city council is one amongst them. You have to have a collective view.

We face massive challenges. We have to set a budget and we have to deliver rapid change in line with Kerslake. Doing these things whilst having significant changes in personnel or cabinet portfolios is quite difficult.

I have been very clear that there’s not going to be any immediate cabinet changes. Between December and May we have to get the job done, we have to set a budget and deliver an improvement plan.

She lists three urgent action points for the first few weeks of a Holbrook administration:

  • Be clear that the budget process isn’t going to change. We are going to continue to set a budget and we have to be clear everyone is clear about what that means.
  • We have to make sure we have a really close relationship with the improvement panel and don’t be afraid of talking to the panel about the changes they want to see. There’s no point making changes and then finding out later that these were not what the panel wanted to see.
  • We have to start to empower all councillors and make sure they feel part of the decision making process. It’s about being confident you don’t have to do everything yourself. You can allow other people to be supportive. Other people have great ideas too. Leadership isn’t a solo act.

She would also be straight on the phone to Local Government Secretary Greg Clark to assure him that the new leader of Birmingham city council “gets” Kerslake and will push through the necessary reforms:

The cultural changes needed go right to the heart of the organisation.

I have been really clear that we have to own the Kerslake Report. There are lots of things that I recognise from 20 years of being in Birmingham politics and 12 years on the council. We have to address all the concerns in it.

We are making changes in terms of how we work with partners. We need to pick up the pace in terms of how we build working relationships with communities and councillors are best placed to do that.

We need to change the way we as a council behave but that’s not the same as ripping up all the structures and starting again from day one.

If I win everyone will be included.

The other candidates standing for leadership of Birmingham Labour group and the city council are: John Clancy, Ian Ward, Barry Henley and Mike Leddy.

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