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: “Throw good money after bad” – concerns raised over the real cost to fix Birmingham’s Oracle IT system

Words by Ed King

(The following article is part of an ongoing investigation with Birmingham Dispatch, looking into Birmingham financial crisis and governance issues. For more on The Dispatch, and to subscribe to their daily content, visit www.birminghamdispatch.co.uk )

Birmingham City Council remains shocking unclear as to just how much money – and time – it will take to fix their beleaguered IT system, as the reality of the Oracle scandal starts to come to light.

In a fraught audit committee meeting on Wednesday 21 February, the projected costs outlined to aid with the “reimplementation” of the financail management programme came under fierce scrutiny, with Cllr Meirion Jenkins (Con, Sutton Mere Green) asking “a straight forward question” about how many more paid consultancy days were needed until the problems was solved.

Cllr Meirion underpinned his concerns by reminding the committee “these people are coming in at £1000 per day… possibly more”, mirroring more widespread concerns over the City’s arguably exuberant expenditure on outside consultants.

He further compared the local authority debacle to the private sector, where, he argued, commercial companies would decide “we don’t want to throw good money after bad.”

In response, the City’s Interim Finance Director and Section 151 Officer, Fiona Greenway, admitted the Oracle recovery team “are getting to grips” with the situation and pulled back on providing “a set of numbers and deadlines… only to come back and say, actually they’ve changed.”

Greenway, the Council officer who issued the Section 114 Notice in September 2023 – effectively declaring Birmingham as bankrupt, has recently been appointed as the Council’s Senior Oracle Responsible Officer working underneath Oracle Programme Lead, Philip Macpherson.

Macpherson, who sat on a table alone with slumped shoulders throughout the 21 February Audit Committee meeting, further confirmed his team still has “a lot of work to do” and whilst “estimates” have been put into the Council’s budget to pay for the Oracle fiasco they may have to “refine those”.

Having already reportedly cost Birmingham City Council and its taxpayers £86m, in recent budget proposals for 2024/25 and 2025/26 a further £45m was allocated across the two years to help support the Oracle recovery.

But those projected costs now appear to be more wishful thinking than a concrete cashflow forecast, as an “options analysis” is still being done to decide the best way forward with Oracle.

Greenway further stated the need for an interim financial management system to avoid “a number of risks from manual workaround” as one of the “fundamental issues”, but did not clarify the cost for putting a new system in place “through due procurement process.”

Perhaps the only point that can be agreed upon is the importance of having a functioning system in place, as no financial recovery plan is fully possible without auditable accounts. The Commissioners appointed by Central Government to clean up Birmingham’s financial mess, led by Max Caller CBE, have cited the “Oracle recovery” as one of the “fundamental elements” of their plan to save the city.

But in the same statement, made ahead of the Audit Committee last week (21 February), Commissioners also call out Birmingham City Council for not having “demonstrated the ability and capability” to follow the advice to do so.

After bringing in external auditors Grant Thornton, recommendations over Oracle made to Birmingham City Council on 31 January 2024 again highlighted “a lack of Oracle knowledge” leaving the local authority “without the capability and expertise” to properly balance their books.

But the viability of the entire system is now seemingly under question, which since it’s initial ‘go live’ date nearly two years ago has never operated successfully – leaving the UK’s largest local government to manually “adjust inaccuracies” in its ledger.

Questioning whether the City had now in fact reached “the point of no return” with Oracle, Councillor Paul Tilsley CBE (Lib Dem, Sheldon) went on to challenge previous decisions not to pull the plug on the defunct system as it could have been “cheaper for (the Council) to start again”.

Cllr Robert Alden (Con, Erdington) also questioned the strength of any previous analysis, which was reportedly conducted after the first failings in the Oracle system were addressed, asking that “when the new options appraisal is shared, we can make sure the old one is shared too.”

However, Mark Stocks, Grant Thornton’s Head of Public Sector/Not for Profit Audit and author of their recommendations made to Birmingham City Council on 31 January, explained the Council were still “a way away from making that decision” – leaving the future of the Oracle system, and the costs involved in fixing or replacing it, hanging in the balance.

Erdington Local has asked Birmingham City Council for a breakdown to the costs for the Oracle recovery to date, and to clearly identify how much of the projected budget would be allocated to outside consultants or technical support.

It is expected the ongoing financial and logistical concerns over the Oracle system will be addressed at the Cabinet meeting held today, on Tuesday 27 February.

