Increasing numbers of local authorities (county, city and town councils) in the UK are facing financial crisis. The latest is Birmingham, England’s second largest city, which has issued a Section 114 notice – in effect declaring itself bankrupt. Commissioners will be sent in from central government to take over the running of the authority.
The core reason is an equal pay claim going back years. Women employed by the council weren’t paid as much as men doing similar jobs. But it seemed for some years that financial provisions had been made to pay those affected and all was well. But there appear to be more claims now, which suggests the original problems weren’t sorted out when they should have been. There should have been a serious job evaluation programme but somehow that hasn’t happened. Infighting amongst the ruling Labour Party has not helped either, some observers claim.
However, there also seem to be other reasons for the crisis. Birmingham spent over £100 million hosting the Commonwealth Games last year – good for motivating the locals perhaps, and maybe it brought cash into the city, but a lot of many to spend when you’re in a bad financial position.
Now we are moving into “bad buying” territory too, with accusations of money being wasted in the procurement area. A report in the Daily Mail says, “calls for police probe into bankrupt Birmingham Council’s £11M payments to tiny taxi firm charging £200 a day to take one pupil to school”. This firm, Green Destinations Ltd, (GDL) has grown rapidly in recent years to become the main beneficiary of school transport contracts, and there is a suggestion that it might have been “close” in some way to executives who had influence on the contracts.
Now we have to be careful with headline reports. £200 a day might be for a special educational needs pupil who needed accompanying in the taxi and so on. But competitors also claimed that council officials told their drivers they might be better off working for the favoured firm in question. And the table of fares quoted by the Mail does seem to show very high fees compared to standard taxi rates. No doubt more will emerge on this.
However, there hasn’t been any suggestion that procurement in Birmingham is generally useless or corrupt. But I did feature the authority a couple of times in my Bad Buying book. The first was a call-centre contract with Capita, which an enquiry into the service pointed out did not incentivise Capita very sensibly. They were paid on a per call basis, so had no incentive to sort out problems first time or take the required time to do that. (However, it was the council itself that wasn’t very good at sorting out the underlying problems, to be fair to Capita).
The other mention in the book was the disastrous road maintenance contract with Amey, which ended up with the firm paying £215 million to get out of a 25-year PFI deal. The relationship between the two parties had broken down completely, with a famous report that the council tried to charge Amey penalties of £48.5 million because the firm didn’t repair two bollards quickly enough. All of that was not necessarily the council’s fault, but you have to wonder why you would get into a 25 year contract for any service really. (Maybe it would have some logic for a large construction PFI, but not for roads maintenance). Put those two together and you might perhaps draw conclusions about naivety and a lack of commercial nous in Birmingham.
Anyway, the city may now need to sell art galleries, housing and land to try and balance the budgets, which is very sad for what is a great city. Of course, the national Conservative government is loving this, claiming it is an example of “Labour failure”. But in fact, it is just the latest in a long line of local government waste, corruption, bad buying and financial problems, a line that runs through Liverpool, Northamptonshire, Somerset, Thurrock, Slough, Surrey Heath, Woking, Croydon and more – both Tory and Labour authorities. Reduced funding from central government is one reason; but there are also too many incompetent or corrupt people in our local government system, it seems.