COMMUNITY ANCHORS: New life for Erdington Baths

Words by Afzal Hussain – Chief Officer of Witton Lodge Community Association

After almost six years of perseverance and the tireless support of our community and stakeholders, we were delighted to finally secure the £4million needed for the first phase of works that will breathe fresh life into the former Erdington Baths.

The Baths are almost a century old, and have stood empty since they were closed in 2014. Many residents have already shared their treasured memories of growing up and visiting the Baths with family and friends, and I’m certain we will hear many more as the project develops.

With work expected to start later in the year, the first phase will see funds invested into the overall fabric of the building to restore the roof, undertake essential repairs, create a main reception area, and convert the pool hall into a co-working space, studio pods, events and community space.

Situated between Erdington Library and the Erdington Skills Centre, it is a great opportunity to create a Learning, Skills and Enterprise Quarter in the heart of Erdington.

Complex projects such as these are only possible with the support of many stakeholders – our community, local businesses and partners. We want to thank Birmingham City Council and West Midlands Combined Authority for investing in the project.

We are particularly appreciative of the Council’s leadership for taking this brave decision, especially as it deals with its financial challenges. Mayor Andy Street continued to back the project even against the backdrop of three failed funding bids to government.

The late Jack Dromey and more recently Paulette Hamilton MP have been huge advocates, and Cllr Robert Alden has been on this journey with us right from the outset. Thank you!

For more on Witton Lodge Community Association, visit www.wittonlodge.org.uk

Witton Lodge Community Association is a key partner in the Erdington Local COMMUNITY ANCHORS programme, supporting independent local and community journalism.

NEWS: Official investigation finds Kingstanding councillor earned over £6000 whilst working in “a voluntary capacity” for Council SEND support service

Words by Ed King / Pics from Erdington Local archives

An official investigation has found Kingstanding’s Labour Councillor Des Hughes earned over £6000 whilst working for the Council’s criticised SENDIASS service – in what he claims was intended to be “in a voluntary capacity for a few weeks”.

SENDIASS is a Council run statutory service that supports young people with special educational needs and disabilities, which was found to be “85% non-compliant” in a 2022 review conducted by the National Children’s Bureau (NBC).

A report presented to the Council’s Standards Committee earlier this month, by public law barrister Matt Lewin, identifies the payments were made to Mr Hughes despite him having officially resigned from SENDIASS on the run up to Council elections in 2022.

It further identifies failings by Cllr Hughes to declare his roles as trustee on two local charities, Kingstanding Regeneration Trust (KRT) and SHIME@NechellsPOD – with the latter cited in the report as receiving over £120,000 from SENDIASS for office space rentals from 2020 to 2022, as discovered in a separate review of the service by KPMG.

The report continues to state that “no procurement process had been followed” over the rental agreements and highlights the Council’s exiting portfolio of available office space. It adds, “there were no signed contracts in existence” between the charity and the Council.

The investigation also addressed and held true allegations that Cllr Hughes used his access to HR management software to extend the contact of 21 agency workers at SENDIASS, whilst holding the elected position of Kingstanding Ward councillor.

It also found that Cllr Hughes “failed to disclose his continuing interests at SENDIASS” whilst attending Council meetings, with a focus on his position on the Education, Children and Young People Overview & Scrutiny Committee.

First employed by SENDIASS in April 2019, Des Hughes held the paid position of Parent Partnership Support Officer, working at least in part out of office space at the Nechells POD community hub.

Mr Hughes was not an elected Council member when first recruited by SENDIASS.

After being selected as Labour’s candidate for the Kingstanding Ward in March 2022, Mr Hughes followed official protocol and resigned his city officer role at SENDIASS – allowing him to campaign and, if elected, sit as a Kingstanding councillor without a conflict of interests.

However, findings from Mr Lewin’s investigation show Mr Hughes continued to work for SENDIASS until “at least” the end of August 2022, with invoices issued to his home address showing he received a further £6,189.96 from the service – referenced as ‘SALERY OVERPAYMENT RECOVERY Late Leaver’.

