It is always tempting to have some fun at the expense of Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby, whose attempts at communicating the corporate message do not always go quite to plan.
But we shall resist labouring the obvious comment that an interview he gave suggesting the NEC, ICC and other assets could be sold to wealthy Arab investors was almost a text book example of how not to conduct public relations.
A somewhat mealy-mouthed “clarification” insisting that his remarks had been misinterpreted followed by a hurriedly arranged radio interview in which he said there were no plans to dispose of the NEC, Symphony Hall and Birmingham Airport, appear at first sight to settle the issue.
Wisely, though, he did not say that the city would never sell the stake it has in these buildings and businesses. With the council facing an unprecedented financial squeeze, having to identify about £330 million in savings over the next four years, why on earth would he he tie himself down in such a way and rule out what could be a valuable income stream?
His comments, inevitably written off dismissively in some quarters as a “selling the crown jewels” proposal, have already raised a lively debate within the ranks of Conservative councillors.
It is no great secret that some Tories have long advocated disposing of the NEC and selling shares in Birmingham Airport. Two reasons are usually put forward to support this strategy, the first being that it is sound business sense to cash in on valuable assets when times are hard and the second, more compelling from a Conservative point of view, is that councils simply aren’t very good at running conference centres and should not be in the business of doing so. The same can be said for loss-making golf courses, which the council is already in the process of handing over to private sector operators.
Could it be that Coun Whitby is being rather cleverer and far more subtle than many people take him for?
The interview he gave, far from ham-fisted, could in fact have been an astute attempt to open a debate about the future ownership of assets like the NEC and Symphony Hall. All that the council leader has to do now, having lit the blue touch paper, is stand back and see what develops. There may be a crackerjack explosion of wrath from the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, or quite possibly a consensus that no money making venture can be ruled out at the moment could emerge.
When he talks about inviting partnerships with Middle East investors, Coun Whitby does not necessarily mean handing complete control to outside bodies. Sovereign fundholders might find it attractive to invest in a share of, say, the NEC, and the council would certainly welcome the cash that might generate.
It is an area to explore, but not in the unsatisfactory way in which the debate has so far been conducted. If there are proposals on the horizon to sell some or all of the council’s interest in Birmingham’s great civic organisations, then let us have an open discussion rather than coded messages in media interviews.