Soapbox article first published in the Municipal Journal (17 July 2014)
As I write this, Birmingham has recently commemorated the centenary of the death of Joseph Chamberlain. There are many things that this great man is rightly famous for – and some others that we shuffle under the carpet – but he has undeniably left an indelible mark on this indubitably great city. Therefore, it is apposite that he is uppermost in our minds as the council sets about the task of reinventing itself to ensure that it creates a future characterised by a clear values, purpose, priorities and set of approaches for making a positive difference to the outcomes that matter most to our communities.
Indeed, a colleague of mine has suggested that we could do worse than include a “What would Joe do?” element into our thinking and planning.
So, what would he do?
As we know, improving the public’s health was a serious concern for Chamberlain and he fought hard to tackle the causes of those diseases that did so much harm to the city’s poor. And, it seems to me, that this concern for the population’s health and well-being should remain a constant, not just here in Birmingham, but for local government as a whole. What could be more important than sustaining our focus on eradicating those inequalities that, at headline level here in Birmingham, still mean that there is a mortality gap of around 10 years difference in longevity between the shortest and longest-lived?
Next, Chamberlain was an entrepreneur extraordinaire and he brought together powerful business acumen with a keen sense of social responsibility. In his mission to eradicate poverty and make money, he embraced economic innovation. We could learn a lot from a man who acquired water and energy supplies not only to free the poor from the exploitative practices of the utility owners of the time, but also to make money to reinvest in further enterprises. The new twist for the modern City Council is to harness this spirit of creativity and innovation in a period of fiscal austerity – but the ambitions we have around a city-wide network of combined head and power capability suggests that there is a modern equivalent of the great Gas and Water Halls that were just some of the products of Joe’s fertile imagination.
And, thirdly, we should deliver a new model of the best sub-national governance in the country. Whether or not we can pull off this feat within the three year timeframe it took Chamberlain in the mid-1870s remains to be seen, but there is an unmissable opportunity for Birmingham to take its place at the leading edge of progressive, democratic, devolved power. We already have a model of triple devolution which is aimed at creating three distinct layers of ‘single pot’ commissioning and governance – City Region, City and neighbourhood. If national Government is prepared to loosen the apron strings a little further, then Birmingham will again be a thriving, autonomous social and economic powerhouse.
And, finally, the most important aspect of all. Chamberlain left an oppressive and exclusive 19th Century Metropolis and came to Birmingham because he knew it to be a place where ‘a bounder’ with non-conformist beliefs could thrive. The city embraced him – and he embraced the City. One thing that hasn’t changed since Joe’s era is the warm, inclusive welcome Brummies of all types give to those prepared to give Birmingham a chance.
So, here’s to a renewed ‘Civic Glory’ – Made In Birmingham.