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The day a ‘novice’ stepped up to the plate and proved his critics wrong

The day a ‘novice’ stepped up to the plate and proved his critics wrong

🕔11.Jan 2016

The latest letter from the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel chair John Crabtree to Communities Secretary Greg Clark makes it clear that Birmingham city council is finally beginning to deliver reforms demanded of it in the Kerslake Review.

And if there is a sense of relief in Mr Crabtree’s words, then that is perfectly understandable.

For the Birmingham-born panel chair, like other figures in the business world, must have been at risk of being seriously misled during October and November 2015 by a concerted attempt to rubbish John Clancy, who was the hot favourite to succeed Sir Albert Bore as council leader.

Even in public some of Clancy’s opponents in the city’s Labour ranks, including cabinet members, referred to him as a “novice” who’d never held high office and would run the council into the ground. Cllr Penny Holbrook, who lost the leadership by a single vote to Clancy, warned that “a vote for John” would risk the commissioners coming in.

The idea of highly experienced civic leaders whose failings over many years left local democracy in Birmingham a whisker away from Government takeover stressing over the arrival of a newcomer who might destroy all they had achieved is indeed the stuff of the darkest satire.

Privately, far worse was said about Clancy as a damaging propaganda campaign hit home.

He was painted as anti-business and a maverick whose rag-bag of apparently zany policy ideas – free school dinners, axing Service Birmingham, renegotiating the Amey Highways PFI contract, and using council land and property assets to create a wealth fund – could never work and, it was claimed, would divert attention away from implementing Kerslake.

It was confidently predicted he would engage in a revenge sacking of cabinet members, replacing Sir Albert Bore’s supporters with his own, destabilising the council in the hour of its greatest need.

The critics could hardly have been further from the truth, and as Mr Crabtree points out in his letter it is to Clancy’s credit that he kept the cabinet intact rather than risk provoking destabilising political infighting during the very difficult weeks of putting together a council budget for 2016-17.

His first two weeks necessarily, given the strength of the anti-Clancy campaign, were taken up by a charm offensive to assure the business community that the new leader wants to grow the Birmingham economy, regards the building up of public-private partnerships as crucial, and is particularly keen to invest in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs).

Cllr Clancy recognises his grand policy plans are destined to gather dust on the top of a shelf if he cannot convince the Government that the work of the improvement panel is done. That is why he met Greg Clark hours after being elected Labour group leader to assure him the pace of reform would increase, and the fact that Mr Clark agreed to see Clancy immediately underlines the concerns the Government has over the competency of Birmingham city council.

As Mr Crabtree’s letter states, Cllr Clancy is clear that delivering the Kerslake culture change, including devising a workable long-term council spending plan, must be his top priority. For if an effective strategy for service delivery with a far smaller budget and rapidly shrinking workforce cannot be devised, the council will run the risk of bankrupting itself and then invite certain Government intervention.

Striking at the very heart of this, Clancy has told councillors to get out of the Council House, be more active in their communities, and leave the running of Birmingham to the officers – in fact, the first meeting he held as leader was with chief executive Mark Rogers who was advised in no uncertain terms to get on with running the city because Clancy had no intention of micro-managing him or his senior colleagues.

It is always wise when discussing Kerslake to recall the review’s findings in December 2014, which make distressing reading:

  • The council is not doing enough to provide leadership and set out a positive vision for Birmingham.
  • Deep-rooted problems have all too often been swept under the carpet by successive political administrations.
  • Devolution arrangements are confused and very few people understand them.
  • The council’s vision for the future of the city is neither broadly shared nor understood by officers, partners or residents. A damaging combination of an absence of a strategic plan and the lack of a corporate grip has created a multiplicity of strategies, plans and processes of unnecessary complexity and confusion.
  • A failure to form effective partnerships is creating significant problems for both the city and the wider area. The council’s attitude is ‘if it is worth doing, the council should be doing it’.

It is hardly surprising given the tone of the criticism that the review set off an earthquake in the Council House the after-shocks of which are still being felt. As Mr Crabtree points out, Lord Kerslake accepted it will take some years for the city council to address all of its problems. The latest panel letter suggests progress is being made, although Birmingham is by no means out of the woods.

The knotty issues for Clancy are clear enough.

His plans to address the budget crisis include savings that will not be easy to deliver. Renegotiating the contracts of all council staff to cut sick pay and holidays while extending working hours would save £34 million, but can the proposal be pushed past hostile trade unions? It’s also proposed to save £92 million from adult social care by 2019-20, essentially by inviting volunteers and the third sector to do more, closer working with the NHS, and concentrating on early intervention to keep older people out of expensive residential care. But is this actually feasible?

Mr Crabtree has some kind words to say about the Forward Together 2020 Vision, setting out what the future council will look like, although Chamberlain Files is critical of what appears to be a wish list based on apple pie and motherhood principles.

It is fine to say that the aim is for all in Birmingham to have a happy and healthy life, to live in a decent and affordable home, have a good job and a “great school” with extra help for their children if they need it, and who could argue against that?

And as much as we would wish every young person to have a “fantastic” childhood and the best preparation for adult life, and that every school will be rated good with families and children receiving targeted help as early as possible to overcome “whatever issues are in their way”, with a team of “great” social workers and specialists to help the child and their family further, is this really a vision or is it a box-ticking wish list that will lose any value it might have had because it can never be delivered?

Privately, Cllr Clancy has told colleagues he wants to beef-up Birmingham Partners, the collection of great and good organisations charged with holding the council to account over delivery of its vision document, by making the group more representative of the wider city business community.

He would be wise to do so, for the need to build effective partnerships is a golden thread that runs throughout the Kerslake Review and is an area where the council has failed in the past. As far as the future is concerned, working in partnership is the only answer for the council because it simply will no longer have the money or the personnel to carry on as before, even if it was desirable to do so.

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