When Sir Albert Bore announced the ‘end of local government as we know it’ last year many took it as an apocalyptic analysis of the state of Birmingham City Council’s finances.
As the statement was accompanied by a deeply furrowed brow and the ‘jaws of doom’ graph predicting a £600 million budget shortfall by 2017 unless drastic action was taken to reduce spending it certainly gave the impression that the Labour leader was preparing to put up the ‘closed’ sign on Europe’s largest local authority.
But far from it, Sir Albert is taking this bleak financial outlook as a chance to completely reinvent the way the council works.
Instead of looking for cuts, he wants to ‘turn the whole thing on its head’ and look at what the council’s priorities are and whether communities or the private sector can do a job instead.
He has wiped the slate clean and placed each area of council activity under intense scrutiny to see if the services and activities they are providing are needed in the new environment.
He has stated that some services, maybe even popular ones, will probably have to be decommissioned and ways of working which date back more than a century will be reviewed.
The extent and rate of change will depend very much on the Government spending review later this month and how much more local authority budgets are to be cut in the next few years.
Senior officers and politicians have pored over each other’s departments (Sir Albert hates the idea of people scrutinising their own performance – an aspect of what he calls silo working) and asked fundamental questions about whether or not what they are doing is legally required, or meeting the council’s objectives including protecting the vulnerable or enhancing the prosperity of the city.
Sir Albert said that over the next few weeks we can expect to see a series of ‘green papers’ outlining specific proposals for the new direction – starting with adults and communities, which covers the council’s massive adult social care responsibilities.
This will be followed by education services, back office functions and Service Birmingham IT and call centre contracts.
These public green papers will launch ‘a dialogue’ with the wider city, including staff, service users and citizens before being fully formed into policy proposals.
Apparently the word ‘consultation’ has legal connotations which need to be sidestepped, and ‘conversation’ has reduced currency in political circles – as was pointed out on this page a couple of weeks ago.
Sir Albert hopes to ‘take people with him’ on this and sidestep the usual winter of outrage and protests as budget cuts are negotiated.
By that he means, in particular, the staff whose long-established ways of working may be threatened.
But he is also keen to avoid crowds of placard waving people protesting outside leisure centres, libraries or other facilities facing the chop.
The leisure services review, announced last week is a good example.
There is an over concentration of facilities in some areas and complete lack of them in others – Hodge Hill district doesn’t have a council run swimming pool, Erdington and Perry Barr have two each.
Even if you were not cutting budgets, a council might want to close one pool and open one elsewhere. While it might make sense on a strategic level there would still be a a petition and protest against the cut. Many people are simply resistent to change. As dialogues go it is going to be a pretty difficult one.
Solihull MP Lorely Burt may have been a little indiscreet during an appearance on the Daily Politics on Monday of this week.
She first sidestepped a leading question over where the Government might be considering making billions of pounds worth of cuts in the up and coming spending review.
But then as the discussion persisted indicated that child benefit was in her party’s sights.
“Nick Clegg has mentioned one or two things... on child benefit. I think there are one or two things there where we can make additional cuts,” she said.
This could all be back bench speculation. But Ms Burt is PPS to Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. Has a proverbial cat been released from a bag?
Birmingham’s new Lord Mayor, Labour salwart Mike Leddy, will be relieved he is embarking on a non-partisan civic role following a glowing tribute from a Conservative colleague.
Coun Robert Alden’s nomination speech was indeed memorable, but in a manner akin to best man at a wedding, he has left the former Lucas engineer’s man-of-the-people credentials in tatters after he announced that Coun Leddy enjoys fine dining at Marco Pierre White’s.
Watching the speech from a back room Coun Leddy, who has a reputation as a switched-on political campaigner, winced as Coun Alden then revealed that his first local election leaflet bore the legend ‘Labour inaction’.
But to add insult to injury young Alden went on the say that members of his party had always thought Coun Leddy ‘really should be a Tory’.
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