Officials and politicians at Birmingham City Council were in denial last night after a critical Audit Commission report described the local authority's approach to diversity and equality as weak, while also questioning the quality of leadership at the Council House.
The commission's corporate assessment inspection, examining managerial and political effectiveness, said Birmingham was performing only adequately and the council was unclear about how to improve.
Council leader Mike Whitby, who heads the ruling Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, led a rebuttal exercise which attempted to focus on positive aspects of the commission report.
He insisted the commission's findings represented good news that would "lift the spirits".
A council press release said the commission report, along with two other studies into social care and financial management, represented "the most impressive set of inspection results ever achieved by the council".
However, the commission's detailed report said the council was "a long way from achieving its stated goal of excellence".
It went on: "The council does not have a clear view about what its aim of excellent service means in practice. The council does not provide effective community leadership in addressing local and national challenges including the city region agenda."
Coun Whitby (Con Harborne) insisted: "Birmingham City Council is better run, provides improved value for money and delivers better services than ever before.
"I am delighted that the Government has recognised the momentum which has been building in the city over recent years for continuous service improvement, value for money and strong leadership".
While highlighting areas of good performance, including improved housing and social services, a cleaner environment and better standards in schools, the corporate assessment went on to criticise the lack of long term planning in meeting the needs of older people and a "weak" approach to diversity and equality.
The commission report added: "The council has not been able to provide the leadership needed to take forward the corporate approach needed in such a diverse city.
"The effectiveness of relationships between the council and its key strategic partners is variable. Too many partners feel the council does not engage with them effectively."
The inspection found that the council was performing "adequately" and meeting minimum requirements.
Audit Commission senior manager John Gregory said: "The quality of some important services has improved and the council is becoming better at responding to the expectations of local people. Despite this progress it still has some way to go in developing its approach to working with partners to meet the longer term needs of the area."
Coun Whitby said the commission's criticism did not reflect the council's own market research. Opinion polls showed that public satisfaction with services had risen from 50 per cent to 66 per cent since 2004.
He said the council's record on community cohesion was respected "throughout Europe".
The 2006 corporate assessment was based on a new tougher judging criteria and other councils had seen their ranking fall, while Birmingham remained on an upward path, he insisted.
Council chief executive Stephen Hughes said: "The Audit Commission is saying we are in the main addressing the needs of different communities. But what we haven't necessarily done is join that up within a corporate framework.
"It is not that we are not delivering on the ground. We just haven't joined it up and articulated it as impressively as we might have done."
The council leadership is waiting for the Audit Commission to announce later this month the results of Birmingham's Comprehensive Performance Assessment, which gives an overall ranking for local authority progress.
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* See Tuesday's Birmingham Post for background analysis. The full report by the Audit Commission can be found here.