Kerslake underlines need for vision and strengthening the centre

This post was originally posted on the Chamberlain Files

As the Birmingham Policy Community is launched, following hot on the heels of the Kerslake Review and today’s budget announcement, Patrick Willcocks assesses the need for better strategic co-ordination at Birmingham City Council.

The Kerslake Review covered a lot of ground. I want to focus on two connected areas that it found lacking and with which I profoundly agree: the lack of an overall vision for the city; and the weakness of the corporate centre, in particular the weakness of leadership in the area of Birmingham’s economy.

When I first joined the City Council in 1998, a senior officer said to me: ‘you will never understand the Council as it is too big’. It annoyed me intensely. I needed to try to understand the beast, not least as I had to increasingly represent BCC to our partners in Europe. I had to explain our strategies and our approaches.

A few things really struck me in those early years:

  • there was no published structure to the organisation for many years;
  • HR didn’t know how many people were employed by the authority at any one time;
  • it was a body obsessed with internal processes and procedures, but not one that thought or reflected on decisions, let alone evaluated them – the bean counters were in charge; and
  • for many years political leadership, with few exceptions, was weak and officer leadership weaker.

It was an organisation reacting to circumstances; not forward thinking; not learning from outside; not effectively engaging with neighbours or Whitehall. Instead, it went for the easy solution; the marketing approach to strategies such as the Big City Plan; and the ‘London is biased against’ us approach to failure. Therefore, so much of the Kerslake review rings true,  even if a little outdated in parts.

Kerslake found that there was a multiplicity of strategies; no coherent single vision and no effective oversight of the co-ordination or delivery of these strategies. These plethora of strategies led me to try and co-ordinate links to them on my blog UrbanPivot. I felt if it was hard for me to navigate their complexity and number, so how could a member of the public cope?

I think to some extent if Kerslake had done his report five years ago aspects of it would have been even more damning. Birmingham has made some improvements to its strategic approach. There are a number of new innovative strategies and plans put in place, but crucially, perhaps, co-ordination of them hasn’t improved enough.

Two new strategies really impress: the Carbon Road Map produced by the Green Commission and most recently the Birmingham Connected Mobility strategy. This latter document openly talks about where the funding will come from  for dlivery. In the past, strategies were ‘motherhood and apple pie’ – not dealing with the how and the when. Birmingham Connected is at least open in discussing funding and implementation, but even these tentative steps to being more realistic have led to criticism.

But some strategies, namely the more economic ones, still don’t always take on board corporate aims. So, for instance, the Enterprise Zone Implementation Plan – a really crucial plan as it is steering £275m of investment and a model in some respects in innovative financing – is almost wholly property/infrastructure led, but hardly links to the Carbon Road Map; it doesn’t read in a joined up manner.

So I fully agree with Kerslake’s analysis; there is little that tells the Birmingham strategic story. This lack of an overview can and does lead to unco-ordinated approaches. Kerslake picks up on the Annual Policy Statement from the Leader. This, in effect, is the only co-ordinating document for the city, but it is not promoted, publicised or consulted on and nor is it used in the business planning process of the Council. So, as he finds, it sadly lacks in effectiveness.

What is interesting is Kerslake’s call for greater support for central functions. I often compared our city council to Manchester’s – which I came across regularly working in Europe. It is a smaller authority, but it had/has a much stronger centre. It had a raft of deputy and assistant chief executives who could help the CEO Howard Bernstein drive the organisation and the city in a coherent and consistent manner. Sir Howard Bernstein (together with Richard Leese) has recently been ranked joint first in this year’s ‘ultimate local government power list’ in recognition of their excellent leadership.

In contrast to Manchester, the centre has always been weak in Birmingham and so silo thinking has prevailed. Stephen Hughes, towards the end of the last administration, effectively tried to decimate the corporate centre to meet saving targets with little thought about how that would impact on strategic and effective working.

I had great hopes when the new administration took power in 2012 and it has led to some improvements: some functions restored to the centre and some really innovative strategies and plans have emerged, but the centre is far from strong enough and needs re-envisaging.

Kerslake’s recommendation on the need for a Head of the Economy Directorate is spot on. A City with huge economic problems needs such leadership.  We used to have such officer leadership until recently when the position was merged with that of Chief Executive. This was probably done, not for strategic reasons, but more likely in an effort to move on the then incumbent as he was not flavour of the month. So the new Chief Executive/Head of the Economy Directorate, Mark Rogers, came to the Council with – as I understand it – no previous experience in Economic Development and therefore despite being a real asset to the Council hasn’t got the right skills nor the time to lead on economic development.

So, Kerslake is right for the need for a city vision and right for the need for a stronger corporate centre.

Patrick Willcocks is an adviser on European Policy and Urban Affairs. 


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