The popular view out in the real world is that public services are going down the pan fast – and this week the city council cabinet has reinforced that view with a series of damning facts and figures.
Its annual performance report threw up the sad fact that 62 per cent of key targets were missed in 2014/15 and the majority of those were worse than they were the previous year.
Most troubling was that only 22 per cent of the targets covering services for vulnerable people like the elderly, homeless, children in care and the disabled are being met. These include waiting times for assessments and responses to complaints.
Even the relatively successful economic development department, which is charged with generating investment, jobs and growth, only met 57 per cent of its targets.
We are told action is in hand to turn this around.
Whether or not that is the case, it adds further credibility to the charges made by Lord Bob Kerslake in his report that Birmingham City Council is failing as an organisation to provide for its citizens.
As the report was presented at Cabinet, opposition Tory leader Robert Alden thanked the Labour leadership for their honesty, but warned ‘the reality is that 62 per cent of targets are being missed, but most damning is that 50 per cent of them are deteriorating. The direction of travel is very concerning’.
What is of real concern is that the struggling children’s services department, currently under the close scrutiny of the Department for Education and part-way through a three-year improvement plan, is by far the main source of the problems. Of 21 targets associated with child protection, only five were met.
But this also has given the Labour leadership a get-out – being 12 months into a three-year plan they have bought some time.
Cabinet member Brigid Jones explained that there had been a focus on stabilising the management structure, filling vacancies and reducing workloads. All of these were being achieved, which means they have allowed other parts of the service to slip – such as the time scales for children in care case reviews which were 28 per cent below target.
There has traditionally been a bit of a non-aggression pact between the political parties when it comes to children’s services – not only have the problems straddled different administrations and governments but no one wants to make political capital out of child abuse and care services.
But Birmingham has a real problem coping with the demand for complex child safeguarding services and after seeing the situation steadfastly fail to improve over six years, we are seeing little sign of any progress now.
It is of course difficult for those on the outside to know what is happening within the department and whether vulnerable children are getting the care and support they need.
According to the leadership we have to trust that the desired improvements are on the way and that the authorities, including the Government, will ensure this – however, to date no one has covered themselves in glory in this respect.
It does not help when the report is not very clear on how things are going to improve. As Tory Matt Bennett, a former head of children’s care services in the city, pointed out the analysis of bed blocking delays only told us that there are a number of reasons performance was poor and someone is looking at dealing with it. This is hardly going to inspire confidence.
The city council is sitting on £345 million reserves at the same time as pleading poverty. At the outset this looks like that act of a world class miser.
Lib Dem leader Paul Tilsley said it hardly helps the case when Birmingham goes to government with the ‘begging bowl’ while sitting on that little haul.
But before the anti-cuts brigade demand the funds be used to keep the lights on in city council offices, it has now be revealed the vast majority of that cash is ring fenced – handed over by Government and other funding agencies to spend on specific services or committed to set projects.
Deputy leader Ian Ward sad that they can only call on about £26 million of that money to prop up services and called for some ‘greater honesty’ from government ministers who use the higher reserves figures as a justification for cuts. Quite.
Poor Birmingham City Council was dragged somewhat unwittingly to the defence of the European Union by none other than Virgin mogul Richard Branson during a TV interview.
As if to show how small and not at all bureaucratic the European Union is, he said it employs a similar number of staff to Birmingham City Council - the implication being that this continent spanning organisation covering a 300m plus population, with umpteen different languages, is actually lean and efficient. Or, to put it another way, our local authority serving slightly more than a million people is unbelievably bloated.
Sadly however neither is true. A quick scan of both organisations’ websites reveals that the European Union directly employs 23,556 people and Birmingham City Council just 12,559.
Former chairman of Birmingham's planning committee Peter Douglas Osborn spotted this view while attending the funeral of former director of regeneration Clive Dutton this week.
It shows The Shard towering over Southwark Cathedral.
Clive was of course known for his support of large skyscrapers and supporting modern architecture as a means of framing historic buildings - not always to the taste of conservation groups.
Coun Osborn observed: "This a juxtaposition of the old and the new that Clive would have liked."