It has been almost four years since Lord Bob Kerslake issued his damning verdict on Birmingham City Council and an improvement panel was set up to drive reform and help iron out the deep seated problems.

The review was about the way the council worked, how it was governed and how that impacted on its effectiveness and productivity.

It was not about what they were doing, but how badly they did it.

A key criticism was that the leaders often do things to the city and people, rather than work with the city and its people.

Both the elected politicians and permanent senior staff were told to show they were getting to grips with the issues within 12 months or the Government would enforce a take-over.

That was over a year before the EU Referendum and yet we are still here.

Birmingham council chamber

We are now on the third council leader and third chief executive since Kerslake.

There have routinely been signs of progress. But every time there is a failure to deliver, budgets spiral out of control or - in the case of the bin strike - the fragility of the situation was exposed by a major crisis.

A persistent problem during this period of austerity is no one wants to make cuts and many proposed and announced in consultation are either resisted by staff and management, or blocked by politicians with one eye on the next election.

Spectre of more mass cuts in Birmingham as council says 'very difficult decisions' to be taken 'without delay'

Birmingham City Council is a massive organisation, with a £3 billion turnover, and there are areas of strength and good practice – the house building arm BMHT seems to be successful, as well as areas of poor performance – waste and recycling and children’s services, for example.

There is, of course, hope for the future.

With a four-year term for all councillors, as dictated by Kerslake, there is time for longer-term thinking and planning – although making cuts is likely to prove just as difficult, unpopular and problematic as they were before.

We also have the promise of a new period of stability and focus under a (sort of) new leader Ian Ward and new permanent chief executive Dawn Baxendale.

So it was troubling to see that the Birmingham Independent Improvement Panel is growing impatient.

John Crabtree
John Crabtree

It’s chairman John Crabtree said, and probably not for the first time: “Time is running out and we need to see real progress.”

However, at the current rate of progress the UK will have gone through the massive process of voting for Brexit and left the European Union before the city council has got its house in order.

Is too much ground being given on affordable housing?

The city council’s aim of getting 35 per cent affordable housing from new development is just a pipe dream, as we have discovered during our joint investigation with the Huffington Post news site.

This is particularly true of private development, where affordable levels of around ten per cent are achieved - and usually only after agonisingly difficult negotiation.

We will leave aside the justified claim that at 80 per cent of market price an affordable house remains unaffordable to a majority of working Brummies.

Parts of the development industry are also programmed to want to extract maximum profit from every brick laid, as well as regulate the supply of land and homes to keep prices high.

I have previously commented that our planning system is highly permissive and designed to encourage development to keep the construction industry and wider economy busy.

Development is presumed to be allowed unless there are strong and legally watertight reasons against it – which is why so many protest campaigns lose.

It is also the case that at the height of the post-2008 building slump a new “deed of variation” rule allowed developers to waive their affordable housing commitment if it broke the business case for development and they would have to scrap the building altogether.

Houses at full market price were better than no houses at all – and when there’s a national housing shortage who could argue with that.

This policy lost Birmingham about 1,000 affordable homes in recent years according to the charity Shelter.

This is a national issue and the Government has indeed set house building as a priority.

But something can be done locally to alleviate the situation.

As former cabinet member for housing Peter Griffiths points out too many developers continue to try to wriggle out of such pledges, backtracking on affordable housing and community spin-offs – like sports facilities, play areas and road improvements.

One set of figures from a developer he looked at assumed affordable sale rates of 60 per cent, not 80 per cent, which allowed them to plead poverty if forced to build them.

There were other parts of the accounts which also did not stand up to close scrutiny.

So he suggests the planning department gets an independent expert in to run their eye over these “deed of variation” reports and see if they really do stack up.

If a consultant was brought in to scan them, or even just a random sample and give an independent assessment, we would either see the end to “back of a fag packet” business cases, or at least have confidence that developers are genuine in their submission.

But at the moment we have neither.