Q & A with Mark Rogers, chief executive of Birmingham council
As Birmingham Council deals with the aftermath of a damning review into its operations, Mark Rogers, its chief executive, spoke to New Start about the legacy of Chamberlain, devolving power to street level and putting happiness barometers in every neighbourhood
Q. The Kerslake Review was very critical of the council and in particular its culture of remoteness from the communities it serves. How do you plan to change that?
A. The Kerslake Review has given us a kick up the backside. He’s made it necessary for politicians to think about what they do as politicians. We are starting development activity for elected members next month to help them better understand their role as community leaders. I’ve often said that councillors and officers should have something in their job description about helping communities to develop capacity. We need a complete mind shift away from service delivery and contracts.
What civic institutions can and should do is to encourage and empower civil society to be much more engaged and able to deliver. We – the council – are a big lumbering beast but rather than making ourselves more agile we should recognise that other people can be less bureaucratic and quicker than us. That means empowering civil society and investing in its ability to get things moving.
We have an initiative called Standing Up for Birmingham, about being proud of your neighbourhood and doing whatever is needed to enhance quality of life.
If Chamberlain was an arch-exponent of local government
we need to be an arch exponent of civil government.
Q: How does the devolution agenda play into that?
A. The devolution that everyone’s talking about is not about empowering communities but about empowering local politicians. It says that what’s decided in Parliament could be decided by Leps or by the combined authority. But local politicians have to look both ways: towards both city governance and community empowerment.
In Birmingham we have triple devolution and the really interesting bit is the level of district committees and wards. Elected councillors and district and ward committees will be able to make decisions at that level, but they also need to mobilise citizens to do interesting things within their communities. I’d also like them to be local commissioners but we can’t afford to devolve budgets to that level at the moment. The ultimate vision is for district committees be able to vary the way services are run.
We need to make sure that we don’t turn that third level into new forms of sub city governance; it needs to be accompanied by that community activism role. If we get that level of local devolution right we will stimulate much more grassroots activity. Regenerating communities is the best thing you can do and self-help is far better than anything else.
Q. Birmingham is known as a city of municipal innovation, beginning with Joseph Chamberlain. Can Birmingham council go back to being an innovative force again?
A. I’m not sure the legacy of Chamberlain is helpful. We don’t need a new age of Chamberlain and that mythology is holding us back and making us more civic than we need to be. If Chamberlain was an arch-exponent of local government we need an arch exponent of civil government. We have 120 councillors. We need to get them focused on their community leadership role and start to change the organisation much more in those terms. The job of elected members is to encourage community activity, not to govern it. People look up to Chamberlain but he ran everything. Today our council officers and members need to be enablers. It’s not about control and direction.
Q. Trickle down economics is not working in Birmingham. What’s the alternative?
A. We need to dispense with orthodoxies. Trickle down economics is rhetoric. It doesn’t happen. The same areas are suffering the same challenges and the heat map of the city is unchanged. I don’t believe that by investing in the city centre you somehow you get that beneficial halo effect across the city. The answer is to focus not only on top down but on bottom up. Every investor should be morally obliged to create the halo effect deliberately. When we work with top investors and developers they have to sign up to a business charter which asks them to invest in local labour skills and development in relation to the size of their scheme. We expect anyone we do business with to provide sustainable local employment opportunities.
Next, we need to generate much more grassroots level enterprise. We need to take some of the resources aimed at improving worklessness – the Work Programme investment for example – and unpick it so we can invest in community-led initiatives and grow expectations of work from the bottom up. We have devolved our clean and safe neighbourhoods work, and that is now mobilising local people to be proud of their neigbourhoods. We can do the same and invest in initiatives around skills development at street level and make people proud of work.
Q: As Localise West Midlands’ work on community economic development has shown, it is the small and micro businesses that build and sustain a healthy local economy and yet city regions are very focused on attracting large organisations from outside. How can you change that?
A. It’s true that Leps are often focused on strategy and doing deals with government and less focused on the local agenda. Leps and local authorities need to rethink the top down and the bottom up. We’ve been largely focused on planning the local economy – thinking through skill development for example – and less focused on neighbourhoods and street level initiatives but that is part of our future vision.
One of the things that came from the Kerslake review was the need for an initiative in the east of Birmingham where there is lots of poverty and worklessness. We’re now researching to see what are the alternatives to the present interventions we make so that we can have community-led approaches to employment and reskilling.
Q: Should we also shift economic measurement away from growth?
A. I like the idea of a happiness index. Wouldn’t it be good if Birmingham was the happiest place or where people experienced the best health and wellbeing? Happiness is the result of a number of other things including having a job. Measuring GDP or GVA are fine but we are more than the sum of our economic contribution. I was chatting to the Bishop of Birmingham a while back and we talked about churches that put those fundraising barometers up. I suggested they should put a child poverty barometer up instead so that we can visibly be held to account for what we have changed. But why not have happiness barometers on all of our faith and community buildings?
Q: What’s your vision for Birmingham’s local economy in 10 years?
A. In 10 years I’d like to think those heat maps had gone at least from red to amber and that a significant percentage of those people who had fallen into worklessness have got jobs and that the halo effect is happening across the city. I would like us to be leading edge in terms of the best performance of the core cities around employment and skills and renowned as an advanced manufacturing hub and have diverse sectors. As a young city I’d like us to be the creative and digital capital of the UK and for Digbeth to be world famous.
And when HS2 arrives all the hard work will have been done. The arrival of the train line will be the affirmation of ten years of economic development predicated on the advantages that line will bring us around connectivity. The laying of the track is almost the icing on the cake.