Life and Death of Smart And Green Birmingham

Intriguing title eh? Well this blog post is all about the  ambition of Birmingham to become a Smart Green City. We have heard much about this in the last year as we have had strategy, visions and roadmaps launched. The latest being the Carbon Road Map that I briefly reviewed here. Carbon Road Map

We await the latest Smart City report in the New Year (2014) and many of you will know me by know and recognise that this stuff is important to me as I think it is important to Birmingham. I won’t rehearse in depths the arguments but we need to become greener if we have any chance to maintain living standards and reduce our environmental footprints and we need to become ‘smarter’ partly to help us to become greener but also because this is where the new jobs and the new industries are.

So hang on what is this post about. Well like many of you I guess – I was too depressed to look at the latest round of cuts published by Birmingham City Council; I used to work there and although I feel deeply for my ex colleagues caught in the maelstrom of constant reviews and cuts I myself find it hard to address; I am out of it and don’t wish to revisit it. But then a little voice asked me how are the areas I was interested in when working for the Council faring. I have not looked for my ex area – as it is too close but I thought what is happening on the Smart and Sustainable front to the people who are working so hard on this impressive body of work. And I was shocked.

There are two teams driving this work. There may be Commission’s of the knowledgeable  but the work is done by Digital Birmingham and the Sustainability and Climate Change team’s within the Council. So to find out what is happening to two important areas for the City I took at look at the consultation document produced for the Development and Culture Directorate – on proposed cuts. This must be a summary of their thinking because it is quite thin – and if you want to find out more about the cuts to the Library of Birmingham etc well worth a read as well. In particular I look at factsheets  22 and 24 contained within the document.  Download here  for the factsheets and to see they whole range of material click here  As an aside I find it bizarre how every download is marked copyright of Birmingham City Council. Why does that matter. No one is going to run off and make money out of this stuff?

 Now Digital Birmingham has some profile in the city as it used to be independent of the Council and is nominally influenced by a partnership but it fled from Service Birmingham where it was once  hosted and has been for sometime a fully fledged part of the Council.  Whereas the Sustainability and Climate Change team is more introspective – although it did find some notoriety in May 2013 when it was criticised along with other Councils’ environmental teams as Eco Snoopers Any criticism in the Daily Mail must mean it is doing good work! Much of their work can be found here  Not a great website but you try working with the Council’s website system!

So what do the sums say. Well Digital Birmingham by 2017/18 has to lose £270k. Doesn’t sound much- indeed not but that is in effect all the money that the Council is putting into it. The aim is for Digital Birmingham to become self financing with the seeking out of national and European funding to support the team. Now anyone who knows  about raising funds from the EU knows that very rarely do you get paid 100% – you need to bring what is called match funding. This is often the case for national funding as well.  So to me the team that is leading on producing the Smart City work is being wound down. It has little chance of making it to 2017/18 on this scenario.

So what about Climate Change and Sustainability – the news there is better – but only slightly –  they have to lose £400k by 2017/18 but that in effect is a 60% cut – no not in carbon emissions but in budget. They as well have to raise money elsewhere to try to keep up activity.

So these two cuts tells me that perhaps the Council although stuck in a very hard place – doesn’t value sufficiently the words  it is producing in its strategies. We are destined for a lovely suite of coffee table books – but without anyone/few to deliver or monitor them. We are destined for slow and imperceptible action in these key areas. There needs to be a rethink and I do think there is scope for doing things differently within the Development and Culture Directorate. The cuts to these teams do not have to be so large.  This monolith of a Directorate again shows that it seems to think in silos and is cutting slice by slice without reflection or radical new ideas. I hope to do a blog post on this at some stage but that is for another day!

I do think however what ever the eventual cuts to these teams – and don’t get me wrong there is no easy answer and I don’t envy the people in charge of these cuts that are imposed nationally – that a different approach is needed. A true partnership approach is needed. There are many organisations that are committed to the City and these agenda;  the Universities; many businesses; the Health Service etc. What is need is for the Council to admit that it can no longer lead on its own; it needs others to chip in resources; peoples time, financial contributions etc.  So if we look at the example of Marketing Birmingham £4m is contributed by partners and external funders to that organisation. We need some form of arms length partnership – where partners and Commissions’ not only sit round the table and talk but they contribute and they jointly lead as these agendas together are too important to lose.

The cuts are open for public consultation and I would encourage you to read the documents. It is hard for outsiders to fully understand the content but if we don’t comment or rather make suggestions as it is not just good enough to complain we cannot argue later when the axe falls.  There is an online survey here and there have been a number of public meetings – the next one is at Bournville College in Longbridge on December 18th details at the bottom of this page here

May be see you in Longbridge?

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2 comments

  1. Keith Budden · · Reply

    Interesting and well presented. However the only real way forward is to establish an arms length investment vehicle for green and smart delivery, owned by the LEP and councils – perhaps even spreading to the city region. This body could attract GIB funds as well as ECO, RHI and EU and even invest prudential borrowing to gain and great return from the Council. This has been done before see Thameswey part of Woking council or even AGMA. Oh and the Black Country are likely to to do just this too. Come on BCC if you can set up the NEC and part own an airport surely establishing a smart green investment company.

  2. Keith,

    Seems like a sensible suggestion linking together to form such a vehicle. I am sure you have raised this in the circles of power?

    Patrick

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