A hard-hitting investigation into Birmingham City Council's devolution experiment contains more than enough pithy comments to make local authority leaders sit up and think, says Chief Reporter Paul Dale...
The general message from a scrutiny committee inquiry into devolution is that the move to shift the delivery of services away from the Council House to 11 mini-town halls - the boldest attempt at local government devolution anywhere in Britain - is badly under-achieving.
There has been some improvement in bringing decision making closer to communities, but the pace of change is patchy and slow.
Most damning, the 186-page scrutiny report questions whether the council's political and managerial leadership actually believes in devolution at all.
The 11 district committees based on the city's parliamentary constituencies, which were planned by the council's former Labour leadership, came into existence in the summer of 2004, just as political control was changing to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition.
Conservatives had always been highly sceptical about a Labour pledge that devolution could be introduced on a cost-neutral basis, while the Liberal Democrats were more concerned that the plans for rolling out service delivery did not go far enough.
Devolution was, therefore, a subject that was always likely to test the unity of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition.
The devolution inquiry was chaired by Mick Wilkes, who resigned as chairman of the main council scrutiny committee in May. Coun Wilkes (Lib Dem Hall Green), who has a reputation for forensic investigation, did not endear himself to council leaders earlier this year by producing a highly critical report on the split-site library plan.
His swan song, the scrutiny of devolution, is bound to ruffle just as many feathers.
On the question of finance, Coun Wilkes's report points out that it has proved impossible to estimate the cost of localisation since the council does not collect information about the cost of devolution.
All that can be said for certain is that a £1.3 million transitional budget has been swallowed up and that office costs for the district committees are running at £300,000 more than estimated.
The report's conclusions, while pointing to "worthwhile accomplishments against the odds", goes on to talk about a lack of evidence of radical improvements in service delivery.
The committee found that the devolution approach was not embedded in the culture and operations of the city council.
It said: "Frustration was possibly the word we most commonly heard from witnesses in pointing to resistance in various parts of the organisation.
"To this was added the view that the agenda had run out of steam and even that the policy was on the verge of being reversed."
The report urges council leader Mike Whitby (above) and chief executive Stephen Hughes to state publicly their commitment to devolution.
"We see the need for a strong clear signal from the executive that, now a thorough review has been undertaken, devolution is a lasting feature of our landscape and that its full potential benefits will be exploited in the interests of the citizens of Birmingham.
"The direction of change should be towards more local influence and discretion, not less, and there should be clarity over the position to be reached in the medium term."
The scrutiny committee heard evidence that the financial information given to district committees to allow them to control their sizeable budgets, ranging between £7 million and £15 million, was "inadequate, unstable and not up to date".
Relations between the district committee chairmen and the council cabinet were described as poor, with no constructive discussions between the cabinet and the committees about preparation of the budget for 2006/07.
Council managers running the new districts took an even gloomier view.
Focus groups set up by the scrutiny inquiry were told that financial resources were constantly squeezed, leading to cuts and low morale. Communication had worsened since devolution, while services had neither improved nor declined.
The scrutiny report added: "There was widespread agreement that the financial information available to districts and district committees was inadequate, unstable and not sufficiently up to date to make budget and service decisions.
"District management could spend most of a day planning on the basis of recently given financial information only to have the work rendered useless by new information the following day.
"Concern was also raised at having to operate in an environment of centrally driven cuts which removed the opportunity for any genuine efficiencies that had been identified to be used for service improvements."
The overriding message from the scrutiny inquiry - that devolution has not been culturally accepted by the council - will come as no surprise to anyone with an interest in local government.
District committee chairmen gave examples of their authority being overruled, often on trivial matters.
Committees agreed to spend money on extra removal of graffiti only to discover their decisions were met by "management resistance and inaction".
And, if anyone thought devolution was about empowering communities, the scrutiny inquiry found little evidence that this was happening.
"The format and formality of district committee meetings tended to discourage public involvement in these forums," the report added.