Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.
Coronavirus is having a profound effect on local government and, Birmingham, being Europe’s largest metropolitan authority, is being impacted more than most.
Much of the discretionary financial support received from the government has been spent on homelessness (for example, renting the Holiday Inn for the homeless), adult social care with a view to unblocking hospital beds, and support for the voluntary services in Birmingham who have responded superbly to the crisis.
The worry that we all have, is that special powers taken by the state in this crisis, which may seem reasonable at the time, will erode liberty and accountability. They, perhaps, will never be let go – or will be used in cases that are not related to the crisis; this is no less a concern for us as Birmingham’s opposition.
For example, the Labour administration is taking powers to itself that short circuit many of the procurement procedures and safeguards. They were never terribly good at following these during the best of times. Since 2015, the Labour Administration has spent well over £110m on single contractor negotiations which avoid the open competition designed to secure value for money. There are huge gaps in this data, so the actual figure may be much higher. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that, even before the crisis, the Labour administration had limited oversight of the city’s contracts or the robustness of the procurement processes being followed.
We are pressing for sight of any emergency related purchases, so that we can be sure that such purchases genuinely relate to the crisis and that a particular officer or cabinet member has authorised the relaxation of the rules. The city recently spent £800,000 on PPE for social workers; the decision had to be taken quickly to secure the stock and this seems a reasonable use of the special powers. However, how long will it be before the powers are used outside of their original contemplation to circumvent the procedures for purchasing items only passingly connected to the crisis? As an opposition, we are doing all that we can to ensure accountability remains in all cases.
Controversially, Birmingham was due to introduce a tax for driving into the city centre, with Labour having ducked both a referendum or any mention of this in their manifesto. This has now been delayed as a result of the crisis and we will press for it be abandoned altogether. At the very least, we will argue for proper procurement procedures to be put in place, contrary to the case up to now, where single supplier negotiations were employed for certain key services.
The city has struggled to balance its budgets, now with our eighth chief executive and fourth finance director in eight years. It’s probably fair to say that such improvements as have been achieved are now at risk. We were, it seemed, close to meeting budget, if not the savings plan, before the crisis started. But monthly reporting to scrutiny will probably cease and the regulatory quarterly reports are too distant when things start going wrong.
In addition, Birmingham is scheduled to hold the Commonwealth Games in July 2022. Whilst the cost of the Games is being met 75 per cent by central government and 25 per cent by Birmingham City Council, the athletes’ village just a few miles north of the city centre is being funded entirely by the council via a rather complex finance scheme which basically involves the council lending its own wholly-owned subsidiary the cash and then getting repaid from the sale of the units – which in turn relies upon the strength of the property market. However, the very meagre parking allocation on the units (some flats have none) will restrict marketability to people other than those who can operate only with public transport into the city centre. Work has stopped and a timetable that was already very tight is now even more demanding to have the village ready in time. The crisis is bound to put a further strain on the city’s finances and it’s far from clear if there will be any impact on the timetable for the Commonwealth Games themselves.
At all times, virus or not, the Conservative Group seeks to be a responsible opposition and we have played a vital role over the last few years in bringing to light so many failings of the Labour administration that the public would otherwise not have known about. Our aim is always to put the interest of residents first and this is the test of everything that we say and do. This is true now more than ever. It’s disappointing that Labour councillors have mocked the actions of Conservative councillors, for example when organising food deliveries, but this probably isn’t typical of the current relationship between opposition and administration.