John Clancy: Birmingham’s status as Britain’s second city not under threat, says council leader

John Clancy talks about his plans to turn Birmingham’s fortunes around after a series of setbacks

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Indy Politics

Sceptics might describe him as an optimist, but John Clancy is convinced Birmingham’s status as Britain’s second city is not under threat. Indeed, the new Labour leader of Birmingham City Council has plans to make the embattled West Midlands engine room “roar like a Jaguar”.

The 54-year-old, who got his feet under the desk a month ago, holds the reins of a city that has suffered major setbacks in recent years.

Birmingham’s child protection services were branded a “national disgrace” by Ofsted, and the “Trojan horse” affair – in which the council was accused of turning a blind eye to attempts to impose a strict Islamist ethos in several schools – triggered more bad headlines.

In December 2014, a damning report by senior civil servant Sir Bob Kerslake found that Birmingham was failing to get right basic services such as street cleaning and rubbish collections, and that it had poured cash into big city projects while letting down residents in poorer areas.

The Government gave Birmingham 12 months to improve and Eric Pickles, then Communities and Local Government Secretary, warned that the city risked “losing its status as our second city for good”.

But Mr Clancy, who replaced former leader Sir Albert Bore following his resignation in October, says Birmingham has been buoyed by Sir Bob’s recent assessment that the city is “making progress on all fronts”.

A Government-appointed panel said earlier this month that the council must now “pick up the pace of change” over the next two months and show it can deliver a realistic budget if it is to shake off the threat of a Government take-over.

“My first priority is to make progress in children’s safeguarding and education,” Mr Clancy says. “My next goal after that is to develop a long-term financial strategy.”

The new leader has taken over at a difficult time. The council revealed in December it was having to make £250m in savings over the next four years and might have to cut 1,000 jobs this year.

He will need to counter criticism that the council failed to work well with local communities and at times behaved more like a dictator than a collaborator. 

“We need civic leaders in every ward,” he says. “The politicians are not here to micro-manage. My job is to produce a long-term vision and an economic plan.”

Mr Clancy, a former teacher and university lecturer, already has radical ideas for change, including free school meals, the creation of a municipal bank, the introduction of “Brummie bonds” to support businesses and using the civic pension fund to invest in housing and major infrastructure.

“We are facing a tough budget,” Mr Clancy says. “We will have to remodel the council and its services, but we have to look up from the ledger book as well and look at new ways of moving money around the city and the wider region. We also have to find new ways of anchoring investment in Birmingham.

“I’m proposing to bring investment to the city with innovative financial procedures and using our own assets to work better with the money we have. The biggest crisis facing Birmingham is housing. We don’t have enough. We are building hundreds of homes when we should be building thousands. We need to look at housing and infrastructure investments in a new way.”

The council’s ambitions have already received a huge boost after Chancellor George Osborne announced a £1bn devolution deal for seven councils in the West Midlands in November, which he said would fire up the “Midlands engine”. 

One of the city’s biggest employers, Jaguar Land Rover, announced this month it had reached record-breaking UK sales figures of more than 100,000 vehicles. It also emerged recently that Birmingham is building offices at its fastest rate for 13 years, with investors ploughing £1bn into business developments. The £600m refurbishment of Birmingham New Street station was completed last year – another huge step towards closing the city’s gap on rival Manchester.

“The only way is up,” says Mr Clancy. “The Midlands engine can roar like a Jaguar.”

Glum Brum: A city’s woes

A damning report by senior civil servant Bob Kerslake warned in December 2014 the city council was failing to get right basic services.

His report followed concern about the “Trojan horse”affair, poor finances and the council’s inability to improve child-protection services, branded a “national disgrace” by Ofsted.

The Government gave Birmingham 12 months to improve and warned of drastic action, including breaking up the authority.

Last July the Birmingham independent review panel said the council was failing to improve quickly enough and poor leadership was holding back attempts to deal with problems. The panel has now told the council it needs to speed up the pace of change over the next two months to avoid the threat of a Government takeover.