Labour officially took the reins of power in Birmingham after eight years on the opposition benches. In his first interview since becoming council leader, Sir Albert Bore says he aims to battle the 'injustice' of the city's funding. Neil Elkes reports.
Labour leader Sir Albert Bore said he wanted to hit the ground running after his return to the city council hot seat – and within hours, a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron over funding has already been secured.
His first speech as leader saw him call for a fair deal for Birmingham, claiming that the city, with all its complexities and inequalities, had been unfairly hit by government budget cuts.
It has been a theme of recent Labour election campaigns where the cuts of £312 million in the council’s budget, or £164 per head of the city’s population, is compared to the cuts in Wokingham district council in Berkshire – which amount to about £20 per head.
He called on the outgoing Tory leader Mike Whitby and his former Lib Dem deputy Paul Tilsley, who has openly criticised the Department for Communities and Local Government over the ‘draconian’ cuts, and city MPs of all parties to join him when he goes to Downing Street.
Sir Albert told the Birmingham Post: “Across every area of public spending we see this injustice towards Birmingham. Birmingham is being asked to take a share of the 1,250 police officers coming off the streets of the West Midlands while Surrey will get an increase of 69.
“While the West Midlands Fire Brigade is losing £9.2 million between 2011 and 2013, Tory Hampshire will see an increase of nearly £2 million.
“I invite the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats councillors to join us in demanding Birmingham’s fair share. A city as great as Birmingham should be united in demanding our fair share.”
And at Prime Minister’s Questions his call was answered as, following a question from Erdington MP Jack Dromey, Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to meet a Birmingham delegation and said he hoped Labour would run the city as well as the Tory-Lib Dem coalition had.
Sir Albert has already shaken things up with a root and branch overhaul of the council’s constitution, turning Cabinet members from department heads to policy advocates and devolving power over many day-to-day services – libraries, parks, housing, household refuse collection and street cleaning – to the ten districts. He claims that by giving cabinet members policy briefs rather than departments the council might finally make a difference to Birmingham’s appalling inner-city areas of deprivation, inequalities in life-expectancy and education and, most importantly, restore its reputation as an economic power and become ‘Britain’s capital of enterprise’.
And he is demanding high levels of energy from his administration, as well as of himself in running the city council’s £3.5 billion budget and continuing as chairman of the University Hospitals Trust.
While his eight-strong cabinet will be pushing their individual policy agendas, the priority for all will be jobs and development. With more than 50,000 unemployed in Birmingham, that has to be the Labour administration’s aim, he argues.
“It is the number one priority,” he said. “In education we will create the qualifications and skills needed. In our contracts we will look to buy Brummie.”
His predecessors of course would argue that through New Street Station and Metro developments and other major projects they were too in the business of job creation.
Sir Albert said: “We will deliver more job opportunities. And when we talk about creating jobs, it is not about the council workforce, it is our aim to create the environment in which job opportunities can come about. This is not a goal which is unachievable.”
One key change will allow the council to judge companies seeking contracts or providing services on their ability to buy Brummie, create jobs or apprenticeships locally and offer a living wage to staff, as well as those tried and tested ‘value for the taxpayer’ criteria.
This new Business Charter for Social Responsibility will be applied to new contracts issued by his administration.
The new Cabinet member for jobs, development and skills, Nechells Coun Tahir Ali, will be leading the way on attracting inward investment with a key aim to secure jobs and manufacturing on the Alstom/LDV sites to the east of the city centre.
When set aside for the HS2 train maintenance depot, the site would have lain idle for more than a decade.
“Too long,” says Sir Albert.
“We need to use that site now. We will work with the private sector, the land owners and major businesses like Jaguar and MG Rover to see what components they need making locally. We will actively pursue those facilities.
“In education, we are setting up the Birmingham Baccalaureate and asking schools and colleges to provide the training the 21st industry needs.”
One example he is fond of highlighting is the school which stopped woodwork classes and replaced them with computer code classes. And this is all linked to the drive towards Birmingham being the enterprise capital.
He said: “Birmingham was once known the world over for its ability to design and make things, and it can be known for that again.
“We already have 400 motor designers at Longbridge. This region has expertise in design. This will be fundamental to becoming an enterprise capital.”
Another bold pre-election pledge was to accelerate the council’s house building programme towards a target of 70,000 homes by 2026 – about 3,000 a year.
He explains that will be via the council’s own Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust, which is already using council land as leverage to build about 500 homes a year, social landlords and private sector house builders.
“Seventy-thousand is not a figure plucked out of the air. It is the expected housing demand for Birmingham. We will be talking to the registered social landlords, to the private sector and using a range of financial packages to deliver affordable homes.”
He cites the previous administration’s St Lukes development in Highgate which saw the council, Wilmott Dixon and WM Housing Group join forces on the construction and running of 400 homes. The details of these proposals, plans and pledges will become clearer when Sir Albert makes a leader’s policy statement at the City Council meeting on June 12.