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If the rumours are true Mark Rogers' departure sets a worrying precedent

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The announcement of Mark Rogers’ imminent departure as Birmingham City Council’s chief executive has sent shockwaves through local government yesterday, and not only because Mr Rogers is generally well-liked and respected across the sector. The circumstances surrounding his carefully worded “moving on”, as the council’s press notice termed it, appear extremely unusual.

As LGC reported yesterday, the improvement panel sent into the council by ministers following Lord Kerslake’s highly critical review in 2014 seems to have played a pivotal role. One senior local politician described the panel as “having forced the council’s hand” by refusing to give the authority a clean bill of health while Mr Rogers remained in post. Another source close to the council said the panel had threatened further intervention without Mr Rogers’ departure.

The case against Mr Rogers is largely financial: the panel’s most recent update to the communities secretary in November was damning, blaming a forecast £49m overspend on weak budget planning and “unrealistic assumptions”. An independent financial peer review late last year echoed these concerns and suggested the council make greater use of its reserves to bring forward planned savings on a more realistic timetable.

Like any authority, there is a debate to be had about the relative contributions of circumstance and local decisions to the financial predicament Birmingham finds itself in today. As a highly grant dependent authority with a low council tax base it is hard to argue it has not been at the sharp end of austerity, as have many other places, but as LGC’s timeline of Mr Rogers’ tenure shows he has also had to deal with an unparalleled level of external scrutiny and challenge.

Ultimately, politicians must take responsibility for setting a balanced budget, and if they feel the advice and guidance they have received from officers is not up to scratch they are within their rights to consider if they could be better served. But intervention from the government, in the form of the improvement panel, to remove a council chief executive would set a very worrying precedent indeed. There can be few government ministers who have run an organisation as huge and complicated as Birmingham City Council. 

At the weekend the respected, and usually on the money, local blog the Chamberlain Files reported Mr Rogers had also annoyed some locally with his outspokenness on Twitter and in media comment pieces. Mr Rogers had “paid the ultimate price for not being at the council house enough to firmly grip a variety of significant challenges following the hugely damning Kerslake report,” the blog said.

In the delicate relationship between leader and chief executive it is always dangerous for the latter to have a higher public profile than the former. However, it must be remembered that Mr Rogers was president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers for most of his time at Birmingham and so had a duty to act as a voice for his profession. To many in the sector he was viewed as a “new breed” of chief executive, treading a new path of openness, transparency, and accessibility (his Twitter feed is full of responses to local residents).

It would be bad news indeed if the terms of Mr Rogers’ ‘moving on’ deterred others from adopting such an approach.

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