Archive for the ‘Birmingham’ Category

No Such Thing As Free Advice

January 16th, 2017

This  is more related to business than the usual vague music and culture thing I’d blog about but I’m wary about putting it on my business site because….. well you never know. It’s nice to see that Birmingham appears to have achieved something in having one of the greatest increases in business start ups in the country. It’s always tricky to figure out whether these accolades are real or something the City has paid for purely for publicity. I’m happy to accept it on face value, after all, being the largest municipal area in terms of population then you would expect it have high levels of business start ups.

This is a warning to those people in that start up phase. At some point in your business development you will begin to engage with networks made up of other people in similar positions and a range of “business support organisations”. Many of these people purporting to provide business support are public sector organisations that will claim they can support you to find the right people in the public sector, or at the very least pass on their experience.

The public sector can be a confusing mess to people that haven’t been indoctrinated in the peculiar procurement rules that are often attached to contract opportunities. Help and support to navigate unfamiliar organisations is obviously welcome. Unfortunately these offers are frequently not what they seem.

Many of  the organisations providing this help and support are contracted via the European Regional Development fund who will reimburse them for the time they spend with you. The usual model for this is that you get invited to a lengthy presentation where vague allusions are provided to the level of support you can obtain. You will then be invited to a meeting where you can explain what you do. At that point you will be asked to sign a form agreeing that you’ve been given a certain level of support. Usually this is calculated on the length of the presentation and the meeting. On some occasions I’ve seen just a couple of meetings calculated at over £1000 worth of support.

Most SMEs are quite happy to sign this, on the face of it there is no loss to them. The support organisation can then claim the money for support back from the EU. Usually that’s the last help and support you will receive. You might get an email every  now and then trying to sell you training but nothing particularly tangible. In subsequent years you might be asked to go through the whole process again.

You might ask why this is a problem. It doesn’t cost the businesses much other than their time. You might actually benefit from the networking opportunities. What many businesses don’t realise is that there is a cap on how much funding you can get from the EU for these sort of things. If your business reaches its cap, signing it away to “business support organisations”, then it will not be able to apply for proper support that might be available in the future.

So, if you run an SME and get invited to one of these events; make sure you are fully aware of what you end up signing at the end of the meeting. It might be a nice little earner for the organisations apparently  providing support but it could have consequences for your business.

Posted in Birmingham, Misc | Comments (2)

Rubbish Savings

March 2nd, 2016

binsYesterday Birmingham City Council passed a budget for 2016/17 intended to take another £90 million worth of cuts. That’s an eye watering number but to be honest it’s so large and has happened every year for over five years now. I can’t really comprehend how such cuts can be made each year without us moving to the point where we just pretend we have public services and hope that nothing ever goes seriously wrong in our lives.

As the Government continues its relentless attack on public services there is still a need for some basic functions to be delivered.

But.

Birmingham City Council needs to meet us half way with this and learn to work a bit better. So here is my micro example of how you can save some money by simply being a bit more competent and working as a joined up organisation.

Sigh, this is about bins again. I hated myself for writing about bins this time last year. As an aside, the Council refused to be flexible about that so we’ve largely given up recycling. Leaving an extra redundant bin outside of our house. Today we got another bin we didn’t ask for. We’ve got a lot of bins.

The opposition in Birmingham to the garden waste charge is legendary. Variously labelled as a tax on owning a garden or simply the last human right the Conservatives would leave us with; there is a belief that all waste from your garden should be taken away within the Council Tax. I’m not really bothered, if we’ve got to make massive cuts to social care then I will stump thirty odd quid a year to have some leaves taken away. In the scheme of things it’s not that important.

That doesn’t mean the whole thing doesn’t infuriate me.

Being a conscientious citizen, and being the proud of owner of ton of leaves from last year, I eagerly went to renew my garden waste subscription. Clicking on the link in the friendly Birmingham City Council email it wasn’t hard to find out how to do it.

renew

Eagerly clicking on the link I knew it was only a matter of time before I could once again get to use my only genuine skill. My ability to remember all of my payment details without once having to look at a card.

