The constitutional arrangements of Birmingham City Council are rarely the stuff of headlines.
But one exception to this rule came out of the decision taken by Sir Albert Bore in 2012 to scrap the role of cabinet member for housing and absorb housing staff into a wider “place” directorate.
Sir Albert’s overhaul of the council structure had been designed to break up the direct relationship between cabinet members and their departments which they had previously operated as their own little fiefdoms – sometimes in direct competition with each other.
He even scattered the responsibility – giving management of the city’s vast council housing stock to one cabinet member, while making another responsible for planning and development of new housing.
Councillors complained that their correspondence with constituents’ regarding housing bounced around the Council House as various officials and cabinet members decided the issue was somebody else’s problem. If they did not know who was responsible, then what chance would tenants have.
It all gave the impression that housing was not a priority. Especially as it was on Sir Albert’s watch in 2002 that the council attempted to sell its entire housing stock to housing associations, while building up a massive backlog of repairs.
Critics, such as former housing officer turned inner-city community activist Desmond Jaddoo, called for the reinstatement of a housing supremo claiming there was no strategic vision.
Sir Albert’s successor John Clancy has made a big deal of housing, in his successful leadership campaign and then by making it first on his list of medium-term priorities (after immediate concerns like child protection and the budget).
He has long highlighted the lack of innovative thinking on housing.
Birmingham is one of Britain’s largest social landlords with a stock of more than 60,000 houses; he believes this is an asset which if looked after can be used to lever in investment.
In a dig at his predecessor, he said: “It has been seen as a problem, a real drain on the city council, something to get rid of,” and added that he would celebrate council housing and invest in the existing stock.
The need for 80,000-plus homes over the next 20 years or so is also a major headache for the authority but Coun Clancy argues that the council can play a part in developing both new private homes for sale and council homes for rent.
The Municipal Housing Trust has taken pigeon steps since its foundation in 2010, but now needs to go further he suggests and build thousands, not hundreds of homes a year – perhaps using council workers’ pension funds to raise the capital.
Coun Clancy explained to the corporate services scrutiny committee how he wants to strengthen links with housing associations and the quality end of the private rented sector to raise housing standards across the city – part of his commitment to partnership working.
So it was down to committee member Ken Wood (Cons, Sutton New Hall) to suggest he beef up the commitment to housing and look at reinstating the directorate and by implication perhaps the cabinet member.
Coun Clancy’s reply was that after May, when he is free from his pledge not to tinker with the cabinet, he would look again at it. “We do need to have a very clear place in our constitution for housing,” he explained.
Green belt still earmarked
While the Conservative opposition, who have long argued they have proved better stewards of Birmingham’s council housing than Labour, will have been pleased at the new leader’s commitment to housing, they received no such comfort over the plans for the green belt .
Coun Clancy explained the council’s best estimate is that there is space for about 39,000 homes on brownfield sites scattered about the city, while the projected demand is at least double that.
While neighbouring councils may provide some extra space for overspill development – there is going to be no reprieve for the green belt sites currently earmarked in Sutton Coldfield under the Clancy administration.
Back peddling along the boundaries
There have been further protests at the Boundary Commission review of Birmingham’s council wards – with residents in the Jewellery Quarter and north of Edgbaston adding to the clamour for an overhaul.
So it was odd to hear Coun Clancy at the scrutiny committee back peddling furiously as he clarified his call for a ‘complete rethink’ of the proposals.
It was not a whole-hearted demand to tear up the plan, he explained, but a call for a rethink in those neighbourhoods where there are objections – something the Boundary Commission is duty bound to do after consultation closes.
The clue to his sudden reticence came in the question from Conservative councillor Gary Sambrook, who pointed out the commission’s draft proposals mirrored about 75 per cent of a Labour Party suggestion submitted late last year.
In north Birmingham and Erdington, he said, the draft plan matched the Labour proposal down to the ‘last cul-de-sac’.
Given that the Birmingham Labour party has detailed street level canvassing statistics, might they have made suggestions which put their electoral interests above those of community harmony?
And might some back-benchers have reminded their leader of the fact.