An independent review of Birmingham Council has warned the authority must radically improve if it is to deliver the services residents of Birmingham deserve.
Sir Bob Kerslake, the chief civil servant at the Department for Communities and Local Government, has called for sweeping changes in how the authority is run to ensure Birmingham maintains its status as Britain’s second city rather than fall behind competitors such as Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds.
Sir Bob’s report finds that Birmingham residents and businesses are not getting the best from a council that lacks a clear vision for the city and has failed to tackle deep rooted problems such as low skills and economic growth.
The report warns the authority is not doing enough to:
- provide consistently good quality services for residents
- help its economic partners to grow the local economy or ensure low-skilled residents get the training they need to work
- provide leadership and set out a positive vision for the city
- improve a culture of sweeping problems under the carpet or blaming them on others rather than tackling them head on
Sir Bob also concluded that successive administrations in Birmingham had failed to collectively take the big decisions needed to address problems faced by the city, such as in its finances and children’s services.
Sir Bob said:
Birmingham is a really great place and its people deserve the best possible services. The country also needs a thriving second city.
However, over several years the council has failed to resolve its financial issues and the poor performance of its children’s services or to respond to the large number of people in the city with low skills. Collectively, despite the thriving physical regeneration of the city centre, this has held the city back.
A stronger Birmingham matters most to those who live and work there, but it is also a matter of national importance. Birmingham’s economy has underperformed – not just compared to London but to Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield.
In carrying out this review, I have spoken with those who know Birmingham best and their views have formed the basis of my findings. People have said to me, Birmingham can’t carry on as it is now. Things have to change and they have to change quickly. This report presents an opportunity for Birmingham to turn the dial and improve its performance but the city should be in no doubt as to the risks if it doesn’t.
With 120 members, Birmingham is among the largest authorities in England, with 15 of its 20 wards having the biggest populations in the country. The report found that the large number of councillors and the rapidly growing size of the city meant effective representation of residents was a challenge.
Sir Bob recommends a change in the electoral cycle to give Birmingham residents the chance to vote for the whole council every 4 years from 2017 – rather than the current system which splits local elections into returning a third of the authority every year. This, the report argues, would allow councillors to better focus on the long-term vision for Birmingham and improve engagement in elections by residents.
The report advises against breaking up Birmingham but warns the issue will return unless there are improvements. Instead it highlights the lack of strategic leadership and too much blurring of the lines in the day to day running of the council’s services as being bigger issues of concern.
The review welcomes the recent proposal to form a combined authority but states that there is a lot of ground to make up.
In his review, Sir Bob also calls for an independent improvement panel to be established to ensure Birmingham City Council delivers on the report’s recommendations. The panel would report back to the Secretary of State for Local Government in December 2015, on Birmingham’s progress.
The report also calls for a new employment and skills initiative in Birmingham charged with helping to help train low skilled adults in some of the most deprived wards, to ensure they can benefit from the city’s growth. In particular, the report calls for targeted skills training to start with Sparkhill and Washwood Heath.
The report was commissioned in July by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles and Sir Albert Bore, Leader of Birmingham City Council following the well-documented problems in Birmingham schools.
Sir Bob was asked to conduct an independent review of corporate governance in Birmingham City Council and to identify ways in which the council’s wider weaknesses could be addressed.
Sir Bob’s review was supported by an expert advisory panel comprising senior local government members and chief executives.
Sir Bob and the panel spent 50 days in the city meeting residents, business leaders, community and faith leaders, the voluntary and community sector, local politicians, council officers, frontline staff and representatives of the other public services. The review heard the views of more than 350 people.
The report took into account the findings of previous reviews and their recommendations, including the recent studies lead by Peter Clarke CVO OBE QVM, Professor Julian le Grand, Ian Kershaw, Lord Warner and Sir Mike Tomlinson.