That was until I met this form.

form

What are you supposed to do with this? It knows I have a bin registered at my property but insists I have to pick a number for an additional bin. As it was only days from the next collection I assumed that some step must be in place to filter renewals from additional orders. Be that some sort of psychic check or even someone just ringing me up.

Apparently not. Today I got my new bin to add to my collection of increasingly redundant bins. Not to worry I thought (this is completely untrue I was actually irritated like I haven’t been in years), a quick call and this will all be sorted. Except there isn’t a contact number anywhere. Fifteen minutes on the City Council web chat won me the right to ring waste management. I was told that there is a wait of twenty working days to remove a bin delivered in error. Yes, a full calendar month.

Now this could be a story of amusing incompetence but I think it points to a symptomatic flaw.

That web form was clearly designed for new customers, little thought (or I would maintain no thought) has been given to renewals. In the third year of the garden waste charge renewals are going to be the predominant users of the form. That means my error is going to be repeated.

There is an obvious and simple solution. Just amend the web form so that the drop down has an option of “Just renew”. Or if that is a particular programmatic challenge just add a zero at the top of the list. Maybe half an hours work.

But things aren’t that simple at Birmingham City Council. Because of the separation between the supplier (Service Birmingham) and customer (whatever the waste management directorate is called these days) this simple change is something that is likely to have a significant cost implication to it. I’ve no idea what the cost to get a simple change to a web page might be but I assume it must be greater than the cost of :-

All of this, times the number of people this has happened to. Of course this could be pure hysteria on my part. It’s entirely possible that as the orders come in the waste directorate can instinctively tell a renewal from a new order. But I would suggest the cost purely to deal with my issue has to be greater than paying someone to add a zero to a drop down menu. At least I would hope so.

Interestingly if you look at my bullet point list above you might notice that the webchat and call centre are managed by Service Birmingham. Theoretically that means they will get paid more money because I’m forced to engage through two channels (it’s the jargon) in order to clear up their error.

It’s simple things like this that save money and make the Council less irritating.

Posted in Birmingham, Politics | Comments (0)

Birmingham Leadership Race

October 15th, 2015

As Birmingham faces an exciting new leadership campaign I thought I’d write down a list of things I’d like to see a potential new leader commit to. Paradise Circus have made a very good point that the Birmingham Labour Party Leadership race serves to disenfranchise a population of a million people. If you don’t even bother to read any more than this paragraph you should sign their petition.

If the Chamberlain Files are to be believed then it looks like we’re faced with a competition between John Clancy, the annual challenger and Ian Ward, basically Albert Bore’s mate. As was pointed out on the Restirred Forum,  before we get bogged down in picking names we should at least have an idea of what we want from someone that rules over a city of a million people.

So this is where I come in with my unasked for priorities. In no particular order and based on no evidence these are the things I’d like to see a Labour Councillor commit to in order to win my vote (not that I’ve got a vote which is part of the problem):-

Transparency – The Council needs to make a proper commitment to transparency. It needs to make contract details, pay scales and commissioning plans publicly available. It needs to provide us with the evidence base it uses to commission services, it needs to involve us in making that evidence base.

Engagement – The Council needs a fully costed engagement plan. More effort needs to be made to go and talk to, and more importantly listen to, the communities of Birmingham. This will cost money and it will involve paying people.

Partnership – In the future the Council will only be able to deliver services in partnership with other people in the city, be they organisations or communities. To make this work the Council needs to commit to devolve budgets to partnerships and let them spend them. Fine be an accountable body but sometimes you need to let go of the cash.

Finance – Yeah we know about the budget cuts, you’ve mentioned it many many times. The Council still has massively more money than anyone else. Instead of telling us what the Council will pay for, tell us what it wants to achieve with the money it already has. This may mean that we need to lose some services but the Council has always been bad at replacing old services with new ones.

Employment – A clear commitment to increasing employment outside of the City centre. This has been neglected for too long. We need to acknowledge that whilst life might be great for some of us in the Guardian featured areas of Birmingham, for others life is generally shit and we’ve just let that happen.

