There are too many unknown unknowns for us to be certain about the future, Birmingham adults and communities director Peter Hay told the city council cabinet in a passable imitation of former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Mr Hay was referring to his cunning plan to save about £16 million a year by axing 405 jobs from the adults’ social care unit.
The levels of management in his department are to be reduced from eight to a mere six, so you can tell it’s deadly serious.
Although more managers could be appointed if a strong business case can be put forward, “which no one has yet been able to do”, Mr Hay added with a note of triumph in his voice. But he doesn’t actually know whether all this restructuring will work, given the financial pressure on social services to look after all those people who are thoughtlessly living into their 80s and 90s expecting a quality of life that does not involve sitting all day in a circle of chairs in some dingy nursing home.
Unknown unknowns is not something the cabinet wants to hear about, particularly at the pre-Christmas meeting when everyone secretly longs to finish early and get out to the Frankfurt market for beer and bratwurst. There is something reassuringly predictable this time of the year about music drifting up from the bar in Victoria Square, with its goofy moose-head belting out the sounds – White Christmas sung in a guttural German accent and a carol to the tune of The Red Flag, which makes Labour councillors go all misty-eyed – and you just know everyone outside is having such a jolly old time.
Quite a spiffing time in the cabinet room, too, where deputy Labour group leader Ian Ward had been left in charge of opposing the Tories and Lib Dems in the absence of Sir Albert Bore. Coun Ward, aka Son of Albert, is so reasonable these days, praising the coalition when praise is due, that it must be time to breathe new life into a nasty rumour doing the rounds a few years ago that he might be ready to jump ship and join the Tories.
This is a cabinet that’s been together for so long now that you know instinctively what is going to be said.
You just know that Les Lawrence, the cabinet member for children, young people and families, is going to come across like a Just a Minute panellist, speaking in that strange staccato way favoured by the late Kenneth Williams, using five words when one would do. Lawrence did not disappoint, referring to “on-going continual dialogue and close working with partners” when he probably meant to say “talking to colleagues”.
And you can be certain that the mere mention of the new library will bring out the worst in the politicians, even in the season of peace and goodwill to all men.
Ian Ward, stirring from his slumbers, could not resist pointing out that Labour’s plan to build the library at Eastside, in an “iconic” building designed by Lord Rogers, could have been delivered for £179 million, while the coalition’s plan to build the library in Centenary Square is, allegedly, costing £193 million. Also, the Rogers’ library would have been bigger and better than what the council intends to build on a cramped site between the Rep theatre and Baskerville House, he claimed.
Council leader Mike Whitby’s Tory attack dogs, Alan Rudge and John Lines, countered by pointing out that Labour’s grand plan was never properly costed and the money to deliver the Rogers’ library never existed. An airy-fairy proposal, according to Rudge, while Lines merely countered that he had never, ever, come across anyone expressing a wish to have the library at Eastside. Even so, the ability of the library to take a new twist never fails to amaze. This truly is the greatest story ever told.
The latest claim and counter-claim, in a week where events have moved at a rare old pace, is as follows: Mike Whitby announced “major” savings to the £193 million cost, which turned out to be less than £5 million, about two per cent, while it later emerged that the council intends to borrow £135 million over 40 years, at a total cost of £300 million, to fund the project.
So the final cost will not be “significantly” less than £193 million, as Coun Whitby suggested, but substantially more than £300 million. Taking into account Whitby’s reduction of £5 million, plus an additional £5 million to be shaved from the contingency fund, the final bill will be about £350 million.
And finally, the cabinet member for regeneration, Neville Summerfield, has confirmed suspicions that his involvement in delivering the library is nil. He hasn’t even seen an interior design plan, he told a scrutiny committee. But, hey, who cares when Mike’s in charge?