If you would like to get in touch about any of the issues raised in this article, or around Birmingham City Council’s ongoing financial crisis, please email: edking@erdingtonlocal.com

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.

OPINION: Erdington Cllr Robert Alden, Leader of Birmingham Conservatives

Recent weeks have seen further developments in the effective ‘bankruptcy’ at Labour run Birmingham City Council, with the external auditors and press raising concerns about what appears to be inappropriate and intimidatory behaviour and toxic working relationships between the Labour Party and senior officers. 

Locally, Cllr Gareth Moore and I have been monitoring the progress of the improvements to the play area and outdoor gym in Rookery Park (pictured inspecting the work recently).

The play area work has been funded by money we secured from the redevelopment of Rookery House, and we supported the Friends of Rookery Park to secure funding for the outdoor gym equipment.

We have continued our work to help keep Erdington safe and are delighted that attempts by an amusement arcade to secure 24 hour opening hours on the High Street have been rejected. This would have attracted ASB and was totally unnecessary.

We have also seen a number of other successes recently with our campaign to retain the Erdington Police Station as the base for local Police teams. This will ensure the building is retained allowing, a possible reopening of the front desk in the future, while also ensuring our Police teams are based locally. 

We are also delighted to announce that we’ve successfully fought to keep Ticket Offices at Erdington, Chester Road and Gravelly Hill Train Stations open following the recent consultation about closing them. 

Thank you to everyone who signed our petitions as part of these campaigns.

For more from Cllr Robert Alden and Cllr Gareth Moore visit www.facebook.com/ErdingtonNews

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.

COMMUNITY ANCHORS: Partnership and collaboration in the face of adversity

Words by Simon Wilson, Chief Executive Officer – The Pioneer Group

There have been some scary headlines about the City Council’s need to serve what is known as a Section 114 notice and while I would not seek to downplay the seriousness of the financial challenges Birmingham now faces, there is a commitment to protect core services and work is underway to set out a recovery plan.

We will support this effort. We have looked at the areas of funding we receive from the local authority and have not identified an immediate impact to services our tenants and residents receive.

As an anchor organisation we have always sought and had a strong working relationship with the City Council and a range of partners in our core communities – working closely with tenant groups, charities like Spitfire Services, faith groups, community groups and schools.

We worked together to help people through the Covid-19 pandemic and are taking the same approach to helping those most vulnerable and in need of support through our Cost of Living Task Force.

Of course this latest news is a worry and the Council will face some tough decisions as it starts to balance its books but our services will continue through CVCH and Compass Support. We will continue to work in partnership supporting other organisations, working together and getting out of the way when others are best placed to deliver in our communities.

I know when things get tough our community responds, Spitfire Services rescued and now run Castle Vale Library and swimming pool and CVCH runs – and is investing in – the Castle Vale Stadium.

We will work with whoever we need to in order to protect the facilities and services our communities hold dear.

For more on The Pioneer Group visit www.pioneergroup.org.uk and for more on Compass Support visit www.compass-support.org.uk

The Pioneer Group and Compass Support are key partners in the Erdington Local COMMUNITY ANCHORS programme, supporting independent local and community journalism.

 

OPINION: Erdington Cllr Robert Alden, Leader of Birmingham Conservatives

Pic supplied by Cllr Robert Alden (Erdington Ward, Conservative)

I was honoured to join, along with local school children, the Erdington Rotary Club this month for the opening of their Peace Garden at Spring Lane Playing Fields.

Thank you to all the volunteers who helped build this lovely addition to our local area.

Much of Cllr Gareth Moore and my work this month has been connected to the damning section 114 notices about the Council effectively being declared bankrupt due to equal pay bills and the Leader of the Council refusing to act to prevent the Council collapsing despite warning from auditors, the opposition, and officers at Birmingham City Council.

Therefore, we have been meeting with officers to discuss protecting Erdington Library and to try and ensure plans to regenerate the former Erdington Baths site continue to go ahead.

We have also been meeting with officers to discuss what plans the Council have for other assets locally, such as office blocks, and to stress they must not sell any of them for exempt accommodation.

We are clear that our heritage/cultural assets and green spaces must be protected. They were left for the people of Erdington to enjoy in perpetuity, not to be flogged off to pay for the mistakes of the Labour administration. 

We have also been pressing the Council to ensure the improvements to Rookery Park we secured still happen. We are delighted to confirm they will still go ahead, following a short delay, and work begins in early October. 

For more from Cllr Robert Alden and Cllr Gareth Moore visit www.facebook.com/ErdingtonNews