Mike Whitby has been reminding people that, with eight years in office, he was the second longest serving council leader in Birmingham’s history. With the hand-over of power to Labour under way, Neil Elkes looks back at his legacy
Two years ago, as David Cameron and Nick Clegg forged the Coalition Government, the nation’s political media descended on Birmingham to see how a Conservative-Liberal Democrat team-up could work.
The two parties had been sharing control of Birmingham City Council since 2004 and had been praised for turning around struggling services they inherited such as housing and adult social care.
A major efficiency drive was getting under way, and construction was starting on huge projects such as New Street Station and the new Library of Birmingham.
But, even as Tory leader Mike Whitby and Liberal Democrat deputy leader Paul Tilsley posed for the cameras, it was already becoming clear that the Birmingham coalition’s days could be numbered in the wake of significant Labour gains in the 2010 election.
This decline has been accelerating as the national government has become progressively more unpopular amid huge austerity cuts, despite the city council’s best efforts at damage limitation.
Like the national coalition, Birmingham’s marriage of Tories to Lib Dems was a result of prevailing national factors, in their case the 2003 Iraq war, and a mutual distrust of Labour.
In 2003-4 Mike Whitby came forward as Tory leader and immediately agreed a pact to prop up Sir Albert Bore’s Labour administration which was a couple of seats short of an overall majority, in return for a few influential scrutiny committee positions for his colleagues.
At the 2003 election Labour had lost several “safe” inner city seats to Liberal Democrats and Justice Party candidates as Muslim voters protested at the Tony Blair Government’s part in the “war on terror” – this was eventually to have dramatic repercussions for the city’s political landscape.
By the 2004 local election Labour was in danger of losing control and its desperate candidates in Aston and Bordesley Green took to postal vote fraud on an industrial scale to save their skins, in an act which “would have shamed a banana republic”, according to judge Richard Mawrey QC who oversaw the subsequent election court.
That election saw no party in overall control, but most outsiders assumed that Sir Albert’s Labour group would, as the largest single party, make a deal with either Mike Whitby’s Tories or Yardley MP John Hemming’s Lib Dems.
But with Hemming angered at Labour allegedly turning a blind eye to the vote fraud and Whitby knowing he could only be the junior partner in a Labour coalition, the two held talks and formed what they called a “progressive partnership”.
Coun Whitby said: “I think Labour took our partnership for granted, they expected an agreement. But I found it easy to deal with John Hemming. We forged a partnership of independent political parties.
“Our deal with Labour a year earlier had also given our senior councillors some experience of running committees and working with the executive. This proved very useful.”
It is also worth remembering that the council they inherited has been performing poorly, with its housing department in danger of direct Government intervention after building up a backlog of 49,000 repairs and its social services department failing.
That’s not to say that Labour did not have a few projects in the pipeline – a new £160 million library had been planned and designed for the new Eastside Park and the UK’s largest private finance initiative deal to maintain Birmingham’s roads was being drawn up.
Sir Albert also claims that he had begun, with development agency Advantage West Midlands, to pull together funding for a New Street Station rebuild, but Mike Whitby insists there was nothing in place when he took over in June 2004.
The new Progressive Partnership set out with several key aims – to keep council tax rises below inflation. They set the rise at 1.9 per cent each year until the government pushed for council tax freezes last year, and the Birmingham coalition aimed to raise the ratings of the council’s failing departments, to improve efficiency and improve “quality of life” ratings.
From the Liberal Democrat side there was also a keenness to follow a green agenda, for which they have rightly been recognised.
It was sometimes felt that Coun Whitby was too remote from the day-to-day services, such as recycling and bin collections, housing, schools, social care, and that his focus was on big projects – the airport extension, New Street Station, city centre development and, of course, the Library of Birmingham.
He would argue that his cabinet were capable people.
Housing, under the firebrand Tory John Lines, and social care, under the effective Lib Dem Sue Anderson, were soon performing better. Even education has seen modest improvements in exam results after years of treading water.
But a key failure has been children’s social services, where cases like the tragic starving to death of Khyra Ishaq highlighted severe shortcomings in the department.
Serious case reviews, government inspections and the council’s own warts and all inquiry were all damning in the condemnation.
Special focus was placed on the division, but it is still too early to assess the impact of a top down reorganisation in the light of those criticisms.
There have also been, in recent years, clashes with the workforce, particularly refuse collectors, as efficiency drives have targeted what the council saw as generous working practices and terms and conditions. Some of these had left the city open to hefty equal pay claims which could yet run into hundreds of millions of pounds.
Coun Whitby sees his successes as the major projects and marketing of the city abroad, at the international property convention MIPIM and in the Middle East, India and China – to attract investment.
He would highlight the visit to Birmingham last year of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao as a sign of that blossoming trade relationship.
“We have 73 per cent satisfaction ratings and projects in the pipeline which will bring 100,000 new jobs. We have cleaned the streets and transformed the image of Birmingham,” he says.
He can reel off a long list of projects – the Big City Plan, the growth of speculative office development, Alexander Stadium development, the £20 million loan to Warwickshire County Cricket Club to develop Edgbaston, leading the New Street Station steering group toward the £650 million Gateway scheme – and claims the controversial High Speed Rail 2 line would never have a branch line from Birmingham International into the city centre without his council’s lobbying.
But it is with the £187 million Library of Birmingham that he will be most closely linked. He inherited the Richard Rogers-designed proposal for Eastside but decided that should be scrapped.
There then ensued a farcical couple of years of deliberation and counter proposals for split-site library and various locations until, in 2007, just before the economic slump would have rendered the project unaffordable, the Centenary Square plan, including a tie-up with Birmingham Rep theatre, was confirmed.
It remains to be seen how much the sale of the old Central Library site in Paradise Circus will raise to offset the cost of the new library to the taxpayer.
Whitby’s critics from within his own party have described it as a socialist scheme, but he has never been one to be bound by political dogma. “I was determined to get a world class library in the city centre,” he explained.
It is now apparent that having been hailed as an inspiration to the Tory-Lib Dem Coalition Government, it is that Government’s performance which has ended the life of its Birmingham forbear.
* Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition record 2004-2012
Inherited backlog of 49,000 repairs and failing department. John Lines steadied the ship, fixed houses, stopped pay outs to no-win no-fee lawyers, took more than 99 per cent of properties to decent homes standard and restarted council house building for first time in generation.
Sue Anderson managed to turn round failing department. Lost children’s services to education. Began closing out of date care homes and their replacement with new retirement villages and specialist nursing homes or commissioning private sector places.
But recently had to make u-turn on attempts to cut care packages following court challenge.
Children’s Social Care
A disaster for the administration after the department was taken over by education. Khrya Ishaq and other cases brought shame on the city and highlighted serious failings. Improvement plan only just in place.
Schools have had a rocky time, building schools programme cut by Government, increasing number of academies and free schools removing pupils from council control. U-turn this year over youth service cuts.
Crippled by indecision during early years. Took long time to win funding for Metro, while much confusion over bus lanes and car share lanes.
Runway extension at Airport finally agreed. Eventually the £2.7 billion Highways contract deal done in 2010. Improvements now in progress.
With savings to be realised by 2020 jury is still out on this. New offices have replaced old buildings and there have been problems with call centre and website costs. Both are improvements on before but still not achieving satisfactory performance.
Made significant progress with new heat and power systems, reduce energy bills and cutting carbon emissions. But Labour believes they can go further.