Whilst Cllr Hughes did not deny his continuing work with SENDIASS, both during his local elections campaign and subsequent role as Kingstanding Ward councillor, he told the investigation he was only intending to support a “good bunch of people” in a voluntary capacity and felt that “just running… and leaving them with” his cases to “share out and hand over just seemed a bit inconsiderate in the circumstances.”

When further questioned about the £6,189.96 he received after his official resignation, Cllr Hughes claimed he had not seen the invoices before.

He added: “…this might sound flippant, but if there’s money in the account when I go to the cashpoint, I tend not to investigate further.”

Addressing the rental payments made by SENDIASS to SHINE@NechellePOD, the Lewin report states “there is nothing in the evidence… that suggests any direct involvement in this agreement” by Cllr Hughes – but confirms rental payments to the charity are first seen on their accounts in 2020/21 after Mr Hughes’ appointment.

Des Hughes was a Labour councillor for the Kingstanding Ward from May 2010 to May 2014, and again from May 2015 to May 2018.

In March 2022, Mr Hughes was again selected as a Labour’s candidates for Kingstanding in the 2022 Council elections – alongside running mate Naziah Rasheed. He was elected on 5 May 2022 with 1350 votes, this highest of any candidate, and represents the ward alongside Conservative Councillor Rick Payne.

Complaints were made reportedly against Cllr Hughes last year, with the Kingstanding councillor formally notified of the allegations in August 2023 and an investigation beginning in September that year.

Following the allegations, Birmingham Labour party told Erdington Local they had placed Cllr Hughes under “administrative suspension”.

Only recently made public, following a Standards Sub-Committee meeting on 22 March, the investigation report presented to the Council prompted their decision that “Cllr Hughes had breached the Code of Conduct” for elected officials – citing seven individual cases, including points where Cllr Hughes brought “his role and the Council into disrepute”.

The Committee’s recommendations included stripping Cllr Hughes of his role of trustee at the Barry Jackson Trust and as the Council’s representative on the Board of the Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The Committee’s ‘Decision Notice’ further recommended Cllr Hughes makes an official apology to Council, and that “all reasonable steps to recover the outstanding overpayment of salary.”

Erdington Local has contacted both Cllr Des Hughes and Birmingham Labour for further comment.

For more on Cllr Des Hughes visit: www.birmingham.gov.uk/councillors/165/des_hughes

For more on Birmingham SENDIASS visit: www.birminghamsendiass.co.uk

OPINION: My thoughts on Birmingham’s budget – Gravelly Hill Councillor Mick Brown

Words by Cllr Mick Brown (Gravelly Hill Ward, Labour & Co-operative) / Pics from Birmingham Labour and Erdington Local archives

As the Councillor for Gravelly Hill, I wanted to give my thoughts on Birmingham’s budget, the difficult decisions that had to be made and the impact the council cuts are likely to have.

As Councillors we have been left will no alternative other than to get the council back on a sound financial footing, but like many of my council colleagues it was with a very heavy heart that I voted for this budget. 

When I talk to Gravelly Hill residents about their concerns over what has happened in Birmingham, there are the four commonly asked questions:

What’s gone wrong here?
I believe that the Council needs to take responsibility for its part in the failings, which include both the ongoing equal pay liability and the botched implementation of the Oracle computer system.  For this reason, I’m backing the call for an independent inquiry so that the people of Birmingham can see that there is accountability for what’s gone wrong here.

The failure to deliver savings in previous years, is a further reason for the need to save £300 million over the next two years. However, much of the savings we have had to find are due to increased costs, and more people needing our services due to the cost-of-living crisis.

Is this just happening here?
While some of this situation is unique to Birmingham, the constant underfunding of local government is an issue for councils up and down the country regardless of political persuasion.  Birmingham has lost over a billion pounds over the last decade, as we are all being hit by inflation and rapidly increased demand for services such as adult social care and childcare services.

What’s been protected?
We will still have millions to spend on services, for example the Council has safeguarded the future of the Wellbeing Leisure Centres, and the aim is to ensure a £1 million fund for youth services across the city. While the cuts are far larger than we would have wanted to have made, with the adult care being cut by 6% and children and young people services cut by 14%; the rising demand for both services means that the amount of money spend is rising despite the budget cuts.

