Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Another day, another audit report

The Audit Commission has returned to swing another punch at Birmingham City Council and the indicators aren't good. From being classed as 'improving well' last year, Birmingham is now only 'improving adequately.' In other words, the pace of improvement is slowing.

There are some good points - services are regarded as improving after a long period of neglect (let's not point out that much of that period was when Birmingham was at the mercy of a Tory government and that recent improvements have been paid for by above-inflation grants from Labour, nor that the previous report praised the steps taken by the outgoing Labour administration).

A consistent theme running through the report is that while there are high-level ambitions, there doesn't seem to be a strategic view of what is necessary to achieve longer-term goals.

The Council does not provide effective community leadership in addressing local and national challenges including the city region agenda.... The community leadership offered by the council is weak
There is a clear focus on improving underperforming services but the Council does not have a clear view about what its aim of excellent services means in practice.... There is also some lack of realism about... transforming some services, which have only recently begun performing adequately, into excellent services.
People in Birmingham experience worse than average health and high levels of health inequality. Improvement in the health of disadvantaged people has been slow. Approaches to promoting the independence of older people are weak. Joint working with the NHS has strengthened, but the Council does not yet have an overall strategic approach to improving the health of the local population or meeting the needs of older people.
The Council has an unrealistic understanding about what is required to achieve its goal of excellence across all areas of activity... The Council still has a very long way to go to achieve its aspiration of ‘excellence in all our services’.
Then we come to waste management.

there is... no clear strategy in place for waste management.... targets for recycling will only just meet the minimum statutory requirements (despite these being the lowest statutory targets set for any authority)... plans to deliver improvements are not effective. The Council recognises that its current strategy will not deliver the improvements required. It has developed a new 20 year draft strategy, but this presents options rather than a clear way forward. The adoption of the new strategy is behind schedule and the Council has not set out or agreed the required longer term investments.
Disturbingly, the report notes that some of the targets are too easy to achieve - soft targetting on education is likely to lead to a shortage of skilled workers.

Councillors tend to focus on neighbourhood and service delivery issues to the detriment of the Council's wider 'place shaping' and regional leadership roles. Some strategic partners are satisfied with the leadership provided by the Council, but too many are not. Many key partners have expressed negative views about the nature of their partnership with the Council.... the continuing weaknesses in some key partnerships are a barrier to further progress.
On another key local issue, transport, the report is again critical
the number of people using buses is falling and is failing to meet targets. Plans currently in place are unlikely to reverse the long term decline because they do not address the key reasons passengers choose not to use buses. Plans to extend the metro service are key to the longer term goal of reducing congestion, but are now behind schedule. This means that the key objective of reducing congestion is making limited progress.
While crime is falling - despite what the Tories and Lib Dems would have you believe, anti-social behaviour is a problem. Yet again,
key partners are concerned about the lack of an integrated approach to ASB and the approach within the Council itself is inconsistent. There is no overarching strategy for reducing ASB and this is a barrier to improving performance in this area. The systems used to record and track the progress of ASB cases are poor... The absence of overall strategy means that resources are not used effectively.
On the issues of drug and alcohol abuse, that high-level vision comes into play again.

There is however, no overarching strategy or implementation plan in place for tackling drug use, and as a result the Council is not benefiting to the maximum from its partnership working in this area and is not focussed on priorities... The lack of an overarching strategy reduces the opportunities for a more co-ordinated inter-agency and cross-council approach to alcohol misuse
Lozells slid into rioting back in 2005 and the indicated failures on diversity and equalities issues come to the fore again as

Some partners felt that the Council should have engaged the communities involved at an earlier stage, and that it has not dealt with the underlying community problems in the area. A community cohesion strategy was agreed by the Council in October 2006, but this was relatively late given many of the challenges facing Birmingham. The strategy was not widely circulated among partners for comment nor have the views of the local strategic partnerships been taken into account in developing it. The effectiveness of the strategy is impaired because communities have had little involvement in contributing to it, and are therefore less likely to be committed to delivering it.
There are clearly signalled problems with staff - the bosses feel that they are doing OK, but their employees feel that communication and consultation have deteriorated since 2004. Ominously, the trade unions report that contacts with senior figures are poor - which bodes well for the forthcoming changes in contracts in line with single status.

Housing development policy implementation remains an identified problem and one that can be laid at the door of the current administration. Forecasts indicate that Birmingham needs almost 16,000 affordable homes by 2009, yet fewer than 2000 have been provided and while there are further developments planned, the plans clearly don't meet the forecast need and there are no signs of progress.

The target for 35 per cent of new units being affordable is not adequately monitored...The impact is that many people in Birmingham will not have their housing needs met by a balanced housing market.


All in all, despite some strengths - notably in services to children and young people and some improvements in services to elderly people (although even there, a strategic plan seems lacking), there remain an awful lot of problems. Leisure and cultural services actually slides back in the star ratings.

Again and again, the council is slated for short-termism and a lack of strategic thought. While some services are improving on the ground, for there to be any hope of embedding that change into the culture of the council, real leadership is needed and it is sorely lacking at the top. But then, we already knew that. Unless things change significantly, there is a real chance that the next CPA will see Birmingham reduced to a one star authority.
The council has not been able to provide the leadership needed to take forward the corporate approach needed in such a diverse city.

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