Nigel Hastilow: Birmingham the building site is nothing to be proud of
A council in financial chaos, a city centre besieged by roadworks and a Games nobody really wants, just how did Birmingham get like this?
Birmingham may look down on the Black Country, but at the moment Britain’s ‘second city’ has nothing to be proud of and things can only get worse.
For starters, the place is a building site – it’s getting more and more difficult to drive in and out of the city centre thanks to the roadworks, new construction work and closed roads.
This wouldn’t be so bad if you really felt the city was investing in the future. While it is undergoing a complete revamp of what they, with no sense of irony, call ‘Paradise’, that means ripping up what local taxpayers paid for just 25 years ago.
Centenary Square, proudly unveiled in 1991 after the city spent millions of pounds on a fibreglass ‘Forward with the workers’ statue and a Persian carpet made of brick, has been ripped up by the council’s loss-making basket-case subsidiary Acivico.
This is a wicked, wanton waste of money.
Just down the road, the ‘Iron Man’, a statue by the major sculptor Anthony Gormley, has disappeared to make way for a Midland Metro which will cause further traffic chaos in the city centre for ever more.
A Roman road was uncovered during the Metro construction work but quickly covered up again by the Philistines running the council.
As a worker on the project told me: “I don’t understand it. They’re covering up the city’s history to build a tram nobody will use.”
Law and order
Meanwhile, law and order seems to be collapsing.
Last weekend 21-year-old traffic warden Charlie Weston, from Wolverhampton, was beaten and kicked while working in Birmingham’s Alum Rock area.
Admittedly the rise in violent crime is a serious problem across the West Midlands but for random savagery this attack was truly shocking. It would help if it were possible to have any confidence the local authority knew what it was doing.
Birmingham Council was once a by-word for civic responsibility; today it’s teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
The incredible ineptitude of its civic leaders is matched only by their grandiose ambitions and financial incompetence.
For instance, Birmingham has doomed itself to hosting a Commonwealth Games extravaganza in 2022 which everyone in the West Midlands is supposed to be looking forward to with mounting excitement.
Yet the council can’t even find enough money to empty the bins or look after children in danger.
It is telling that the local authority has endured not just three political leaders in three years but, in the same period, three chief executives and three finance directors.
Nobody, it seems, wants to take responsibility for the mess the city is in, let alone make the tough decisions desperately needed to get it out of the hole it has dug for itself.
The figures are hard to comprehend. This may be ‘Europe’s largest local authority with more miles of canal than Venice’, but the gondola is sinking.
Accountants Grant Thornton warn Birmingham needs to save £52 million in the next 12 months. It has an £84m hole in its budget for the Commonwealth Games. It is running an annual deficit of £75m a year. This is covered up by taking £117m from the reserves – but soon enough that money will run up.
Its social services department is in ‘special measures’ and still not good enough.
This matters for all of us because thousands who live outside Birmingham depend on the ‘regional capital’ for our livelihoods one way or another.
Some of the problems are due to the Government squeeze on local government finances. But other councils – with the notable exception of Northamptonshire – survive well enough.
No local authority gets into this kind of crisis willingly.
Even the dunderheads in charge will not, surely, have deliberately taken the city to the brink of bankruptcy.
The latest chief executive, Dawn Baxendale, will struggle to bring order into all this chaos.
More jobs will be axed. A recent report, using the usual local government drivel, says: “People who have the right behaviours and skills for the future need to be retained and nurtured, whilst acknowledging that the workforce will be significantly smaller, needing a different focus and capabilities.
“It will be a challenge to bring the workforce on this journey and to re-engage individuals and teams in a positive future.”
You bet it will be ‘a challenge’, though getting the boot from Birmingham Council isn’t too harsh. In 2016-17 each redundant worker received an average of £23,698; last year that went up to £27,756.
I keep thinking of ex-Labour leader Neil Kinnock’s tirade against Liverpool council back in 1985.
He condemned ‘the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers’.
That was in the days of extreme left-wing politicians led by Derek Hatton running a city into the ground in deliberate defiance of a Conservative Government.
In Birmingham, they don’t even have that excuse.