Monthly Archives: July 2014

What would Joe do?

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.

Birmingham Bites Back

No, not a reference to Luis Suarez. Rather, a timely trilogy of testimonies to Birmingham’s commitment to a fair hearing and Sir Albert’s proposition for heralding in a new era of “Civic Glory”.

Oh, and some further musings from me.

First, your homework.

And now for those musings.

The great City of Birmingham deserves neither to be ignored, nor to be trashed. What it is entitled to is an intelligent, objective and informed critique. In other words, a fair hearing. And some encouragement.

For sure, the City’s council has some very big challenges, the most significant of which is the long-awaited improvement of children’s safeguarding services. But please note: the causes of prolonged failure have now been recognised and accepted – and a new leadership convened and galvanised (‘The Quartet’). Further, enter stage left Lord Norman Warner who has the credentials, maturity and connections to help us with the leap from diagnosis to cure.

Of a different order and nature, there are also issues relating to some schools and their communities that need addressing – the corollary of which is that there are also matters that need addressing by the council in its education champion and community leadership roles.

But let’s not forget that Ofsted and the Department for Education also have realities to face up to, lessons to learn and changes to make. As several of us have repeatedly pointed out, the imperative is to address those issues of unacceptable governance and their causes, not a contrived “failure of Prevent” agenda that mis-labels decent, upright, devout and loyal Muslim communities as ‘extremists’ and, as a corollary, terrorists in the making.

Certainly, some governors have behaved unacceptably; and some things have occurred that should not. I anticipate that Clarke and Kershaw will identify missed opportunities within BCC (and, I expect, Ofsted and DfE) for heading off or tackling these matters. But, in line with Ofsted’s own findings, it now seems improbable that there will be either crocodiles to shoot, let alone swamps to drain in our schools.

And, of course, the issue of the role and influence of faith in non-denominational schools is hardly a matter reserved to Islam.

So, herein lies the first reason for biting back.

We have at the City Council made every effort to be proactive, cooperative, collegiate, balanced and conciliatory in our attention to the so-called Trojan Horse affair. We are, whether or not it is perceived or believed, open to constructive challenge. Personally, I came in to teaching and, subsequently, local government to serve the public and, accordingly, I expect openness and transparency to be cornerstones of my – and other public servants’ – value set. I do not fear honest, evidenced and constructive feedback – however severe it may be. Closed ears, after all, only lead to closed minds.

But that’s not the tone and sometimes the content of the criticism we’re getting in Birmingham – and that’s why enough is enough. We cannot allow whole communities to be pilloried for the misdemeanours of a few; nor can we stand back and allow the unwarranted re-definition of the underlying problem.

One of the few things I can agree with Michael Wilshaw about is “no extremism here”. Indeed, I’ll go further; I can also agree that it is sensible to do more to equip children and young people to know right from wrong and safeguard them from the risks that come with exposure to those who would advocate untenable beliefs and immoral actions.

Everyone involved, in my mind, shares in a collective responsibility to take a broad and balanced view. Rushing to judgment and/or conflating what should not be conflated is singularly unhelpful.

But there is a second reason for biting back.

I know from both my own childhood and my teaching days that there are three key pre-conditions that maximise the likelihood of successful change. First, insight: second, endless encouragement; and third, clear boundaries. And I just don’t see these qualities shining through the (flawed) analysis of our collective (schools, council, Ofsted, DfE) shortcomings. Ideology appears to be vanquishing evidence.

Serial chastisement (often insufficiently substantiated), unwarranted broad brush lambasting – notably Ofsted’s chief condemning a whole city for the real and perceived sins of its City Council – and a lack of any real substantive offer of help, all these things leave us bewildered and angry. We would not treat a child this way and expect to get away with it.

So, where do we look for inspiration. Sir Albert recommends that it is in a renewed and updated version of Chamberlain-esque “Civic Glory”. The Leader is quoted in The Guardian as saying “what I do think we can resurrect … is the idea of the City as a community and a driver of national prosperity, and the idea that the City must have a powerful, autonomous government that actively seeks to improve the lives of its citizens”.

Irrespective of your view on this definition of “Civic Glory”, what we should be able to agree about is that it is an expression of ambition and hope, something that we need to nurture in the City Council and across the city as a whole. And out of adversity comes opportunity – especially the chance to build even stronger relationships within and between Birmingham’s communities.

So, one final word for me really matters. Encouragement. Go on, dare to give us some.

Not, as I’ve said before, the “pour encourager les autres” sort, but real constructive support and challenge that makes people willing and able to improve.

Let’s hope our critics take note.



PS Oh, and have a look at this this from a returning Brummie ex-pat called Ken Griffiths:

PPS I’ve just been reminded of this – how could I resist a musically-driven affirmation of why City of Birmingham is great?!? Play it often; play it loud; especially play it to anyone called Michael.