The question of whether the city council, in ditching plans for a congestion charge under the explicit order of leader John Clancy , had made any alternative provision to find £2 million net savings in its transport budget reared its head at this week’s cabinet meeting – prompting much confusion and scratching of heads.
A Birmingham city centre congestion charge was looked at last summer and was part of a submission to Government on the council’s plans to tackle poor air quality.
But it was also the first high profile policy dropped by Coun Clancy when he took over as council leader in December – because a congestion charge is undoubtedly unpopular with the masses and likely to deter visitors and upset city centre businesses.
So when Conservative leader Robert Alden was informed by officials that there had been no change to the budget saving even though the initiative had been scrapped, he was right to ask where the £2 million saving would be coming from, if not a congestion charge.
At the cabinet meeting he was shouted down as chasing cheap headlines and again both Coun Clancy and cabinet member for transport Tahir Ali ruled out the congestion charge in the strongest possible terms.
One conclusion which could be drawn was that their officers had left the budget untouched in the hope that the political sands might shift and a new leader or Government intervention on clean air might see the charge revived by the end of 2017.
Anyone who has read the Kerslake report would not be surprised to find officials acting like councillors in 2014. But we have been assured that everyone knows their place now.
Such a move also meant that any head-scratching over the £2 million saving could be deferred.
Another explanation was that it was a simple oversight – albeit one that, if not corrected, would leave a hole in the budget by 2018.
The council leadership has effectively confirmed this latter explanation.
A statement said: “The savings outlined in the Business Plan and Budget 2016+ will now be realised by a combination of measures designed to reduce reliance on car trips and improve air quality. NOT a congestion charge.”
A steering group is being set up to work out just how to implement the clean air zone, which will hit only high-polluting larger commercial vehicles, and achieve the earmarked savings.
Meanwhile, Coun Alden has complained about the whole affair, saying he has been maligned for simply raising a question about the different information coming from leadership and the back office.
What is now abundantly clear is that Birmingham will not have a congestion charge and that officers have two years to find a way to save £2 million more through alternative congestion busting initiatives.
Take the school crossing patrols off the cuts table
Depending on whether they are glass half-full types or not, school lollipop wardens will either think they lead a charmed life or will be close to quitting with stress.
For the second year running they have been earmarked for the axe in the council’s draft budget only to find their jobs saved just as they were preparing for redundancy .
It is not a healthy situation to be in.
Where they can take comfort is that the service is clearly highly valued by those that use it – so much so that every time a bureaucrat decides they should be let go, there is a groundswell of protest, politicians wake up and a reprieve is delivered.
There are arguments to be had around this – whether it is the fault of the Conservative Government for cutting Birmingham’s grant by such a large amount or whether it is the fault of the Labour council for picking out this service over others.
It is most likely a combination of both.
There is also an argument that schools, which have road safety funding, should pick up the £500,000 a year tab or part of it.
The council is now setting up a Trust, which can raise money in a different way.
Whatever the solution, it needs to be found sooner rather than later because unless schools step up and the council works with them it will be same thing, same time, next year.
A special long-service award should be given to members of the economy and skills scrutiny committee who had to endure a 40-minute presentation from cabinet member for development and transport Tahir Ali.
We say presentation; actually it was a huge shopping list of things that are happening under his wide ranging portfolio – road repair schemes, house building, foreign investment, planning and even the amount of gritting going on during the winter.
Such was the frustration that he got a stern ticking off from committee chairman Victoria Quinn who suggested that he might have spent so long highlighting his successes to cut the available time for the committee to cross-examine him on issues of concern.
Perish the thought.