Since taking control of Birmingham City Council almost 18 months ago there has been a lot of rhetoric, scene setting and consultation exercises but very little concrete policy action from the ruling Labour group.
We have had conversations and lots of details about cuts, the infamous ‘Jaws of Doom’ and why things can’t go on as they have before: “It’s the end of local government as we know it” was council leader Sir Albert Bore’s grim and frequently repeated assessment.
But back bench Labour councillors have grumbled that while bashing the Coalition Government for austerity is all very well, apart from adopting the living wage for staff and introducing wheelie bins, there is nothing positive they can sell to voters.
In fact there is a severe worry that the new £35 per year charge for the previously free green waste collection – due to be introduced during the 2014 local election campaign – could hit them hard.
Instead of concrete action, we have been hit with a barrage of green papers and discussion documents covering the whole range of city council activity including transport, social services, leisure centres, information technology and housing. Citizens have been promised conversations, dialogues and meaningful consultation.
In most cases nothing has been ruled out, as long as the proposals comply with a few guiding principles.
A good example was the Smart City document, the policy by which Birmingham – both the council and the wider city – will be brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century, talked about ‘challenges’, demanded innovation and promised to develop things in ‘previously unimaginable ways’ without actually making any tangible proposals.
Coupled with this there has been much navel gazing with council structures and processes under the spotlight. Next week sees an inquiry into ‘public engagement’ launched.
But all that is about to change as, with the politicians and officers returning from their summer breaks, it is make your mind up time.
Leader Sir Albert Bore and his cabinet must come up with firm proposals and ideas.
We have already been promised a follow up to the Smart City document which will include all the details and timetables for implementation of these ‘unimaginable’ policies.
The policy proposals on social services, the housing plan, and the great ten-year transport plan are also due to be fully revealed between now and the end of the year.
These plans, if as radical and far reaching as billed, could give the grumbling back benchers the shot in the arm they need as the election season approaches.
But if the cabinet gets it wrong the knives will almost certainly come out – from both the opposition and more importantly within the Labour group.
The next two to three months ahead could be the most crucial of Sir Albert’s second term as leader. It’s make or break time for the administration.
The Library of Birmingham finally opens its doors with a fanfare celebration and festivities plannedfor weeks ahead. But one wonders will Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore be an enthusiastic participant?
He had, of course, a decade ago promoted a very different library plan – drawn up by architect Richard Rogers – to be built at Eastside as part of a learning and education quarter.
This was torn up by the Tories and Lib Dems after they took control in 2004.
Perhaps an indication of his enthusiasm for the scheme came in his annual leader’s statement at the start of the summer.
Whereas his predecessor Lord Mike Whitby would have gushed about a ‘world class library’ and facilities which would be the envy of cities everywhere, Sir Albert restricted his commentary to ‘in September we will open the Library of Birmingham’.
Hardly a ringing endorsement
One person who always seems, to those of us on the outside of the Labour group, above the grubby rough and tumble of political in-fighting is the head of scrutiny Coun Carl Rice.
A calm but firm individual, he is not given to open criticism or mixing things up for the sake of it.
But he has now written to the council’s business management committee – chaired by his Ladywood colleague Sir Albert Bore – to ask why his last scrutiny committee report was nodded through the city council meeting without debate or comment.
Over the last year Sir Albert has cut the montly council meeting from six plus hours to about four hours – partly to remove the need for a taxpayer funded dinner in between and partly to cut time wasted by grandstanding politicians sounding off about how wonderful they all are – which is generally what used to happen during a 45-minute cabinet member’s report.
But at the same time he increased the period for question time from the half-hour free for all to a structured session lasting up to an hour and a half – at times this has been a tortuous affair.
The upshot is that some of the decent stuff in the middle is also missed out. Full council rarely has time to fully discuss backbench reports and even motions for debate – some have been proposed, seconded and approved without comment.
In his letter Coun Rice says of his last report that debate was curtailed and no one was allowed speak. “Considerable time, effort and enthusiasm goes into scrutiny reports and this should not be disregarded in this way.”
The opposition Lib Dem leader Paul Tilsley has complained most vocally over the cutting of the full council meeting but his problem is that the Labour leadership had little cause to listen to his complaints.
But when its own scrutiny chairman – elected by the majority of the Labour group – complains the leadership should sit up and take notice.
No wonder Coun Tilsley has emailed colleagues officially welcoming Coun Rice to the ‘campaign for a democratic Birmingham’.