Fraser Nelson’s article on Birmingham City Council last Friday was a very disappointing offering from an experienced journalist and a reputable paper – more Daily Mail then Daily Telegraph.
It was riddled with inaccuracies.
Birmingham City Council does not have ‘astonishing power’. What is astonishing is how little power local authorities have, even in big cities. Central government has as iron grip on local government. Money – how it is raised and spent – and policy – the thinking which underpins those choices – are the two key levers of government and central government controls them both.
The average amount of local authority income derived from Council Tax is 16%. Council Tax is a regressive tax based on 1991 property valuations and bears no relation to the real costs of providing local public services. LAs cannot increase CT by more than 2% without a referendum, for which they must pay.
The remainder of their income is made up of rents, fees and charges (local authorities can’t make a profit) and business rates (which central government gathers and re-distributes to a national format). The remainder comes from grants from central government. BCC’s take from Council Tax is only 7.5% because of poverty and property values, which means it is disproportionately dependent on central funding, which has been cut by 35% since 2010.
The gap between rising demand and falling resources is getting wider by the minute in Birmingham, just like it is in Chicago. The difference is that Chicago can run a deficit of billions – and has done so for the last ten years. BCC has to balance its books. It is still obliged to deliver over 1700 statutory duties – from trading standards to disposal of the dead to the protection of children. Year by year it has less and less room to manouvre.
What is really astonishing is that Birmingham and other local authorities still manage to deliver very good services. A recent Ipsos Mori poll showed satisfaction remains high. That is because authorities have protected frontline services in spite of losing 15% of their jobs since 2010.
Splitting up Birmingham City Council would make no sense at all. The comparison with Manchester is entirely spurious. The geography and demography of the ten unitary authorities in the Greater Manchester area is very different to Birmingham but the success of that area is built on collaborative upscaling not on separatism. They have banded together to create a Combined Authority. It’s the only way to get the economies of scale and critical mass to compete, bring growth and deliver infrastructure.
The West Midlands is not made up of unitary councils – it is a mixture of unitaries and two tier areas – encompassing counties and districts. This makes it harder for Birmingham and the wider West Midlands to emulate Greater Manchester’s collaborative progress. In Birmingham, some services are run at a neighbourhood level, and a district structure helps support better engagement and differentiation but there is nothing to be gained by splitting the city.
Birmingham is a global city, competing with Chicago, Melbourne and Guangzhou and dividing it up would be a nonsense. Last week senior people from Birmingham City Council were in China, drumming up business for the city. Would Beijing be interested in talking to Kings Heath District Council? I think not.
Blaming Birmingham City Council for the architectural failings of the 1950s is like blaming David Cameron for Suez. It’s entirely pointless. Most cities have some 1950s and 1960s monstrosities but Birmingham is being very successful in transforming the city centre. The Bull Ring works, New Street Station is being transformed and whatever Prince Charles thinks about the new library, I think it is truly amazing. It is beautiful and original. What is more important is that it works. Hundreds of thousands of people have flooded through its doors and librarians have had to work hard to keep up with the huge rise in demand for books. That is the real measure of its success.
People hark back to the happy days of Joseph Chamberlain who as Mayor in the 1870s and thereafter transformed the city and created the legacy of civic splendor, including the University of Birmingham. The difference between then and now is that he did have ‘astonishing power’ because he had control of both the money and the policy. In spite of the herculean efforts of Lord Heseltine, central government controls the big money for skills, growth and infrastructure. It is to the credit of Birmingham that they have done so much with so little.
Poverty is indeed a problem in Birmingham but not one which the city council can solve. National policies drive national poverty which is then concentrated in big cities. Birmingham is super-diverse and has a high proportion of young people. Ethnic minorities and the young have been disproportionately effected by the recession. Central government’s cuts to benefits to vulnerable people are shunting the costs of poverty onto local government at a time when they have few resources with which to respond.
Child protection is a stark example of this phenomenon. Most child abuse has its roots in poverty, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence and mental illness. Local government cannot solve all those ills alone. Every serious case review and every inquest highlights a very simple lesson. Children can only be protected when all the key agencies work together – schools, GPs, mental health services, the police, the hospitals – as well as children’s social care. Cuts in public sector funding have a knock on effect on child protection. West Midlands police cannot attend all the case conferences they should. It is in those circumstances that children fall through the net.
Somehow it is always the Council that gets the blame. They do hold the ring in a complex network of agencies, professionals and responsibilities – but they cannot always be expected to hold the blame.
Catherine Staite is the Director of INLOGOV. She provides consultancy and facilitation to local authorities and their partners, on a wide range of issues including on improving outcomes, efficiency, partnership working, strategic planning and organisational development, including integration of services and functions.