What’s happening next?
We know that the way the council works needs to change, and we need to get better at working with partners across the city. We are going to consult with the people of Birmingham on how you want services to be delivered in your local area, so that we give people the support that they need in the most effective way possible.

As councillors we all have a role to play going forward standing up for our communities and ensuring that the transformation of the Council delivers the better basic services that the residents of Birmingham deserve.

Click here for more from Gravelly Hill Councillor Mick Brown (Labour & Co-operative).

NEWS: “A bad taste in the mouth” as Birmingham City Council employees facing cuts to local services presented with “crazy” voluntary redundancy packages

Words by Jacob Morgan

Birmingham City Council has presented workers with a “crazy” new voluntary redundancy package, whilst it grapples with massive cuts – as part of a recently approved budget that will see the largest local authority in Britain withdraw £300m from public services.

Birmingham City Council (BCC) employees were offered voluntary redundancies last August, under its Mutually Agreed Resignation Scheme (MARS).

However, after many calculated their MARS settlements and agonised over the decision whether to leave or stay from their jobs, the Council withdrew the offer in a last minute U-turn – as Erdington Local reported last November.

But Erdington Local can now reveal, BCC employed workers were recently sent an email about forthcoming redundancies with a “lower settlement” – which the Council acknowledged could run into 600 jobs being lost.

A Council spokesman confirmed: “We anticipate that (subject to consultation) up to 600 posts may be declared redundant across the council.”

Workers in children’s services, the youth service, SEND provision, the careers service, and other departments earmarked for budget cuts, have begun to receive voluntary redundancy offers that are seen as “lower” than last year’s MARS scheme.

A Birmingham City Council spokesperson further confirmed the new round of voluntary redundancies.

They told: “A targeted voluntary redundancy scheme has been opened to employees working within services that are seeing proposals for workforce reductions or changes, as a result of the budget savings that the council is having to make. 

“The voluntary redundancy scheme and proposed payment arrangements are enhanced from the statutory minimum for voluntary redundancy payments.”

A Council employee, who has more than 15 years service, told Erdington Local they have received another voluntary redundancy offer which has left “a bad taste in the mouth”.

He added: “I just do not trust the Council anymore. Last year I spent weeks really thinking hard whether I want to be part of what is going to be left after all these cuts.

“I love my job, I work with some amazing but vulnerable youngsters, and can see the difference I make. But where I work could close… so what is the point of staying?

“Also, I spent ages looking at the settlement I was offered under MARS and what that could mean for my immediate future.

He added: “However, just as I was about to submit my voluntary redundancy submission they scrapped MARS. I really, really, really resent the amount of time I wasted thinking it about. They are playing with people’s lives – I that’s what so annoying.

“And now, just a few months later, I have got another voluntary redundancy offer, with a lower settlement.

“I am getting out of this organisation, which is run by people who do not care about the work their employees do.”

Unite regional officer for Birmingham Council, Lee Wiggetts-Clinton, said: “This is a tremendously uncertain time for all staff at Birmingham (City) Council, one thing they can guarantee is that Unite will always have the backs of its members.

“It is crazy at the moment. I did not like MARS. And I don’t like these lower settlements offered. Obviously, defending on people’s circumstances, a voluntary offer could work.

“But I am telling members, tell them to shove their voluntary offers where the sun don’t shine – wait for the bounty of compulsory.”

The voluntary redundancy controversy comes after the HR expert brought into deal with the personnel problems at Birmingham City Council was himself not kept in post, arguably with questions still left to answer about the more widespread financial issues facing the city.

Interim Director of Human Resources and Organisation Development, Darren Hockaday, was reportedly costing taxpayers between £1,200 and £1,500 a day – which is the equivalent of at least £350,000 a year and a much higher annual salary than that of the Birmingham City Council Chief Executive, who earned around £260,000 per year.

Mr Hockaday leftt Birmingham City Council November 2023 after his contact was not renewed – despite the financial crisis gripping the city, and his role as a key city officer responsible for HR of over around 12,000 Council employees.

Reports from other local media have also cited a Council initiated investigations from solicitors Browne Jackson into allegations that individuals at Birmingham City Council “might have failed to abide by ‘the Nolan principles’ that govern public life, including acting with integrity and honesty.”

