The city of local government’s most iconic hero, Joseph Chamberlain, is in the mire – and nobody seems to be able to do much about it.
Birmingham City Council is in dire trouble and its problems are on the verge of looking intractable. Its recent history is one of strong figures arriving amid expectations of a revival and then hope fading amid some of the most desperate finances of any council.
Some places fail because they cannot attract the right people but this cannot be said of Birmingham, at least at its upper officer echelons. Its three most recent chief executives have been Stephen Hughes, Mark Rogers and now, on an interim basis at least, Stella Manzie: big names in the local government world.
Mr Rogers, arrived as chief from Solihull MBC in 2014, with a reputation for children’s service excellence – the perfect man to turn around Brum’s difficulties in children’s social work.
By the time his departure from Birmingham was announced earlier this year, children’s services were being put into a separate trust after yet more miserable Ofsted ratings, the council faced an overspend of £30m and relations between the council and its health partners were beset by wrangles over finances.
The council has been subjected to government intervention in the form of the Birmingham Improvement Panel, a body that reportedly demanded Mr Rogers’ head as the price of the council avoiding being placed into special measures, a course of action that would have forced the resignation of the authority’s political leadership, as well as its chief executive.
So did Mr Rogers do a bad job? Not necessarily. The majority view among senior officers nationwide is that he had a bad job.
He was replaced by Stella Manzie, who has developed a reputation over the past 20 years as a fearless trouble shooter brought in to turn around struggling councils, with a CV boasting stints as a chief executive leading intervention at Coventry City Council and as commissioner at Rotherham MBC.
The perfect woman surely to turn around Brum? Yes seemed to be the answer in August when the Birmingham Improvement Panel chair reported that the positive working relationship between council leader John Clancy (Lab) and Ms Manzie meant “the prospects of further improvements are good”. Indeed so bright was the outlook that the panel proposed to the communities secretary that it step aside.
But the city has been the scene of industrial strife with its refuse staff repeatedly striking in protest against job losses and new shift patterns that they said would cost them up to £5,000 in wages.
It appeared the bin strike was over when Cllr Clancy struck a deal with the Unite union.
However, leaked emails came to light which showed that Cllr Clancy had reached a deal against his most senior officer’s advice. The deal would result in “major financial risk to the authority, breach of the Equality Act as well as trade union and workforce unrest”, Ms Manzie told her leader.
Cllr Clancy was forced to resign and the deal was rescinded.
The strike was back on – until yesterday when the High Court ordered an interim notice on the council’s plans to make 113 refuse workers redundant.
Ms Manzie should “now step down”, Unite assistant general secretary Howard Beckett said.
“She has repeatedly used the threat of equal pay cases to frighten and bully the council into agreeing the downgrade of long serving bin workers when it has no substance whatsoever and was not so much as mentioned by her legal team,” said Mr Beckett.
It remains to be seen whether Ms Manzie wants the Birmingham chief executive’s job long-term but to many it would appear to be an uninspiring role. The holder is inevitably caught between the rock of appeasing a government that demands the city balances its books and hard place of workers and service users who want services retained.
If not Ms Manzie, who might go for the job long-term? Could Donna Hall be prised from Wigan MBC or Jo Miller from Doncaster MBC? Might the former military background of Luton BC’s Trevor Holden make him the man to give the city discipline? And would Martin Reeves want to leave the relative calm of Coventry City Council to join its struggling near neighbour?
Maybe Birmingham’s top officer and political jobs have just become undoable.
Perhaps the only way out is for the city to do a Detroit, accept that its grave problems cannot be overcome and declare bankruptcy.
The Economist this week reported how Detroit has turned around since its bankruptcy ended in December 2014. The city is now demolishing its derelict neighbourhoods and will “emerge smaller but no longer a byword for decline”, its article concluded. Maybe that will be true of Birmingham, which as Europe’s largest unitary council many have suggested is simply too big to run in its current form. Having claimed the scalps of two big hitters and counting, perhaps the time has come to look for a more radical approach.