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Leadership hangs in balance, Improvement Panel still running

Leadership hangs in balance, Improvement Panel still running

🕔02.Sep 2017

A day of torrid headlines for Birmingham city council followed its decision to issue redundancy notices to Grade 3 Leading Hands in waste management services, writes Kevin Johnson

Yesterday’s national breakfast news programmes led with the story. Coverage continued day and night.

Such days are not unusual for Europe’s largest local authority. Its leader John Clancy rather hoped they would be few and far between when the Improvement Panel indicated it thought it should suspend its work.

But the Panel’s letter to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid recommending it be suspended following progress at the Council House remains unanswered.

It is unlikely that the Secretary of State will be responding any time soon. The idea of a Conservative Cabinet minister agreeing the Labour leader has things under control right now is, well, rubbish.

So, the Panel remains in place. It is likely to be monitoring events closely. In particular, it might be re-assessing whether the Council is still exercising good governance, demonstrating transparency in decision-making and providing strong political leadership behind a high quality executive.

If and when the Panel is suspended, they will be ready to step back at a moment’s notice. Vice Chair Frances Done maintains an active interest throughout.

The stakes for John Clancy could not be higher.

Yesterday, the council leader took to the airwaves. It was the first time he had communicated anything about the dispute in weeks. Cabinet member Lisa Trickett was also rolled out on media duty.

Whilst telling the BBC’s Kathryn Stanczyszyn that he “absolutely” backed Interim Chief Executive Stella Manzie, he was unable to explain why it had taken a week to say that comments made about her by Howard Beckett, of Unite the union, were scandalous.

Invoking Noel Edmonds, he said the agreement with Howard Beckett on 16 August was “no deal.” He had gone the extra mile to bring the union back to the negotiating table.

In her interviews, Cllr Trickett also called it an “in principle” agreement that was subject to officer advice and Cabinet deliberation.

The union had suspended the industrial action. If they had done a deal, the union would have ended the strike, he argued.

Cllr Clancy refuted Mr Beckett’s allegation that he had reneged on a deal.

Unite have said there’s a deal for their own purposes. There was never a deal.

If Unite has wilfully misunderstood…then that’s a problem for Unite.

Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said:

This is a deeply provocative act that drives a coach and horses through the agreement Unite reached with the council in good faith at the conciliation service Acas.

Unite the union has now issued legal proceedings for breach of contract on behalf of its members.

As well as a war of words with Unite’s Beckett, Cllr Clancy had the previous Conservative/Lib Dem council administration in his sights. What they had done to the city with the previous re-organisation of waste collection was nothing short of a “disaster.”

The current leader of the Conservative Group, Cllr Robert Alden, seems on a mission to force the resignation of Cllr Clancy. An astute politician would not undertake such a relentless campaign if he didn’t think he could take the scalp.

Cllr Alden said:

It is now clear Cllr Clancy is in post but not in power. It is clear to anyone negotiating with Birmingham that an agreement with the Labour Leader is worthless. The question now is will he resign or wait for his group to push him out.

There are mixed reports of whether all members of Cllr Clancy’s cabinet are standing four square behind their leader.

Senior council officers will hardly be feeling a warm glow from their political master.

Cllr Clancy needs friends and advocates.

One underlying factor in this crisis has been the council’s inability to make the case for the removal of Grade 3 Leading Hands on both efficiency and safety grounds.

Yesterday, workers and their union officials seemed to have a free run saying the removal of the post in the system would have dire safety consequences.

The council says that is not the case and measures such as CCTV in the cabs will actually make it safer.

But, it’s an argument that has not been communicated effectively.

The big political question revolves around whether Cllr Clancy was right to step in to try to resolve the crisis – or at least pull it back – and just what was said by him and Howard Beckett in their phone conversations and text exchanges.

Then, why did he stay so silent when Unite was proclaiming victory and saying a deal had been done – which included restoring the Grade 3 jobs – and when the union was criticising the council’s chief executive but praising its leader.

Cllr Clancy found his voice again yesterday. He and his supporters will need to explain more if he is to resolve the dispute and deliver the savings.

We will now see brinkmanship in play. Who will break first? Workers in receipt of redundancy notices? Unite? Labour backbenchers and cabinet members? Or Councillor Clancy himself?

He told the BBC yesterday:

I have been elected leader three times in the last twenty months, twice unopposed. I intend to carry on.

Cllr Clancy will want to see evidence of support from his Group at their meeting on Monday evening.

Meanwhile, the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel is still watching. Closely.

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