A senior member of the Birmingham cabinet has admitted the city council’s Conservative-Lib Dem coalition had not done enough since taking office four years ago to tackle stubbornly high unemployment and poverty.
Neville Summerfield, who holds the regeneration portfolio, said areas such as Kings Heath and Hall Green were “scrapping around for farthings” while the majority of investment in infrastructure improvement and job creation went to the city centre.
He announced a new emphasis on targeting worklesness – the Government’s measure of people out of work and claiming benefit – and promised an announcement soon about “significant sums of money” to generate employment in suburbs.
Coun Summerfield (Con Brandwood), who succeeded the late Ken Hardeman as regeneration cabinet member last year, was delivering his second six-monthly report to the full city council. While describing a projected £17 billion investment programme over the next 10 years, much of it in the city centre, as “excellent”, Coun Summerfield accepted cross-party criticism the city’s outlying neighbourhoods were suffering high levels of unemployment.
He said: “The worklessness programme is at the top of our agenda. The present administration needs to grasp the agenda because I don’t think we have done as much as we should do. We are committed to make a difference.
“It is important that we take regeneration out of the city centre. There is a whole raft of initiatives and we will be measuring these to make sure they produce results. This is something we are very focused on.”
Projects singled out by Coun Summerfield for praise included the Arena Central and V Building development off Broad Street, where preliminary work began in April, the construction of Birmingham’s first five-star hotel at Snow Hill, the £600 million refurbishment of New Street Station and the new Library of Birmingham in Centenary Square.
He said there was no indication that the economic slow-down was delaying or halting any of the flagship regeneration projects planned to take place over the next few years.
However, Springfield Lib Dem councillor Jerry Evans, who chairs the Hall Green constituency committee, said there was a contrast between the “exciting” transformation of the city centre and many inner city wards where unemployment ranged between 15 and 30 per cent.
Coun Evans said: “These are the very wards where we have strong demographic growth and if we don’t address this problem now the position will get worse as time goes by.”
He said backbench councillors often felt removed from decisions about how money for regeneration should be spent.
Community and voluntary organisations were being “left to die” because spending decisions were being taken by the cabinet or by remote bodies such as the Learning and Skills Council. There was no evidence that a promise by the cabinet to involve constituency chairmen in spending the £19 million Working Neighbourhoods Fund was being delivered in practice, he added.
Sparkbrook councillor Salma Yaqoob (Resp) said: “There is a huge gap between rhetoric and reality. What kind of decision-making powers are local councillors left with? They don’t get a look-in.”
Northfield Conservative councillor Reg Corns added: “Regeneration should be about the people living in our city. Sometimes I think they are not really taken into account.
“Families going into high-rise flats have a gun placed at their heads. They are only given one offer, take it or that’s it.”
Coun Corns said he believed families offered accommodation in tower blocks should also be given a firm timetable setting out when they could expect to be moved to more suitable accommodation.