Sir Bob Kerslake has revealed to LGC that he cannot rule out recommending to ministers that Birmingham City Council should be broken up into several smaller authorities.
The Department for Communities & Local Government permanent secretary was this month appointed to lead an independent review into the operation, culture and governance of Europe’s largest single-tier local authority in the wake of the Trojan Horse affair.
Asked in an exclusive LGC interview whether he would recommend splitting up the council, Sir Bob said he could not “leave the issue unexplored”.
“There are some areas where you would think size would be helpful in relation to economic planning and so on,” he said.
“But as the issue has been raised over quite a period of time … we ought to explore it. We can’t leave the issue unexplored,” he added.
However, Sir Bob said England “already had big councils that function and function well”, and added that he did not have the power to “take action in relation to Birmingham”, because any decision to break up the council “would be a matter for ministers to consider”.
“This review is not geared up or set up to make actions on that sort of issue but it can and should look at the questions that have been raised about size,” he said.
Sir Bob said his review would not “start with an assumption that Birmingham is broken”. However, he said, “there clearly are areas, and they would acknowledge it themselves, where they could improve the way they work”.
Birmingham has already faced a series of external reviews into its services. These include two into the Trojan Horse affair in which it was alleged that Muslim hardliners had plotted to take control of schools in the city, and one by the economist Julian Le Grand on the council’s troubled children’s social care services.
Sir Bob told LGC he did not believe there was a direct link between the problems that led to this raft of reviews and Birmingham’s budget pressures.
“I don’t think the reviews in themselves flow from the financial challenges,” he said.
“Just take children’s services in Birmingham. It’s well known they’ve had significant issues that go back quite a long way so it predates the recent period of austerity.
“Similarly – and it’s an entirely different authority and different set of issues – but the report into Rotherham identified issues that went back well over 10 years so it would be unwise to see the challenges as being entirely financially driven.
“Equally, the financial austerity adds a further dimension to what they have to address.”
Birmingham has recently begun to implement a system known as “triple devolution” in which the city’s governance will operate at three levels. Under this system, some local services will be run at a neighbourhood level; city-wide services will be run in closer partnership with other public bodies and regional issues will be determined in partnership with other councils.
Sir Bob said he was aware of this model and wanted to “look at it in more depth”.
He added Birmingham’s size needed to be scrutinised “alongside the issue of devolution, so you can get the benefits of a big authority with the closeness and manageable scale you need for some services”.
Birmingham’s chief executive Mark Rogers told LGC last week that he thought Sir Bob and his team, which includes four council chief executives and senior political figures from each of the three main parties, were likely to take an interest in these new “devolved arrangements”.
He said: “It’s not a size question about whether we should divvy [the council] up into four new administrations and do away with the present council but instead how you make a big city council work when it is not working well enough, like at the moment.”
Sir Bob said the hallmarks of future success for Birmingham would include strong partnerships, effective services, becoming a “strong economic leader” and having “the right leadership in its communities” – something he said the Trojan Horse affair showed had been lacking.
Sir Bob’s final report, which will cover the size and structure of the council as well as its strategic leadership, managerial capacity, financial sustainability and its approach to partnerships, is due to be published in December.