Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.
In January last year, I wrote for ConHome about how badly Birmingham was run by its Labour administration and how much taxpayers’ money was being wasted. A year on, we see no sign that our Conservative Group’s concerns about a growing lack of accountability, secrecy, and a ‘dictatorship’ style of management by the Council Leader and his Cabinet are being assuaged.
There is a big problem in Birmingham City Council with transparency; the current Labour administration not only seeks to keep far too much information secret from both councillors and the public but, even where information is eventually disclosed, it is often disclosed late or in a form intended to minimise scrutiny. Contracts are renewed when they should be subject to scrutiny and re-tender. Decisions which are said to be urgent (and therefore sidestep the normal checks and balances), often are only urgent, if indeed they truly are urgent, because of crass inefficiency on the part of the administration.
The hard truth is that the Labour Cabinet (with some notable exceptions) are just not good enough to run a city of Birmingham’s complexity. This means that officers find it easy to keep the upper hand, albeit one might counter that Labour’s political leaders are sometimes accused of standing behind officers to deflect responsibility.
For example, the company that provided home to school transport for Birmingham children with special needs went bankrupt. The whole contract had been very badly managed for years with numerous costs overruns and hastily organised extensions. This particular contract had been extended seven times since 2009 without a proper re-procuring process. At various times, members raised serious concerns in the finance scrutiny committee but were largely ignored.
A report on the whole fiasco was due to come to the Audit Committee in the autumn but was removed from the agenda because of “purdah”. Purdah is there to protect taxpayers’ money from being used to influence voting intention. It does not exist to shut down debate by committee members, slow down vitally important pieces of work on protecting vulnerable citizens, and it certainly is not there to save the administration from embarrassment! With the Cabinet already having been told of safeguarding and vehicle compliance concerns and the company’s unsustainable finances, one can only speculate as to what further horrors may come out when Labour eventually publishes this report.
Audit Committee members are routinely denied access to documents and information and Labour chairs of the Audit Committee seem reluctant to challenge their own administration. Having served on the audit committee most of the time since 2012, I am reaching the point of wondering whether we should withdraw entirely from the committee, for fear that the Conservative presence gives a “stamp of legitimacy” to Labour’s conduct. We have already declined the opportunity to take the role of Deputy Chairman. On the other hand, were it not for the Conservative Group, at least trying to allow some sunlight to shine on Labour’s conduct, goodness knows how little of Labour’s mistakes and inefficiency would ever be known to the taxpaying public?
With preparations for the Commonwealth Games now in full swing, we are already beginning to see worrying signs of Birmingham Labour’s well-known inability to manage money and contracts. Most of the funding is being provided by central government, with Birmingham taxpayers meeting about 25 per cent of the main cost and also being responsible for the construction of the athletes’ village. Having devised a convoluted financing arrangement (reminding me of the administrator hospital sketch in Python’s Life of Brian), which even the Leader couldn’t properly explain in the Scrutiny Committee, we have already seen a massive budget error. The relocation of a National Express bus depot for the athlete’s village was budgeted to cost £2 million. In the last few days, the Labour administration has rushed through an ‘emergency’ decision between Christmas and the New Year (therefore no scrutiny/call-in possible, or even a cabinet meeting) to spend £15.5m – approximately an eight times overspend.
Labour in Birmingham is devotedly anti motorist – despite constantly saying that they support Birmingham motor trade workers. With no referendum (as was the case elsewhere and despite no clear policy statement in their manifesto), Labour is implementing a charge for motorists who drive into the city. Described as a ‘clean air zone’, it makes several poor choices. The Conservative plan for green infrastructure (which was in our manifesto), would have delivered 25 per cent – 30 per cent cleaner air without relying upon a taxation based behavioural change and / or the associated damage to Birmingham’s economy. The cost of the Conservative plan would have been met from the same grant that Labour is wasting on cameras. Labour’s own report acknowledges that their plan will hit the least well off the most, being those residents who cannot afford to replace their car with a newer compliant model. This policy side-stepped democracy for fear of the voters’ wise judgement. (Remind you of anything?)
If the way that Labour runs Birmingham is anything to go by, then truly thank goodness we won the general election. Had Labour won, I have no doubt that the patterns of behaviour that we see in Birmingham, would have become a template for the way that our country would be run.