Birmingham Labour councillors set to choose new leader

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Birmingham skylineImage source, PA
Image caption,
Birmingham's leaders will certainly hope their change of leader will help to create the impression of a page having been turned

It's one of the biggest jobs in Britain, in charge of an annual budget of over £3bn delivering services for one million people.

The next leader of Birmingham's ruling Labour group will be elected next Monday, 23 November 2015 and will formally take office as leader of the council a week after that.

Despite the sheer scale of this role at the top of Europe's biggest local authority, the decision rests with just 78 people - the Labour councillors, who will make their choice in a secret ballot.

In order to inject at least an element of public openness and accountability, the Birmingham Mail is inviting its readers to one of two hustings events in which the city's voters will be able to question the candidates.

The four all-white contenders, three men and one woman, are vying for the leadership of one of Britain's most culturally diverse cities:

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The leadership candidates: Clockwise from top right: Barry Henley, Ian Ward, Penny Holbrook and John Clancy
  • John Clancy has challenged for the leadership four times already. He's long campaigned for greater investment in housing and business
  • Barry Henley has senior management experience in the private sector as well as in the health service
  • Penny Holbrook has been responsible in the present cabinet for improving skills in the city and forging new partnerships between the council and different sections of the community
  • Ian Ward, the present Deputy Leader, is hoping his work on the city's improvement project can earn him the mandate, as Leader, to finish the job

Mike Leddy, a recent Lord Mayor, was also in the running but recently decided to pull out.

What 'improvement'?

The origins of the city's improvement project lie in well-documented, and often scandalous, failures under successive administrations, not least in the Children's Services Department.

This led to the governance review by the former Head of the Civil Service, Sir Bob Kerslake, which in turn, triggered the appointment of an improvement panel to monitor the council's performance in implementing Sir Bob's recommendations.

The panel, chaired by respected local businessman John Crabtree has so far been studiedly unimpressed. Sir Albert's resignation, after 16 years as Labour group leader and eight of them as leader of the council itself, came shortly before Mr Crabtree delivered his report to Communities Secretary Greg Clark.

Image caption,
Former leader Sir Albert Bore has represented Birmingham's Ladywood ward for 35 years

Mr Clark replied the panel should remain firmly on Birmingham's case until March because of the "slow progress in developing a "City Partnership" and an agreed vision for the city; a long term financial strategy; and in securing the senior management capability required for the size of the council."

There's an implied threat in all this. If the government considers that the city has not achieved these objectives by then, it will send in its own commissioners to oversee the running of the council. That is a step no government wants to take. It is very much a last resort and the city's leaders will certainly hope their change of leader will help to create the impression of a page having been turned.

Investment hotspot

Whoever takes over, there will be no "honeymoon period". On top of those urgent reforms to the city's governance, he or she will be the leader of the biggest of the seven metropolitan authorities currently negotiating with the government over the devolution to a West Midlands Combined Authority of unprecedented political and spending powers from Whitehall.

Local decision makers are intensely frustrated the devolution agenda focuses so closely on the Northern Powerhouse when it is Birmingham which has been identified in the World Competitive Cities Report as the hottest investment hotspot in Western Europe.

This encouraging economic narrative is being lost in the relentless catalogue of civic woes. Already some Conservative backbenchers are wondering privately if Birmingham is in any fit state to be granted new devolved responsibilities.

I will be reporting from Thursday evening's hustings event on Midlands Today at 6.30pm and 10.30pm and we will have more in this weekend's Sunday Politics in its usual 11.00 slot on BBC One Midlands on Sunday 22 November 2015.