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Rotherham empowered by intervention but Birmingham's struggles continue

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LGC’s essential daily commentary 

The Birmingham Improvement Panel this week said it was standing down because it had done all it can within its terms of reference and powers to provide robust challenge, support and advice to the council.

Announcing the end of its intervention, the panel made reference to the “meaningful progress” Birmingham City Council has made since June 2018 and the “huge amount of work” underway to “get itself on the right track and tackle deeply entrenched problems”. Then, a very big ‘but’.

Four years since the panel was established, Birmingham’s financial position is still “immensely serious”, the panel’s chair John Crabtree said, with considerable risks to financial resilience.

The panel highlighted that the council’s progress had been severely hindered by industrial disputes, with strikes by refuse workers costing the council an estimated £14m. So precarious is the council’s financial position, Mr Crabtree said, that the modernisation of its approach to industrial relations is key to the council’s survival.

The Commonwealth Games in 2022, the delivery of which will be overseen by Mr Crabtree as chair of the delivery committee, is highlighted as an opportunity, but also a significant contributor to what the council’s external auditor called a “unique level” of one-off risks.

The panel’s final progress report says Birmingham’s responsibility to deliver the development to be used as the athletes’ village is a source of concern. As planned sources of funding are now unlikely to come to fruition, the council has included its contribution in its forward capital and revenue plans, placing greater risk on an already fragile medium term financial plan. This is not withstanding the fact the council is reliant on the sale of homes and land, and the stability of a potentially volatile housing market, after the games to repay considerable loans.

The tone of the panel’s announcement and the worrying evidence presented in the final report is in stark contrast to the language used by commissioners as they ended their involvement in Rotherham MBC last week.

A review by commissioners sent in after Dame Louise Casey’s 2015 report found council failings had contributed to at least 1,400 children being sexually abused said intervention was no longer needed as the council had re-established its “moral compass”.

The commissioners said they now had “confidence that in future the council will make good choices which promote the safety and welfare of its residents”.

While the report said there was more work to be done to improve performance “across the board” it praised significant progress that has led to a palpable shift from an organisation that is ‘fixing things and fire-fighting‘ to one with confidence and is becoming a more outward facing, modern and innovative council.”

The Rotherham commissioners sign-off suggests genuine admiration for the achievements of the council’s leadership and their staff in pulling the council up off its knees, with the scale and speed of improvement exceeding expectations. The impression left is that Rotherham has overcome its biggest challenges and is now in a good position to thrive.

Based on the findings of the Birmingham commissioners, the same cannot be said for the council they have now left.

While progress has been made under the new leadership of chief executive Dawn Baxendale and leader Ian Ward (Lab), the commissioners’ final review suggests anxiety, uncertainty and several mountains still to climb.

In bowing out, the panel says it has done all it can. But the level of ongoing problems it highlights suggest the robust challenge and support it was intended to provide has not enabled to Birmingham to fully overcome its challenges.

However, perhaps the council’s leadership will now feel unhindered and emboldened to act decisively beyond the gaze of the panel’s all-seeing eye.

There is no way of knowing what Birmingham’s progress would have been without intervention, but while Rotherham’s journey out of darkness suggests a constructive and empowering process, the Birmingham experience appears to show how it can fall seriously short.

Jon Bunn, senior reporter

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