To address the wider weaknesses that were highlighted in Birmingham’s governance culture by the report into the allegations concerning Birmingham’s schools, the leader of Birmingham City Council Sir Albert Bore and I asked Sir Bob Kerslake to lead a review of the governance of the city council to report by December 2014 (as outlined in the written statement of 22 July 2014, Official Report, Column 109WS).
Sir Bob’s review has been supported by an expert advisory panel comprising senior local government leaders and chief executives. Sir Bob and the panel have spent a significant amount of time in the city meeting over 350 people including citizens, business leaders, community and faith leaders, the voluntary and community sector, local politicians, council officers, frontline staff and representatives of the other public services. They have also spoken to each of the hon. Members representing the city and received around 80 submissions of written evidence.
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. These include:
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
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 3 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.
Parts of Birmingham are among the most deprived in the country and as a result there are more poor children in the city than anywhere else in England. This will not change while so many adults remain low skilled and are locked out of the new jobs the city’s businesses are creating and these are the conditions in which distrust and division can thrive. The government will therefore also consider supporting the review’s recommendation to create a new high powered partnership vehicle focussed on increasing employment and improving skills, starting in the most deprived parts of Birmingham.
The government believes that, where locally-supported, combined authorities can help co-ordinate and drive through policy to stimulate economic growth and plan strategically across the city and their natural economic area. I note the steps that the city council is taking with its neighbouring authorities to form a new locally-led combined authority. However, as the review makes clear they are falling behind other places. Local leaders should put aside their differences and reach agreement on a combined authority quickly so the locality can once again become a powerhouse for innovation, jobs and growth.
The scale of the problems Sir Bob has found means the city council is unlikely to be able to address them alone. I will therefore be appointing an independent improvement panel that will provide the support and robust challenge the city council needs. I intend that this will help the people of Birmingham to hold the council to account for how they are improving. It will report formally on progress in December 2015.
Sir Bob has published his review today and I have placed a copy in the Library of the House.