As an addition to that someone needs to make a commitment to keep staff in the Council. Paying everyone over 50 to go away is a stupid way of trying to maintain continuity.

Culture – If we invest in culture then we will have an exciting place to live and we will attract more people to the City. It isn’t wasted money, people don’t want to live in a soulless metal fronted wasteland with a metric ton of shops. Well it does seem that people do want that but retail won’t last forever.

Locality – Give local communities money for them to spend on things they need. Money spent locally has a much more profound affect than if it is spent City wide or regionally. And proper budgets, not £150k to bribe people with skips before an election.

Contracting – Birmingham needs to stop massive contracting processes. Yes, it might be easier from a contract management point of view but it is killing small enterprises and it is leaving the City really vulnerable when contract inevitably fail.

I’ve deliberately left out children’s and adult social care. This is a mess and requires so much more than a trite two sentence summary.

That’s my list. I’ve no idea whether that means anything to anyone but I’d hope that anyone with a hankering to run the largest metropolitan area in Europe would have some response.

Posted in Birmingham, Politics | Comments (2)

Hopeless Obsession – Birmingham

August 12th, 2015

libraryBirmingham is obsessed with shiny things. It doesn’t just like them, it’s utterly obsessed with them. When it comes to civic planning it appears that cost and utilitarian value are absolutely the last consideration behind how shiny something looks. I mean that literally, all civic developments have their quality assessed by how much reflective metal they have.

I decided to write this after seeing Midlands Today’s story about the Birmingham Library service not buying books anymore. It seems that this might not be quite the stark dystopian policy that it appears; more a call out from a community library for donations rather than municipal book begging.

Since the library opened it has been dogged by being an obvious vanity project that we can’t afford. I think that much of the furore about opening hours is a political administration trying to score points about central Government funding but I think it also highlights that this thing should never have been built.

So here is my potted history of why it was a stupid idea.

At the turn of the millennium there was a plan. A plan to build a library to replace the brutalist central library. This library, designed by Richard Rogers, was intended to be the catalyst for redevelopment for the Eastside of central Birmingham, creating a learning and technology zone, or hub, or something. There is a fair question about whether this was ever affordable, Birmingham knew it was bankrupt due to systemic gender discrimination, but in those days we didn’t talk about that.

It seemed a good idea. Build something and try and prompt some sort follow on development in an area that needed it. Many people dispute the theory that these big investments do create further development, but it was better than what we ended up with.

In 2004 a new political administration swept to power on the back of promising to build an underground railway in Birmingham. Well it was dissatisfaction with the Labour Party dropping bombs on Muslims more than the underground but we should never forget this was a very real and very crazy plan.

The new administration took a principled decision to rip up any plans that the previous administration had thought up. It didn’t matter what they were or how reasonable they were, they were ripped up. That meant no library in an area ripe for development.

Instead our political leaders decided we would have a new library but it would be squeezed into an area that was already over developed. We would also not use the library designed for us (which wouldn’t have fitted on the tiny bit of land anyway)  but we’d buy one off the shelf. The library we now have had been touted around the great cities of Europe for ages but nobody really wanted it.  Maybe they thought it was boxy.

Which means we ended up with a library that would have no regenerative effect, that was not designed for our purposes and had been aesthetically rejected by many before us. This cost us £189 million.

And we love it.

The lack of having a 21st Century use other than housing books is ignored. The lack of having enough money to run it is ignored. The puff pieces in The Times make it all worth it.

We also decided to knock down the previous library which had direct cultural relevance to Birmingham. Because we need some more offices.

We’re about to do it again.

In September the national media will descend on Birmingham and we’ll be filled with righteous pride as people see the shiny new New Street Station.

Here are some questions you will not see asked:-

1) Haven’t you just glued some bits of metal to a car park?
2) How much train capacity has this £153m development added to the station?
3) Is white the best colour for a station with diesel trains?
4) Isn’t that quite a lot of money for a really big sushi concession?

