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Sir Albert cutting an austere figure

There have been more difficulties for Sir Albert Bore as he ploughs on with his ‘armageddon’, ‘jaws of doom’ and ‘end of local government as well know it’ narrative.

Sir Albert Bore

There have been more difficulties for Sir Albert Bore as he ploughs on with his ‘armageddon’, ‘jaws of doom’ and ‘end of local government as well know it’ narrative.

The Birmingham City Council leader has been ramping up the rhetoric over recent weeks in the wake of Chancellor Osborne’s summer spending review which confirmed that austerity budgets and local government cuts will continue at least until 2018.

The Labour leader argues that he has to plan for this now by delivering the largest overhaul of council services in history as he looks to accommodate ongoing budget cuts to the tune of £100 million a year.

But a number of Labour backbenchers fear that he seems to be revelling in the challenge and using the austerity drive as an excuse to recast the council in the way he’s always wanted.

A bit like someone being rather pleased their house caught fire because it gives them the excuse to redecorate.

For his part Sir Albert argues that the more critical wings of his group just don’t get the sheer scale of the cuts being imposed and that without dramatic action the council will at some stage either go bust or end up being taken over by Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles and his Whitehall mandarins.

Sir Albert has at least this week found an ally from the Tory ranks – the leader of the Local Government Association Sir Merrick Cockell.

The former Kensington and Chelsea Borough Council leader said at the Conservative Party Conference this week that the cuts hitting town halls up and down the country are unsustainable.

He warned that some councils could go bust and it seems, with increasing numbers of municipal Tories now protesting at the scale of cuts, that Mr Pickles and Chancellor Osborne may come under increasing pressure to put the brakes on the spending cuts. Whether Labour-run Birmingham would get any favourable consideration is another matter.

Sir Merrick almost echoed Sir Albert when he told the Guardian: “We are being pushed into a position where either things will fail or the system has to change. We can’t cope unless someone takes that big step, to change the way we operate.”

The ongoing review of services continued apace with the release of the green paper on local services – including libraries, community centres, housing and parks – described by cabinet member Brigid Jones as some of the ‘most loved’ of services.

It was a review submitted to the Labour group’s private meeting earlier this week and heavily amended following what one member described as a ‘lively’ debate.

It turns out that the document had already been adjusted after the district chairmen and women sat Sir Albert down and demanded a few rewrites – much of it to ensure they retained the final say and greater control of their budgets.

Backbenchers also struck a blow for the retention of the community chest. This pot of £2 million was cut by half last year and looked ripe for the chop.

But as one of the few tangible things that local councillors control – each ward gets a slice to award to local groups or project – they demanded it remain, even if it has to be revised. It is now referred to in the document as a ‘valuable local resource’.

It seems that the comrades are growing increasingly restless and already talk is rife of challenges and a widening gulf between the rank and file and the cabinet.

But then again it would be odd if a group of 77 politicians were united on everything.

As one exasperated backbencher said: “Armageddon? It’s not as if it’s the end of world.”

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There is also increasing anxiety at the amount of money now being paid out to Capita’s Service Birmingham vehicle by the city council as the company’s latest accounts reveal.

While other departments are cutting back the amounts being paid out, as well as profits for the IT and call centre operator, seem to be on the rise.

It is a well trodden argument on these pages and both Service Birmingham and the council leadership will argue that they are taking steps to cut £20 million from the annual bill.

But one additional point being raised is the lack of transparency around the contract – to which the council is tied until 2020. Despite spending vast sums of public money too much is bound by ‘corporate confidentiality’ while the Freedom of Information Act does not apply.

This does not just apply to Capita, but other firms like G4S and Serco who get millions from Government.

Isn’t it about time that the Freedom of Information Act was applied to private companies doing public sector work?

 

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