NEWS: Pype Hayes resident launches petition to ‘Stop Birmingham City Council’s Unfair Council Tax Increase’

Words by Ed King

Pype Hayes resident, Daniel Edge, has started an online petition to ‘Stop Birmingham City Council’s Unfair Council Tax Increase’ – amassing hundreds of signatures a day from people across the city.

Launched on 10 January, the petition set a target of 1500 signatures which it is well on course to reach.

At the time of writing, only five days after the petition went live on the recognised campaigning website Change.org, 1358 people had put their name down in support – with 228 recorded in a single day.

To access the petition to ‘Stop Birmingham City Council’s Unfair Council Tax Increase’ on Change.org, click here.

Birmingham City Council (BCC) has recently come under question after they wrote to the government last year, to get Westminster to allow the beleaguered local authority to increase Council Tax above the legal limit of 4.99% without holding a referendum.

Current laws limit the amount a local council can increase their yearly Council Tax charge to residents without a public vote on the matter.

But following BCC’s financial crisis, after the city issued a Section 114 notice in September 2023 – effectively declaring itself bankrupt – the drastic step has been taken to get government approval to jump those restrictions, meaning Birmingham residents could face an increase of up to 21% on their Council Tax bills over the next two years.

The decision to approach central government to allow such a significant hike in Council Tax, without the legally required public consultation or vote, was approved by BCC in a full Cabinet meeting in December 2023 – with Council Leader John Cotton stating it would only be implemented “if necessary”.

Cllr Cotton added: “It’s clear that we’ll need to seek exceptional financial support from the government in order to bring the council’s budget back into balance.

“These are obviously very tough times, we’ve got some difficult and challenging decision ahead of us in shaping this budget.”

On 5 September 2023, Birmingham City Council issued a Section 114 notice after facing a budget shortfall of around £84m for their next accounting year.  

There were also reported debts over equal pay liabilities amounting to an estimated £760m and costs surrounding the Oracle IT system of up to a further £100m – although these figures have been questioned by some sources in the city.

With a team of commissioners now overseeing Birmingham’s bank balance, local residents are worried they will end up footing the bill for BCC’s mistakes – seeing “unfair” increases in Council Tax and losing services.

Speaking to Erdington Local about his decision to start a petition to ‘Stop Birmingham City Council’s Unfair Council Tax Increase’, Daniel Edge explained: “I was moved to create the petition because of the unfairness and injustice of the proposed council tax hikes.

“Birmingham has 1.1M citizens of various socio-economic groups and a large proportion of those will be significantly impacted by these above inflation increases.

“It is simply not fair that the council tax payers are picking up the pieces of over 10 years of financial mismanagement. I’m happy for a 4.99% increase, the most the council can do without seeking government approval, but not a penny more.”

One signee of the petition comments: “I’m a resident of Birmingham and the councillors should be held to account for their mismanagement of finances over the years as opposed to this ridiculous increase in council tax.”

Another adds: “Daylight robbery! Stealing from the poor full stop for mis-management of public funds.”

Whist a further supporter of the petition ends their comment by saying: ”… I am being penalised for being a good resident and paying my way. I am not prepared to be a cash cow.”

To read more on the petition to ‘Stop Birmingham City Council’s Unfair Council Tax Increase’ visit: www.change.org/p/stop-birmingham-city-council-s-unfair-council-tax-increase

COMMUNITY ANCHORS: Protecting our community spaces

Words by Afzal Hussain – Chief Officer of Witton Lodge Community Association


 
Following the decision by Birmingham City Council to file a Section 114 notice in September, attention has quickly turned to the possibility of the council selling off assets to generate vital funds during this financial crisis.

With a review of BCC owned assets to be undertaken by government commissioners, the probability of an “assets disposal programme” will be high on the agenda, and whilst the usual suspects of Birmingham Airport, BMAG and Library of Birmingham make the headlines, what about the much-loved spaces and assets within our communities?

A new campaign ‘Save Birmingham’ has been set up by Co-operatives West Midlands, in response to the Section 114 to help protect community places. The campaign gives Birmingham residents the important opportunity to have their say in protecting places and spaces that matter to them.


