What a difference five years has made to Birmingham City Council
Paul Dale looks at the fortunes of Birmingham City Council since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came into being.
Five years ago today, Birmingham’s political landscape shifted decisively.
After 20 years spent running the City Council, the Labour Party found itself dumped out of office by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition. The transfer of power was, perhaps, not unexpected since Labour had lost its outright majority the year before but the shotgun marriage between Tories and Lib Dems was, excuse the pun, a bolt from the blue.
To understand the context, it is necessary to recall that a year earlier, in May 2003, Tory group leader Mike Whitby reached an agreement with Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore to share scrutiny committee chairmanships, leaving the Liberal Democrats with nothing. Although the Tories, by voting with the Lib Dems, could have denied Labour power, they chose not to do so.
A year later, the annual council elections were held in June. Labour remained the largest group, with 53 seats but a long way from an overall majority.
Most expected Sir Albert to retain control of the council, perhaps by hatching another deal with the Tories – probably by offering Whitby control of the scrutiny committees – or buying Lib Dem support with the offer of a cabinet seat. But Whitby, playing on his reputation for inclusivity – something of an irony given last month’s bid to oust him, which was based on allegations that he had turned into an egomaniac – outflanked Sir Albert by sweet-talking the Liberal Democrats.
The coalition was on, or Progressive Partnership as both sides insist on calling it. Five years is rather longer than most people gave the partnership.
Some thought Whitby and his Liberal Democrat counterpart, the brilliant but unpredictable John Hemming, might not last five months before falling out.
All politicians require luck and Whitby has had his share. He worked so hard during the first 12 months that he was in danger of a breakdown. He collapsed in his office with chronic pains, which were diagnosed as kidney stones but doctors warned that if he didn’t change his lifestyle and stop working a 92-hour week, he would be dead within months.
“I have learned to pace myself more,” he admits. He has benefitted from a clear run as leader. Few could have predicted the extent to which Labour, locally and nationally, would disintegrate – leaving the coalition to operate without an opposition worthy of the name.
Labour continues to lose seats – down to 36 now and staring 30 in the face at next year’s elections – and the party’s leadership is virtually anonymous.
There is, apparently, a shadow cabinet but I could not name more than three of its members. Whether the party communicates among itself, it is impossible to say, but it most certainly does not pro-actively campaign in Birmingham – giving instead the impression of a long sulk based on the dangerous assumption that the pendulum will eventually swing back and Sir Albert will be returned to his natural position as council leader.
One of the coalition’s trump cards has been the unity and strength of the council cabinet. With the exception of the death of Ken Hardeman, the removal of John Alden to better reflect political balance, the ousting of Ray Hassall by Martin Mullaney and the early departure of Nigel Dawkins, the top team has remained in place since June 2004.
The undoubted stars are John Lines (housing), Sue Anderson (adults and communities) and Alan Rudge (equalities and human resources).
Lines, who finds it difficult to make a speech without being rude about someone, turned out to be the person to take the housing department by the neck. He’s even building council houses. A Tory building council houses in 2009?
Sue Anderson came into the job with a reputation for being so reasonable and pleasant that many thought she would be ineffectual. But she has turned out to be as steely as Lines, although the boot is more likely to be covered with velvet.
She’s managed to proceed with closing all of the council’s old people’s homes, replacing them with sheltered housing and extra-care villages, is in the process of replacing outdated institutional care with independent sector provision and hasn’t encountered serious resistance.
Alan Rudge, a hard-as-nails solicitor and middle-class version of John Lines, turned in perhaps the most extraordinary performance of all cabinet members by taking on the council unions over Single Status and the pay and grading review – and emerging unscathed with no serious industrial action.
From day one, Whitby was determined to make extensive changes at the top of the officer corps. In five years, the changes have been remarkable. Departed top officials, moving or retiring, include Lin Homer (chief executive), David Pywell (development), Paul Spooner (economic development), Jon Bloomfield (European & international division), Emrys Jones (planning), David Thompson (housing), Andrew Kerr (leisure) and Sarah Wood (resources).
Whitby says he set himself four targets: to address the “chaotic” finances; keep council tax increases as low as possible; radically improve front-line services; improve Birmingham’s reputation in the UK and internationally.
He believes his administration has made great strides, but accepts there is some way to go. He’s been criticised for becoming a globe-trotter, but says this is essential if Birmingham is to drum up inward investment. He believes that without his Chinese contacts, SAIC would never have invested in Longbridge and the Rover name would be long gone.
He argues passionately that Birmingham is unrecognisable now from the litany of failing services he inherited in 2004. Coun Whitby said: “We have uplifted people’s perception. We have three Michelin-starred restaurants, more than Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool put together, because restaurateurs and top chefs invest in cities where they feel their clients want excellent cuisine.”
He feels that both he and Lib Dem leader Paul Tilsley are not given enough credit for keeping the Progressive Partnership together. “Paul Tilsley and I work together very closely,” he said. “People need to reflect on how the parties work together; it takes skill and doesn’t happen naturally.”
Mike Whitby claims he has learnt to be more patient and to play a longer game, developing an ability to “look further down the road than I ever did”.
He is, as you might expect, brutally dismissive of the recent attempt to overthrow him by Northfield Tory councillor Randal Brew, insisting that Brew’s complaints about poor communication between backbenchers and the cabinet were being addressed before the leadership challenge took place.
The result of the leadership election, which Brew lost, is supposed to be secret but Whitby cannot resist hinting that he won by a landslide. “It wasn’t an overwhelming challenge,” he adds.
Asked how he can be certain, he replies: “I have a very good idea.”
And he notes that Coun Brew recently decided to stand down as chairman of the Northfield Constituency Committee because he felt he no longer had the full support of local Tory councillors.
Whitby comments: “If he can’t get the confidence of his constituency committee, how can he expect to become leader of the city council?”
Mike Whitby remains an enigma. A successful businessman, who once toyed with becoming a social worker, he made his brass before entering politics at a relatively late age.
Now 61, he comes from a famously competitive family. He says his brothers and sisters rarely meet without arguing about who has achieved most in life.
There are few people more passionate about Birmingham than Whitby, but he is surprisingly thin-skinned when it comes to criticism. Those that cross him politically tend to come to regret it.
Broad church as it is, Mike Whitby does not fit easily into the Conservative Party, giving every impression that his natural instincts owe more allegiance to the Liberals. It may or may not be significant that Whitby is yet to receive a single honour – not even an MBE, never mind the knighthood routinely handed to previous council leaders.
Perhaps he will get recognition if and when we have a Conservative government. But don’t hold your breath.