Group Leader Roger Harmer speaks at length about the Birmingham budget

5 Mar 2024
Group Leader Roger Harmer

 

 

Group Leader Cllr Roger Harmer spoke at the budget meeting today. Here's his speech in full:

"This is by far the most damaging budget impacting our city in living memory.  

It’s not just the damaging cuts to Council Services and funding, the big increase in Council Tax and the failure, despite these measures to balance the budget, that necessitates the sale of around £750m of our assets.  

No, and hard though it is to imagine, its much worse than that. 

Because the sale of assets means less income for the Council towards future service delivery and by cutting preventative work, we will dramatically increase future costs of child and adult social care, damaging lives and burdening future City Council budgets with higher costs. So, its pain today, another horrendous budget to complete the cuts next year, and then greater pain stretching into the future.  

So quite rightly our residents want to know who is to blame.  

So far, we’ve heard from the Leader, who implies that its mainly a national problem. There is certainly a national problem caused by cuts in government funding. Let’s briefly look at why this happens. It’s caused by the massive centralization of powers in this country, including taxation powers, which will always tempt national governments to pass tax rises or cuts on to local government by cutting their funding. As they are indeed doing now. The long term answer is not to ask national government for some more money. Even if they were to say yes, that would just be a short-term solution. The real answer is to decentralize taxation powers to something more like you see in pretty well any other advanced economy. Did Labour do this when they were last in power?  No. So, it's hard to have that much sympathy with them now. And the national funding situation is hardly a surprise, yet while complaining about it, this Labour administration has done nothing to prepare for it. It's as if you knew you had a pay cut coming, yet you carried on partying until the money ran dry. 

And we’ve heard from the Conservatives that it’s a Birmingham problem. The failure to manage the budget even to a very basic extent with every last penny of last year’s savings written off, the Oracle IT disaster and Equal Pay. All true, and the point is that while the national picture would have meant tough choices about which services to cut and which to save, Birmingham Labour’s failures mean this council has to make all the cuts it might otherwise have been choosing between. It must increase Council Tax up to an extraordinary 21% by next April. And then it must sell off £750m of assets. And that’s for starters. 

But it's worse than that, when you read the S151 Officers shocking report you see that even after doing all this and before we start to address the Equal Pay situation – we are still facing a £226m shortfall in the coming financial year and a further £76m of new cuts in 2025/6.  

So, we are left with a dangerously narrow path to financial safety. That path is outlined in the budget before us today, well apart from of course the extra £76m in cuts to be added for next year.  

But the next, frankly scary question is, can they deliver? As the Centre For Governance and Scrutiny has said: “The Council is good on strategies and disastrously bad at delivery”. So, it is essential that everything possible is done, to keep on this narrow path.  

And blaming others massively increases the risk of failure, of falling off the path. Accepting responsibility is the key first step to getting everyone behind the changes that need to be made. I understand why you do it. You’ve bankrupted our city, and you want to deflect. But in distracting from your failures, and particularly the severity of those failures, you distract from the efforts to put them right.  

As things stand the Liberal Democrats on this Council have no confidence that the Labour leadership can keep on that narrow path. And let's be totally clear what I’m saying here. I’m not saying that we think there is a risk they will fall off the path, but without ongoing tough Commissioner intervention, we expect it. We have no confidence whatsoever in your ability to deliver what you propose. The one thing I do have confidence in is that if you fail, you’ll have a good story as to why it isn’t your fault. You may be abysmal at running the Council, but you are great at blaming others for it. 

So, we need to do everything we can to keep on track. It will need a lot of things to come together to happen. First of course we have the firm hand of the Commissioners, and I fully understand the need they felt to sit amongst us. It sends the right message, but while they can lead where our cabinet has failed, that won’t be enough.  

We need all Council Departments to deliver. Recent history says this is a big ask. It calls for seismic cultural change and that requires crystal clear leadership and direction, not misdirection towards those you want to blame.  

And we need to value the ideas and knowledge of our citizens. While we were concerned about the flawed nature of the resident consultation that took place from early December to 17th January, it is a terrible sign of how this Council continues to work, that the results of that consultation have not been made public. In creating our amendment, I wanted to have those public opinions so that I could consider them all in our proposals. I’ve called for this several times and been met with silence. It speaks to an arrogance that the Council knows best, even when its responsible for the hole we are in.  

And then we have the political leadership of the Council. Clearly our democratic processes mean Labour will stay in power until 2026, when I have no doubt, the residents will exact a savage revenge. In the meantime, we propose to improve challenge and transparency by putting Scrutiny in the hands of opposition Councillors – the one group of Councillors who are not tainted with having been in power for the past 7 disastrous years. This is the best way to ensure all Councillors are playing their role as effectively as they can in the recovery of the Council. It also means that the dead hand of Labour marking their own homework doesn’t delay progress, as it has up to now.  

