Birmingham bin strike: City sinks under one fine mess on top of another

Patrick Burns
Political editor, Midlands

  • Published

What a load of rubbish

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
For two months, the abiding images of Birmingham have been not of its achievements, but of the gloomy spectre of rubbish bags piling higher and higher

It's the city of a million people. Its businesses are growing faster than anywhere else in Britain, according to figures just published by the Lloyds Purchasing Managers' Index.

And the government has just chosen it as Britain's nominee to host the 2022 Commonwealth Games.

But for two months, the abiding images of Birmingham have been not of its achievements, but of the gloomy spectre of rubbish bags piling higher and higher every day because of the dispute between the embattled council and its bin workers.

It began on 30 June and any settlement looks as far away as ever.

The Unite union warns it has a mandate to continue the action through Christmas and into the new year.

What's more, the mess on the streets is nothing compared with that engulfing the Labour-controlled council.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Bin bags have piled up in Birmingham during the dispute

Its leader John Clancy has now become the highest profile casualty of this epic dispute.

His resignation follows a welter of claim and counter claim over whether or not he reneged on a deal in the middle of last month.

He insists he did not say the dispute had been settled: It was only an agreement "in principle" to an Acas-brokered deal.

That drew a chorus of ridicule from the unions: "Doing a Clancy", they said, would become a byword for saying a deal was done when it wasn't.

You pays your money and you takes your choice.

Image caption,
John Clancy said he accepted he had made mistakes

What isn't in dispute is that this argument turns around proposed changes to bin workers' roles and shift patterns, which Unite says could lead to 120 job losses.

The union has been contesting in the courts more than 100 redundancy notices already handed out to refuse workers.

Council officials including the interim chief executive Stella Manzie warn the deal proposed last month would be unaffordable and would expose the council to an endless succession of equal pay claims.

Now Unite is calling for her, too, to resign.

A letter signed by the city's nine Labour MPs seems to have sealed Mr Clancy's fate.

They accused the council of being an obstacle to progress in the dispute.

Image source, @outinbrum
Image caption,
Residents in one part of the city marked 50 days since their rubbish had last been collected

In his resignation statement, Mr Clancy said: "It has become clear to me that frenzied media speculation about the Birmingham waste dispute is beginning to harm Birmingham City Council and the Birmingham Labour Party."

In trying to negotiate a settlement to an "extremely complex and difficult industrial dispute... with the best of intentions" he accepted he had made some mistakes.

"I am sorry and I take full responsibility," he concluded.

Even before Mr Clancy's statement, the Communities Secretary and Bromsgrove MP Sajid Javid had written to John Crabtree, chairman of the Independent Birmingham Improvement Panel, asking for an update.

The panel, charged with overseeing the council's recovery plan to restore functional and budgetary sustainability after its well-documented failures, had put it on probation following remedial measures introduced under Mr Clancy.

But Mr Javid's intervention may well signal the prospect of government commissioners being sent in to take over the running of the council.

What next?

Image caption,
Rubbish piles up in Sparkhill, Birmingham

For Labour, a divisive leadership contest would do little fill the leadership vacuum while the refuse continues to pile up.

Meantime the strains between the local and national party show no sign of easing: The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has come out in support of the bin workers.

And with the first 'all out' council elections coming up next May, the leader of the Conservative opposition Rob Alden clearly scents an opportunity to make inroads into Labour's majority.

He points out an earlier dispute with refuse workers, when his party ran the council in coalition with the Liberal Democrats back in 2011, was resolved within three weeks.

"This fiasco would not have happened on our watch," he told BBC WM.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
While the wider world has been regaled with pictures of the rubbish piling up, the political shenanigans themselves have yet to make a mark beyond the city

For the record, much of the credit for resolving that dispute was accorded to the then Liberal Democrat deputy leader of the council Paul Tilsley. For the record, six years on, Cllr Tilsley tells me it was not the role of the Leader or Deputy Leader to be directly involved in the negotiations. (Cllr Clancy take note!) But Mr Tilsley says he did receive daily updates from his, then, directors and head of service so that he could ensure progress was being maintained.

While the wider world has been regaled with pictures of the rubbish piling up, the political shenanigans themselves have yet to make a mark beyond the city and its immediate surroundings.

Perhaps understandably, the national media are preoccupied with the Brexit negotiations.

But at a time when Labour are increasingly presenting themselves as an alternative government-in-waiting at Westminster, it may be only a matter of time before sections of the national press seize a strategic moment to explode their story: This is what you get when you elect Labour into office.

Sunday Politics returns

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
This street in Alum Rock is one where uncollected rubbish bags were piled high earlier in the dispute

And discuss it we will, when Sunday Politics Midlands returns after its summer break this weekend.

Joining me in the studio will be the business minister and Stourbridge MP, Margot James; the newly-elected Labour MP for Warwick and Leamington Matt Western; and the former Liberal Democrat MP for Solihull Lorely, now Baroness, Burt.

(The programme will also include my interview with her new leader Sir Vince Cable, preparing for his annual party conference in Bournemouth).

And I hope you will join us too.

Sunday Politics Midlands starts at 11.00 BST on BBC One this Sunday morning, 17 September 2017.

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