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Stephen Hughes: A heroic chief executive is not what Birmingham needs

Stephen Hughes
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Paul Tilsley (Lib Dem), the former deputy leader of Birmingham City Council, has a saying: “There are three types of people in the world: those born in Birmingham, those that moved here and those with no ambition at all.”

Who has the ambition to be the city council’s new chief executive?

It’s a great city. It has a rich heritage as the crucible of the industrial revolution, the workshop of the world and a founding pillar of the UK’s prosperity, then reinvented itself after the collapse of British manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s as a vibrant service, retail and entertainment centre, and a hub of high tech growth supporting a wide hinterland.

The council is critical to the city’s renaissance and success. Projects such as the National Exhibition Centre, Symphony Hall, the International Conference Centre, the National Indoor Arena, expanding the airport, and catalytic developments such as Brindley Place were all council-led partnerships, which collectively sparked the renewal. This was followed by rebuilding the Bullring and New Street Station, led by the council, which also had the confidence to build a new iconic library.

The council remains key to future developments. The enterprise zone carefully includes all the development sites in the city centre and has triggered massive new investments at Paradise Circus, the relocation of HSBC to Arena Central, and prospective redevelopment of the wholesale markets site. The stimulus from HS2 is almost unbounded. The city will be showcased to the world in 2022 when it puts on the Commonwealth Games.

The obvious and central importance of the council to the success of the city leads all sectors to look to the council for leadership, in a way they never will for say a London borough, or a district council in a two-tier county. This gives opportunities to forge partnerships, lever resources and make a difference not only in economic matters but on social issues as well. The scale of the authority gives the council a bigger stage on which to play.

There are significant social issues that need to be addressed, as in all large cities. Poverty, homelessness and the housing crisis, domestic violence, community tensions, low economic engagement, particularly in parts of the Asian community, poor skills, drugs gangs and guns, health inequalities and mental health issues, poor air quality are all things that need to be tackled. But didn’t you go into public service to make a difference?

The council faces significant challenges as well. The finances are under severe stress, although it is asset-rich, owning much of the city’s land. Children’s social services still require improvement and the effectiveness of the children’s trust is still an open question. Industrial relations are strained. There are uncertainties about the political situation. Management capacity has been reduced because of the cuts and there have been significant changes in senior management. It remains under central government scrutiny and faces all out elections on new boundaries next May.

Despite all this, one advantage of the size of the council is that it is served by many talented officers, and services have a resilience that transcends politics and headlines. For example, the 2005 tornado damaged 1,000 homes in Sparkbrook, but the council managed the situation without national headlines or panic. This should give a new head of paid service confidence that the council will come through.

However, Birmingham City Council will always be led by politicians. The shadow of Joseph Chamberlain, a radical, a liberal and a conservative, is long. If you Google to find who his town clerk was, there are no answers. In a city of more than a million people, only 100 will be councillors and that throws up talented, intelligent and resourceful candidates that want to be seen to be making a difference in the Chamberlain tradition.

The council does need a chief executive to translate members’ ambitions into practical programmes, collate and present the advice they need to make good decisions, and to motivate and give their officers the space to do their jobs, but they won’t be looking for a hero. In fact, the size of the council, that gives it resilience, makes it impossible achieve the intimacy that a hero needs to succeed.

I wouldn’t change that by breaking up the council. There are no natural smaller divisions and it would weaken the city’s overall strength. Federating power and influence in the second city will make it harder, not easier, to get things done.

If a football analogy were appropriate, Birmingham City Council needs to be in the Champions League. What football manager wouldn’t aspire to lead such a team, even if the chairman and the owner wants all the limelight? If you have got the ambition, why wouldn’t you want the job?

Stephen Hughes, former chief executive, Birmingham City Council

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