Hardly a day went by recently without me receiving a request via email/social media to sign a petition against one cut or another arising out of the consultation on Birmingham City Council’s budget proposals for 2015/16 (Proposals here). There is real concern over the cuts to Library Services – so there was a petition against that. There are concerns about the cuts to Birmingham’s Museum Trust – so there was a petition against that. There are others I am sure and despite the good news on Birmingham’s economy the gloom over these cuts and the Kerslake Review is all apparent.
I dont really want in this post to focus on the detail of these cuts; they are dispiriting and seemingly endless. These cuts of around £72m for 2015/16 have caused enormous controversy but we need to realise that these are only about a third of the cuts currently envisaged necessary by the Council. The real answer to these cuts is not to stop the cuts in one place and place them elsewhere and that is why I haven’t signed any of the petitions; the real answer is at a national political level – and apart from saying I think Birmingham could be doing more in this debate – I don’t want this to be the focus of this post.
I want instead to talk about income raising. An alternative to cuts. Now this is not largely about bidding for funds from national government or the EU nor about clever schemes like the Enterprise Zones which Birmingham does well but about the use of its assets to raise money commercially. Birmingham City Council is praised in this Local Government Association website page for its income raising proposals – raising revenue from its website – which will bring in £1m a year. After a quick look at the site just now – this doesn’t seem to be operating yet but is a sensible step. (Any questions on this to Mark Gardner – Mark.A.Gardner@birmingham.gov.uk – who is the lead for this project.)
But looking at the cuts proposals I did feel a sense of disappointment and perhaps a lack of focus on income generation as whilst there were individual examples of proposals there wasn’t a clear focus or apparently a corporate drive.
Areas where I feel there may be scope include:
- The Library – could include more retail/ catering outlets on the ground floor; could embrace the Xmas Markets by having stalls outside; could potentially charge for the high level view from the top of the building; could be sponsored. This needs a detail look but every effort should be made to raise income before cutting. The examples particular that of Brighton’s library which raises £125k pa from a ‘booklover’ store – with 3500 footfall (documented here) give one hope that significantly more monies could be raised by the Library of Birmingham which has 2.7m visitors.
- The Council could look to raise more from on street advertising. A few years ago if I remembered rightly a temporary advertising hoarding on the outside of the Town Hall raised over £1m. I hope whilst the Paradise development is ongoing the Council puts up such hoardings around the site. The Council reputedly owns about 40% of the City – land and buildings. Surely much more could be raised from such hoardings. The A38M route into the city must have opportunities for more hoardings. The Council’s Lancaster Circus building is a potential prime site for such advertising. This again needs a detailed look and it must be admitted that there is a potential conflict of interest as the Council is also a guardian of the environment – but I would much rather put up with more hoardings and save some services or have a library to visit.
- Given the Council owns 40% of the city – is it raising enough value from these assets. I would think a complete cross departmental view with external experts pulled in should look at this. This needs opening up for review to see where extra resources could be raised. This currently is hidden from public view and needs a bit of air.
- The cuts are very much silo based and so are any income proposals made in the document. So for instance the proposals from the Markets to allow more regular car boot sales in the city is sensible but why not take it one step further – and use some of the car parks the city owns to host car boot sales on sundays. Just imagine a car boot sale in Cannon Hill Park car park/ or the Kings Heath car parks it owns. And why doesn’t the Markets division support the Cultural and Creative objectives of the city by leasing out the Open Air market on Sundays (and Mondays) for an arts and craft market/ a flower market or whatever.
- I may be being fixate by markets – but surely more money could be raised by the Council in the Xmas period – with so many millions of visitors- surely the Council itself could benefit. Couldn’t the Council House court yard be turned into a grotto or a Victorian market – again leased out by the Council to a private operator. I am hoping that the Birmingham based stalls actually raise money for the Council – so why not have a separate Christmas arts/craft market around the cathedral or around St Paul’s Square. Lets go for it.
- On a slightly more bureaucratic approach. Why not look at parking control in Digbeth. Everyone knows that it is greatly used for free on street commuter parking – why not extend parking control into that area. It will have to happen with HS2 coming so bring it forward now – and let the money raised go to improving our roads, cycle paths etc. Similarly as I have noted elsewhere a workplace parking levy is a sensible approach and yes lets enforce our current traffic controls. As long as signage is clear and warning is given – lets enforce our bus lanes – and again use the monies to improve our transport experience. One point to note is that there are proposals to increase on street parking charges – this needs to be done sensibly – as in some areas there are very few people parking because the charges are too high.
These are just a few personal ideas – some of which may have legs and some which may be completely impractical. What is needed though is;
- The Council should focus on income generation in a cross departmental approach
- It should pull in pro bono advice from the private sector/ other Councils to maximise its impact. External expertise will be needed.
- It should have a separate group working on the Library – which should also look at governance. This should be cross party as well.
- It should appoint a politician and a senior officer to head this up.
- It should have a scheme where internally and externally suggestions can be made and rewarded if sensible and profitable. There will be ideas both within the Council and the City that need exploring!
Now don’t get me wrong – the Council is not a basket case in this regard but it could do more and secondly this is not a panacea – this approach will not solve the funding gap – it is too immense to do that – but if it just saves a few services and a few jobs it is worth doing. What are your income raising ideas?