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A face for Birmingham? Who will get local government's hardest job?

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LGC’s commentary on who could get Birmingham City Council’s top job.

A former holder of local government’s toughest job has today added spice to the ongoing debate about the appropriate role of council chief executives.

Stephen Hughes, chief executive of Birmingham City Council from 2005 to 2014, says in an LGC column the authority “won’t be looking for a hero” in its search for its new top officer.

His intervention came with job interviews for the Birmingham post little more than three weeks away and an appointment expected to be confirmed this side of Christmas.

Mr Hughes argues that Birmingham “will always be led by politicians”, rather than officers, pointing out that Google sheds no light on the identity of the town clerk who worked alongside its greatest local government figure, 19th century mayor Joseph Chamberlain.

“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,” Mr Hughes writes.

The role of the chief should therefore be “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”.

However, the size of the city council “makes it impossible to achieve the intimacy that a hero needs to succeed”.

Mr Hughes’s view of the top officer position in his former city perhaps aligns with a vision for the role of chiefs that was in August expressed by Local Government Association chief executive Mark Lloyd in a separate LGC column.

“As a local government officer, never forget councillors make policy and set budgets. We’re their advisers and we must always offer the best possible advice, without fear or favour,” Mr Lloyd wrote. “If they take a different route to that recommended, officers must accept their decision and get on with implementation.” The only exceptions to this were in the event of an illegal decision, which “must be called out”, or if it jarred with officers’ moral framework, which should lead them to question whether to look for a new job.

Mr Lloyd’s column led to an ongoing debate within LGC and beyond about the appropriate role, visibility and assertiveness of council chiefs.

In response, Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy chief executive Rob Whiteman wrote: “Officers are not just ciphers to give compliant advice or face the sack. They have a duty to act in the public interest as well as support their administrations.”

And Mark Rogers, who succeeded Mr Hughes as Birmingham chief, before being forced out early this year, pointed to the legendary Manchester City Council double act of leader Sir Richard Leese (Lab) and chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein to say some of the most successful leader/chief partnerships were based on a “shared public profile and a shared campaigning space”.

He said: “Officers are entitled to make their views known about the implications of policy, especially national policy, as it pertains to local impact. This isn’t questioning the legitimacy of the policy-making mandate of those elected; it’s taking the officer delivery responsibility one step further and saying, ‘if you do that, this will happen’. That is central to our advisory role.”

Mr Rogers knows a thing or two about the dangers of being a high-profile council chief executive.

With his period in the Birmingham hot seat for the most part coinciding with his presidency of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, Mr Rogers was criticised for his national prominence.

Birmingham opposition leader Robert Alden (Con) said Mr Rogers’ departure at the beginning of the year was “hardly a surprise given the amount of time he appeared to spend externally trying to build a national profile, compared to being in the city trying to fix our many problems”.

But it was the government-appointed improvement panel that forced Mr Rogers out. It is widely believed it effectively gave the then council leader John Clancy (Lab) an ultimatum to get rid of him or see the council be forced into special measures.

Leaving aside the epic scale of the city’s financial problems, Birmingham’s recent history shows the difficulty of its chief executive job. The post holder needs to be acceptable not just to the council leader and councillors, but a government closely monitoring the city’s travails. It would also be helpful if they could help facilitate a more constructive relationship with unions following the bin strike and to council officers of all ranks, many of whom are said to be demoralised by the city’s leadership woes. Add to all of that the fact that Birmingham has all-out elections next May and the West Midlands CA poll shows that it is by no means certain Labour will necessarily maintain its control of the council.

So who is the best fit for the role? Does Birmingham require a visible hero or a behind the scenes workhorse? Or something in between?

Speculation – all of it unconfirmed – has reached LGC of the calibre of candidate who may go for the role.

Jo Miller may decide the time is right for a new challenge after bringing stability and no little transformation to Doncaster MBC. But some might consider it ironic if Birmingham opted for a Solace president as the permanent successor to Mr Rogers (unless of course Ms Miller opted to stand down from the national role).

Wigan MBC’s Donna Hall has won plaudits for her work on The Deal, seen as one of local government’s most coherent responses to austerity. Theresa Grant, of Trafford MBC, could be another Greater Manchester name in the frame.

Lincolnshire CC’s Tony McArdle has been tipped, offering stability and experience, and KPMG’s Joanna Killian, formerly of Essex CC, is another person with county pedigree who could be tempted.

Other big hitters who have been mentioned could be Martin Reeves of Coventry City Council; Graham Farrant, chief executive of the Land Registry, formerly of Thurrock Council; and Luton BC’s Trevor Holden.

A city of such global reputation might, of course, tempt a candidate from further afield. Those with long memories might recall how Birmingham got its fingers burnt when it appointed Valerie Lemmie, a city manager of Dayton, Ohio, chief executive in 2001 – only for her to withdraw a week later. Among those she beat for the role were the then Sheffield City Council chief executive Bob Kerslake who, several jobs later, conducted the 2015 review of Birmingham’s governance which brought about the improvement panel that led to Mr Rogers’ departure.

Rarely has any job so needed a face that fits. Life as chief executive at Surrey CC and Westminster City Council, two other high-profile vacancies, isn’t always a bed of roses. But surely no job in local government is quite as demanding – or exhilarating – as that of chief executive of Birmingham.

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