 
Residents can show support on the website for the list of places identified or nominate a community space that they want to protect. This will highlight the importance of these assets to local communities, hopefully leading them to be preserved or transferred into community ownership.

The foundations of Witton Lodge Community Association are rooted in people and places with our busy hubs providing vital community support services across the Erdington constituency.

Our main office Perry Common Community Hall was the city’s first asset transfer, and we transformed Witton Lakes Eco Hub from a derelict building and rubbish dump into a much loved and needed community facility, proving the power of community-focused decision making.

We are also progressing the multi-million-pound regeneration of the former swimming baths on Mason Road, Erdington to help breath life back into Erdington High Street and providing a vital space for the local community.

If there is a local asset that you feel should be saved and preserved for now and future generations then do, make your voice heard.

You can of course raise this with your local councillors and MP, and also add details to the website – www.savebirmingham.org/community-places

For more on Witton Lodge Community Association, visit www.wittonlodge.org.uk

Witton Lodge Community Association is a key partner in the Erdington Local COMMUNITY ANCHORS programme, supporting independent local and community journalism.

NEWS: Council green light plans for 26 bay EV charging station on Tyburn Road

Words by Ed King

Birmingham City Council (BCC) have green lit plans for a 26 bay electric vehicle (EV) charging station on Tyburn Road, despite concerns from local residents and Gravelly Hill Councillor Mick Brown (Labour).

Approved subject to conditions on 1 November by BCC’s planning committee, the application for the demolition of the existing building and a change of use to the site – which previously housed a We Buy Any Car outlet – was first submitted to the Council in May this year by Metalcraft Developments Ltd.

The application further requested permission for the installation of two electricity substations, and ‘13 electric vehicle charging units, landscaping and associated works.’ It also identified that four of the bays would be ‘designated for disabled parking.’

But following widespread concerns from people who live and work near the location, several objections were registered with BCC before the closing date on 21 June – including eight letters from local residents, and four separate petitions against the development with a total of 130 signatures.

A public meeting to discuss the plans was also held on 9 October at St Chads Church Hall on Stoneyhurst Road, with the planning officer’s final report stating it was ‘attended by approximately 20 residents.’

Amongst the many issues raised was the potential danger to those both driving and walking past the site, situated on the corner of Tyburn Road and Wheelwright Road. In his official objection to the plans Cllr Brown claimed the proposed site had an ‘unsafe egress / access onto Wheelwright Road, which would be hazardous to vehicle and pedestrian safety.’

Further worries came from any potential anti-social behaviour at the strongly residential location, as the site would be in operation 24 hours a day, and the lack of amenities and public lighting to support those using the facility.

Air and light pollution were also flagged up with the planning committee, as were concerns over ‘increased traffic congestion’ in the surrounding area – already a busy throughfare in and out of the City Centre.

Amongst the eight letters of objection from local residents the risk of fire from EV cars and equipment used to charge them was also highlighted. Although others were quick to challenge this on social media, with several people citing more prevalent dangers from diesel and petrol run vehicles.

Returning their final report at the start of November, Birmingham City Council approved the proposed plans subject to conditions over design, appearance, residential amenity, and highway safety issues, which the developers would be asked to consider.

Addressing the environmental concerns raised the report further stated: ‘It is considered that the proposal would facilitate the growth of electric vehicle usage and greener travel methods. Therefore, in the broadest sense the application adheres to policy and is acceptable.’

In response to the Council’s decision to reject objections over the proposed development, Cllr Mick Brown told Erdington Local: “It is inspiring to work with residents from across Gravelly Hill committed to a more sustainable travel infrastructure; with the aim of making our neighbourhood a more pleasant places to move around as we work, live and play.

“While EV is key to achieving this, I am concerned that the sheer size of this site, with its proposed 26 chargers, is likely to encourage significantly more car usage in a residential area which sits between two major arterial routes into Birmingham (the A38 Tyburn Road and the A5127 Gravelly Hill); and already has above average numbers of vehicles on its roads.

“The roads adjoining the site are regularly used by children walking to school and pedestrians, often elderly or disabled, using the nearby shops; and it is important that any action taken on Thursday also reflects the priorities given to them as part of the Birmingham Transport Plan”.

Metalcraft Developments Ltd were given a three year timeframe in which to complete the project, meaning the proposed EV charging station would have to be delivered by November 2026.

