Sir Bob Kerslake, the Department for Communities & Local Government’s permanent secretary, has concluded his investigation into Birmingham City Council arising from the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal. His report makes for disturbing reading.
It calls for “radical improvements”. Sir Bob doesn’t rule out that idea that the authority should be broken up if reforms are not forthcoming – although that is not his preference.
Sir Bob calls for an “Improvement Panel” and recommended changing the election of councillors to an all-out election rather than by thirds.
With stunning ineptitude, Sir Albert Bore, the Labour council leader, responds with a partisan complaint that “the report does not recognise explicitly the impending financial crisis in local public services across the country.”
So far as splitting the council up is concerned, Sir Bob told the Local Government Chronicle that..
“..the disadvantages outweigh the advantages” at this moment in time because it would be “very disruptive”. It was “not straightforward to see where you would draw the lines in Birmingham to create new authorities”, he said.
“We weren’t sure it would impact per se on the issues that Birmingham needed to deal with because they are not intrinsic to its size. The size of Birmingham has led to a ‘Birmingham knows best’ silo-based culture and we think that needs to be recognised and tackled in its own right rather than resort to breaking it up.”
“When asked if he believed the city council would still exist by the end of the decade, Sir Bob said: “I profoundly believe it can and should but it does need to address the issues we have raised.”
Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary has reported to Parliament with a Written Statement.
Mr Pickles says:
“The review has found a series of deep rooted and serious problems that are stopping both the city and the council from fulfilling their potential.
- The Council has to change its corporate culture. Its size acts as both a badge and a barrier: it has led to a not invented here, silo based and council-knows-best attitude. Trojan Horse was symptomatic of a culture, under successive administrations, that has too often swept deep rooted problems under the carpet rather than addressed them;
- For years Birmingham City Council’s members and senior officers have failed to collectively take the big decisions needed to tackle the problems the city faces and to be sufficiently clear with residents about the choices that need to be made;
- The clear boundaries that should exist between the roles of members and officers have become blurred; and
- The City Council has 15 of the 20 wards with the largest population in the country and the council is the largest metropolitan borough. There are also very few town and parish councils within the city’s boundaries. The sheer number of councillors (120) means the council is difficult to run and the large size of the multi-member wards has meant councillors have found it hard to represent their communities effectively.
“The primary responsibility to address these challenges lies with the City Council. However, as was the case in Stoke-on-Trent, the current electoral arrangements of elections with large three member wards in Birmingham are not helping. A combination of single member wards, a smaller number of members and all-out elections will make the council stronger, save taxpayers’ money and become much more directly accountable to the people it serves.
“I therefore intend to change the electoral cycle of the council to all-out elections and ask the Local Government Boundary Committee for England to conduct an Electoral Review with a view to completing its work to enable elections by May 2017.
“The Review makes clear that there are fewer town and parish councils in Birmingham than in other cities. The Government wants to make it easier and simpler for people to set up town and parish councils where they do not exist. Where local people express popular support for the creation of a town or parish council, the City Council should work with local residents to help that happen not frustrate them.”
Will these changes be enough? I’m sure that Sir Bob is right to say that size isn’t the only issue. You can have relatively well-run large local authorities and some shockingly run smaller ones. But I suspect that being as large as Birmingham doesn’t really help. It is better for councils to achieve economies of scale through sharing services as and when this is beneficial. That means that democratic accountability is retained. In Birmingham, the sheer scale of the bureaucracy means it is overwhelmed.