Mike Whitby has been reminding people that, with eight years in office, he was the second longest serving council leader in Birmingham’s history. With the hand-over of power to Labour under way, Neil Elkes looks back at his legacy
Two years ago, as David Cameron and Nick Clegg forged the Coalition Government, the nation’s political media descended on Birmingham to see how a Conservative-Liberal Democrat team-up could work.
The two parties had been sharing control of Birmingham City Council since 2004 and had been praised for turning around struggling services they inherited such as housing and adult social care.
A major efficiency drive was getting under way, and construction was starting on huge projects such as New Street Station and the new Library of Birmingham.
But, even as Tory leader Mike Whitby and Liberal Democrat deputy leader Paul Tilsley posed for the cameras, it was already becoming clear that the Birmingham coalition’s days could be numbered in the wake of significant Labour gains in the 2010 election.
This decline has been accelerating as the national government has become progressively more unpopular amid huge austerity cuts, despite the city council’s best efforts at damage limitation.
Like the national coalition, Birmingham’s marriage of Tories to Lib Dems was a result of prevailing national factors, in their case the 2003 Iraq war, and a mutual distrust of Labour.
In 2003-4 Mike Whitby came forward as Tory leader and immediately agreed a pact to prop up Sir Albert Bore’s Labour administration which was a couple of seats short of an overall majority, in return for a few influential scrutiny committee positions for his colleagues.
At the 2003 election Labour had lost several “safe” inner city seats to Liberal Democrats and Justice Party candidates as Muslim voters protested at the Tony Blair Government’s part in the “war on terror” – this was eventually to have dramatic repercussions for the city’s political landscape.
By the 2004 local election Labour was in danger of losing control and its desperate candidates in Aston and Bordesley Green took to postal vote fraud on an industrial scale to save their skins, in an act which “would have shamed a banana republic”, according to judge Richard Mawrey QC who oversaw the subsequent election court.
That election saw no party in overall control, but most outsiders assumed that Sir Albert’s Labour group would, as the largest single party, make a deal with either Mike Whitby’s Tories or Yardley MP John Hemming’s Lib Dems.
But with Hemming angered at Labour allegedly turning a blind eye to the vote fraud and Whitby knowing he could only be the junior partner in a Labour coalition, the two held talks and formed what they called a “progressive partnership”.
Coun Whitby said: “I think Labour took our partnership for granted, they expected an agreement. But I found it easy to deal with John Hemming. We forged a partnership of independent political parties.
“Our deal with Labour a year earlier had also given our senior councillors some experience of running committees and working with the executive. This proved very useful.”
It is also worth remembering that the council they inherited has been performing poorly, with its housing department in danger of direct Government intervention after building up a backlog of 49,000 repairs and its social services department failing.
That’s not to say that Labour did not have a few projects in the pipeline – a new £160 million library had been planned and designed for the new Eastside Park and the UK’s largest private finance initiative deal to maintain Birmingham’s roads was being drawn up.
Sir Albert also claims that he had begun, with development agency Advantage West Midlands, to pull together funding for a New Street Station rebuild, but Mike Whitby insists there was nothing in place when he took over in June 2004.
The new Progressive Partnership set out with several key aims – to keep council tax rises below inflation. They set the rise at 1.9 per cent each year until the government pushed for council tax freezes last year, and the Birmingham coalition aimed to raise the ratings of the council’s failing departments, to improve efficiency and improve “quality of life” ratings.
From the Liberal Democrat side there was also a keenness to follow a green agenda, for which they have rightly been recognised.
It was sometimes felt that Coun Whitby was too remote from the day-to-day services, such as recycling and bin collections, housing, schools, social care, and that his focus was on big projects – the airport extension, New Street Station, city centre development and, of course, the Library of Birmingham.
He would argue that his cabinet were capable people.
Housing, under the firebrand Tory John Lines, and social care, under the effective Lib Dem Sue Anderson, were soon performing better. Even education has seen modest improvements in exam results after years of treading water.
But a key failure has been children’s social services, where cases like the tragic starving to death of Khyra Ishaq highlighted severe shortcomings in the department.
Serious case reviews, government inspections and the council’s own warts and all inquiry were all damning in the condemnation.