It is interesting to note that most of the bloggers and tweeters who attended the March meeting of Birmingham City Council, no doubt inspired by a promise to open up to public scrutiny the proceedings of the UK’s largest local authority, did not bother to turn up for the April session.
Perhaps they took the view that, like the supposedly all-powerful Wizard of Oz, a council meeting fails to live up to expectations in real life. Or, to borrow Dr Johnson’s quip about the Giant’s Causeway: worth seeing, but not worth going to see.
Had the bloggers been present, they would have been greeted by a printed notice reminding them of their duty to bow respectfully when the Lord Mayor enters and leaves the room, or when they wish to vacate the council chamber. It appears that the tapping of laptops and clicking of mobile phones disturbed the quaint Ruritanian charm epitomised by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham and his court.
The reminder – tastefully set out on laminated paper – extended to members of the press as well, which must be a first even for a council that in so many ways is still attempting to trade on its 19th century reputation when Birmingham could claim to be the best governed city in Britain without everyone in earshot falling about laughing.
The amusing sideshow of bowing to the Lord Mayor (are Americans who refuse to bow to the Queen exempt?) at least provided a little light relief from what has not been the best of weeks for Birmingham.
A High Court judge took the opportunity afforded by a judicial review to find the council cabinet guilty of taking an unlawful decision to axe £1.4 million grant funding for voluntary organisations. Senior councillors were unaware of their obligation to consult properly and seemed oblivious to their responsibilities under various equalities laws, Mr Justice Blake found in a sharply critical judgment.
A pending judicial review challenging a £53 million cuts plan for adult social services could have far more serious consequences for the council. If the claimants are successful, Birmingham will have to reconsider a decision to scrap council-funded care packages for 4,000 people.
Although there are severe financial strains facing the council’s Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition, which has to save £330 million by 2014, certain projects appear to be immune from the real world of austerity.
Perhaps the basis of a new consultation exercise into social services cuts could be to ask whether Birmingham people think it a good use of their money to pay a London-based public relations agency £100,000-a-year to promote the new civic library?
It is difficult at this stage to envisage just why it is thought necessary to buy-in £8,000-a-month’s worth of PR in an attempt to sell what is, after all, just a library, but no doubt the council leader’s global city mantra has something to do with it.
It also emerged this week that the Birmingham-Solihull Local Enterprise Partnership has chosen its chairman, who turns out to be the managing director of John Lewis, staunch Tory-supporter Andy Street.
We are certain that Mr Street is hugely successful, and that his company’s decision to open a store at New Street Station, or his politics, has nothing whatsoever to do with his LEP appointment, but it speaks volumes when a London-based businessman is chosen over high-flying candidates based in Birmingham with greater knowledge of the LEP area.