This budget is not ours and as I have said, will do untold damage to our city. We don’t support it but will try to make it better. 

So first we are calling for the Ladywood Regeneration Scheme to be Reset, Reshaped and Restarted. It's clear that it’s going in the wrong direction, with a lack of resident involvement in its initial development and levels of affordable housing that are far too low. To be clear, we want the scheme reset because we want it to succeed. The people of Ladywood welcome regeneration, they just want to be heard and respected, and they want assurances that after all of the disruption, they will not be detrimentally impacted. Success will deliver high quality affording housing, including housing for social rent. Businesses in the area will be consulted properly and given the conditions to thrive.  

This council can't afford failure in Ladywood, and neither can the people whose lives and livelihoods depend on it, so it's time to reset. If would be frankly reckless to carry on now, when the alarm bells are ringing and when the Council is to put it mildly somewhat distracted by other issues, including the sale of a large amount of our property. 

More generally the Council seems determined to trash our heritage and the other things people value, if it helps developers, the most recent example being the Electric cinema.  We say no. We must preserve what we can of the city for the future for environmental, economic and cultural reasons.   

The monetary saving from halting Ladywood regeneration is modest, but in the short term it can be usefully ploughed back into our libraries, and I’ll return to that. 

Secondly on waste we have the following proposals: 

Double shift the waste lorries. It’s a pretty basic rule of business that if you have an expensive asset, you use it as heavily as you can. So why not have morning and afternoon shifts so that we need far fewer lorries to keep our bins emptied. Now for sure you don’t half the cost as the wear and tear on vehicles will be faster, but it won't be twice as fast, especially if you move to electric trucks that have far fewer moving parts to wear out.  

Our next recommendation is on managing food waste which has positive financial and environmental benefits. Start the move to food waste in a phased way, to reduce the scale of resources needed. How does that help? The evidence proves that a big benefit of food waste collections is that when people start putting out their food waste in caddies, they are shocked by how much they waste, and they start cutting down. This then means that after a while, you need less capacity in the system. Introducing it all in one go, means you risk wasting capacity that is only used in the early days. One way to make that work is to roll it out area by area and as each area reduces in demand, you move the spare capacity to the next area to participate.  

We also recommend saving the full neighbourhood waste enforcement team. This team is responsible for pulling together the evidence to prosecute fly-tippers, and checking businesses have sufficient waste disposal contracts.  Frankly the current contingent of 6 is inadequate for Birmingham, so cutting it in half will do massive damage to our street scene for a tiny saving. This wins the prize for the most short sighted and self-defeating cut in the whole budget, and there is plenty of competition. Any saving will be wiped out in extra fly-tipping costs. The only group this will benefit is those who break the law – and of course the four-legged rats too. 

We believe that as a package these measures will create significant savings. The fact that the department doesn’t seem to recognize or perhaps simply can’t deliver them, is yet another sign, as if you needed one, of what is wrong with this Council.  

Beyond these immediate proposals we have more fundamental priorities that require a more radical reshaping of our Council, and we will develop detailed plans for how to deliver them ahead of the 2026 elections.  

As part of this we have to find creative ways to protect and redevelop early intervention in children's services and adult social care. 

And we also have to radically recreate real localism across our communities. Tragically this budget marks another step in the ongoing destruction of the small remaining elements of localism. The complete destruction of the successful neighbourhood Action Pilot will lead to a more distant and less efficient Council.  Then we have the halving of support for Ward Forums. This really illustrates the congenital centralizing tendency of this administration. It is the contention of my group that the most effective and cost-effective way of delivering most services is by making decisions as close as possible to residents. If you are going to cut the number of times you formally talk to them to once per 4 months, what hope is there of that. One of the reasons we have for prioritizing more money for our libraries, is that in so many communities they are the last physical outpost of the Council. We must protect and nurture these, by all means use them more creatively if that is what is needed to enable them to survive – and Cllr Tilsley will speak more about this. But they must survive; once they are gone, they are gone forever. 

People say that the darkest hour is just before dawn. The threat of this budget is that we have years of winter to go through, before there is any sign of spring.  We see a budget balanced at a cost of future income, we see residents impoverished by ballooning council tax bills and we see the damage to our future done by strangulation of key services. Not every part of that is this council’s fault, but the majority of it is, and Birmingham Labour needs to own up to that and accept it.  

There is a brighter future available for the citizens of Birmingham. It’s a future without the factionalism, backbiting, self-interest and greed of the current Labour administration. The Labour party nationally felt it could deal with the impending crisis by changing the Leader, but the truth is that the only way it will really change is when the voters throw them out, as I'm sure they will in 2026.  

We have to do better than this, we can do better than this, and once Labour are out, we will do better than this."