OPINION: A message from Paulette Hamilton, MP for Erdington

Pic supplied by Paulette Hamilton MP

As your local MP representing Erdington, Kingstanding, and Castle Vale, I care about the issues that affect you and our community. Here are some of the things I have done in the past month:

I recently hosted a meeting with Simon Foster, the Police and Crime Commissioner, Chief Superintendent Richard North, local traders, and officials from Birmingham City Council. 

We discussed the ongoing issues of crime and antisocial behaviour on Erdington High Street.

Importantly, they heard concerns from our traders, recognising the need for more robust measures to enhance security and enforcement, and the need to work more closely to combat crime in the area.

I was also approached by traders on Slade Road who raised concerns about issues they were experiencing, including theft, antisocial behaviour, and the presence of sex workers. I empathised with the challenges facing local traders and will be following up on their concerns and working towards a constructive solution. 

I recently participated in a National Day of Action for Safer Streets to prevent road accidents, injuries, and deaths. As part of this effort, I’m backing the campaign to reduce speeds to 30mph on local roads. I would urge everyone to have their say by taking part in the consultation – please do get in touch if you want to know more. 

Despite 13 years of Conservative cuts to policing, I will not give up on fighting crime and antisocial behaviour in our area. I will keep working to secure the resources we need to keep our community safe. 

For more on Paulette Hamilton MP for Erdington visit www.paulettehamilton.org

OPINION: We don’t just grow vegetables… Court Lane Allotments Erdington

Words by Luke Davison

Here at Court Lane Allotments Erdington, we don’t just grow vegetables. We have 108 plots with six partners, groups or organisations holding a plot. From YMCA, Birmingham MIND, to EcoGrow. Providing help and support to vulnerable people and young adults. From Forest School for children to activities for non-income families.

We are a huge benefit to the local community and the go to hub for improving mental health, exercise, socialisation, and multicultural integration within the community.

We recently received a grant to convert an empty plot into an area of use for people with mobility issues. Nine individual raised beds at wheelchair height, with greenhouse and shed on site stuffed with hand tools and all you need to grow your own. More on that coming very soon.

Why not come along to our next Fayre, one of three we put on throughout the year, on 10 December to see for yourself and meet the team. Grab yourself a free mince pie, cup of mulled wine, and let your children visit Santa in his log cabin and receive their free gift.

Here at Court Lane Allotments Erdington, we don’t just grow vegetables…. We flourish…. Together.

For more on Court Lane Allotments visit www.facebook.com/courtlaneallotments

COMMUNITY ANCHORS: Birmingham City Council issues Section 114 notice. So, what’s next for Birmingham and its communities?

Words by Afzal Hussain – Chief Officer of Witton Lodge Community Association

Birmingham City Council is experiencing severe financial difficulties, and this is a worrying time for all of us that have a stake in this city, and even more so for vulnerable residents and groups that rely on council services, funding, or support.

The Council leadership declared that it “will prioritise core services that our residents rely on, in line with our values of supporting the most vulnerable”. In all honesty it is difficult to imagine how this will be achieved, given the Councils’ parlous financial state and the inevitable cuts to services and further loss of staff.

Over recent years, we have lost many of the essential support services that communities rely on – youth work, neighbourhood advice services and Sure Start, to name but a few. The pandemic, followed by a cost-of-living crisis, is already putting unbearable pressure on many.

That said, I’m certain that even against this tough backdrop our local community, voluntary and faith groups will rally to do what they can. In Erdington, we have a good track record of doing this, and this will be needed now, more than ever.

Of course, Birmingham City Council is a vital institution, however, it is important to remember that there are also many other important stakeholders, and the collective leadership challenge, is to come together to protect and support our vulnerable and rebuild.

In the meantime, at Witton Lodge Community Association we have offered our support to the Council to help pull together a credible plan, making the case for protecting services in Erdington, and doing things differently.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact us or pop along to one of our Advice Surgeries.

For more on Witton Lodge Community Association, visit www.wittonlodge.org.uk

Witton Lodge Community Association is a key partner in the Erdington Local COMMUNITY ANCHORS programme, supporting independent local and community journalism.