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City leadership needs to get a grip

The city council faces a massive financial crisis, meanwhile an unlikely figure has turned up to cheer on Jeremy Corbyn

A budget cuts protest in Victoria Square.

It seems that the wheels are really beginning to fall off at Birmingham City Council where a rather downbeat Labour cabinet was forced to admit that £37.5 million of its promised savings would not be delivered this financial year.

That is out of about £90 million cuts waived through by councillors at a budget setting meeting in March.

And it seems that officials and councillors have few ideas on where the money is going to come from and just six months to find out.

Meanwhile, the scale of next year’s cuts is going to become apparent over the next few weeks and planning is already under way to deal with them.

More cuts ahead as Birmingham City Council reveals new £37.5m black hole

Balancing the books is surely the toughest test yet faced by Coun John Clancy and his administration since he became leader in December.

As they have repeatedly discovered over the school crossing patrol service, any attempt to cut a visible frontline service will be met with protests and hostility and, no matter how much they blame the Government, or indeed the Government is to blame, the local councillors will get the flak.

Over the last six years, the Government has withdrawn about £360 million from the city council budget while the demand for and costs of services like care for the elderly and disabled have soared.

The low hanging fruit has been plucked, its wide portfolio of offices and properties scaled back, a third of staff let go or outsourced, citizens encouraged to do more via the phone or online than spend time in neighbourhood offices and charges introduced for extra services like garden waste collection.

The council is also legally, as well as morally, obliged to fund some services and has indeed increased spending on child protection given the deep-rooted problems there.

Birmingham City Council leader John Clancy

Other budgets, such as money for public health, are ring fenced and cannot be used to bail out other services such as libraries or refuse collection.

It is also saddled with huge debt repayments, a problem of the authority’s own making - when it failed during the 2000s to sort out equal pay and ended up paying out over £1.1 billion in compensation to staff.

All this leaves only limited wriggle room for Coun Clancy, his cabinet and department officials.

The blame will, of course, be passed around the council chamber. As deputy leader Coun Ian Ward said, the Government bears some responsibility for the austerity policy - all eyes will be on new Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond this autumn to see whether he sticks to the austerity plan for local government.

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As a new leader, Coun Clancy, of course, inherited a near-finished budget from his predecessor Sir Albert Bore. While on the backbenches, Coun Clancy repeatedly called for a zero-based budget. Perhaps, some of this thinking will come into play now.

The opposition, of course, are targeting Clancy and his colleagues for making promises and failing to keep them. The huge £15 milllion savings promised through closer working with the NHS were, it seems, never going to be delivered this year. The Tories and Lib Dems point out they are failing to manage relatively small thing like the council’s energy bills.

The council needs fixing but residents need to change too

While promises of £4 million efficiencies on refuse collection following the complete rollout of wheelie bins, upgrades of vehicles and depots, a management clear out and introduction of technology are still proving more difficult to achieve.

There has also been umpteen political distractions this summer - Brexit, the Labour leadership contest, two boundary reviews and the elected mayor and combined authority agenda - but now councillors will need to focus on the day job and tackle this financial crisis.

As Lib Dem leader Jon Hunt said: “John Clancy needs to get a grip.”

Corbyn finds support in an unlikely place

Conservative Cllr Gary Sambrook (Kingstanding) at the Jeremy Corbyn rally in Centenary Square

One surprise among the adoring crowd of several hundred assembled to see the glorious Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Centenary Square last weekend was cheeky Birmingham Tory councillor Gary Sambrook.

He insisted he was ‘getting to know the enemy’.

Never one to miss the chance to poke some fun at his long suffering Labour rivals he gleefully posed with a “Corbyn: Labour values” placard.

Let's nationalise Bake Off says Jeremy Corbyn at Birmingham rally

It is of course not a sign that Corbyn is reaching out beyond his core vote to attract a broad spectrum of admirers.

But as Gary quipped a sign that the Conservatives are enjoying Corbyn’s leadership almost as much as his own supporters.

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