No, we’ll love it and everything will be fine again. We’ll forget about the perilous state of the Council because we’ll have more shops and they will be very shiny shops.

Every year there is a giant real estate conference in Cannes (The MIPM). Every year Birmingham goes on mass and every year Birmingham is a little bit surprised how pleased everyone is to see us. Many say this is because this is one of the most sought after cities to develop in, many won’t acknowledge that it’s because we will buy literally anything if it is made out of metal.

In Birmingham we use The Simpsons Monorail episode as a blueprint for urban planning.

I won’t even start on the plan for a skyscraper with a built in theme park.

Posted in Birmingham | Comments (0)

Waste Management

March 30th, 2015

wasteThis is a cautionary tale wrapped up in a rant with a little bit of a lesson on how not to design public services. Really a significant part of this just highlights my inability to follow basic instructions but, you know, there might be some wider relevance in here somewhere.

In Birmingham we’ve just had wheelie bins handed out. As a pre-election give away they’re not great, mainly because they seem to really annoy a significant section of the population. I was quite pleased when the Council announced their delivery as I thought it would make my life just a little bit easier. I had underestimated the Council’s ability to implement a mess.

One part of a new recycling system is a mixed use bin. This is handy as it means we don’t have to keep two recycling boxes around. It’s also handy as when we put our recycling out it doesn’t get caught in the wind vortex outside our house and redistribute it across everyone’s garden. I suppose it must be quite common but our bins work by having the larger bin and a smaller pod that hangs just inside the lid. According to the instructions the pod is for paper and cardboard and the rest of the bin for bottles….. and other stuff.

In our house just about everything we buy comes via the Internet which means in a fortnight we can generate a lot of cardboard. Looking at our new bin it was really obvious that the pod thing was never going to hold the cardboard we need to get rid of. Equally we only recycle enough bottles to cover the bottom of the bin. So I decided to adapt the system. Nothing controversial, I just reversed the process to put my bottles in the pod and cardboard in the bin. As a result of this it seems I’m breaking the law.

I got this letter last week pointing out that because I’m not presenting my waste “correctly” I could get an £80 fine.

I don’t really have a problem with there being a “correct” way to present waste but there is surely a better way of encouraging compliance. Possibly explaining why their way is “correct”.

I’ve been told that it is permissible for me to load up my bin in the way the Council advise and then just dump excess cardboard in the street next to it. Which seems a ludicrous suggestion as it just makes the problem these bins were designed to solve much worse than the previous system.

There is an important lesson that when you design a service you need to sit down and look at how people use it; then you build in flexibility because it is a public service. That means you engage with people and encourage compliance rather than demand it. If people are doing it wrong you don’t just threaten to fine them.

I’m not going to make some sort of symbolic stand on this as I don’t really care that much (yes, just hit 500 words on this thing I don’t care about) but I do think it’s a good example of how public services completely misunderstand what their relationship with the public is.

Posted in Birmingham | Comments (4)

Devolution Number 9

September 29th, 2014

Since the conclusion of the Scottish referendum I’ve noticed a strange enthusiasm for using the result to provide tenuous validation of every conceivable world view. I didn’t want to be left out, this is my interpretation of what a sudden explosion of interest in democracy means for wider devolution.

The most surreal reaction to a significant proportion of Scotland’s population wanting to leave the UK and an even greater proportion wishing to remain in the Union, is the Conservative view that this legitimises a rush to further marginalise Scottish decision making through the creation of an English parliament. The abject lesson of the Scottish referendum is that you do not rush constitutional change. The rush to force the referendum through meant a stark yes or no choice that very nearly split the Union and only served to emphasise the contempt that all political parties are held in.

One of the enduring recent political narratives has been how we re-engage with people to encourage them to vote with a particular emphasis on how we engage young people. This referendum has hopefully demonstrated that a failure to engage with political process is not, as was assumed, apathy on the part of the electorate. When the right question, with probably more importantly, the right range of possible answers, was asked people came out and made their views clear.
There is an appetite to engage with decision making but clearly not if the only available answers are based on an increasingly homogenous political elite. People are less enthusiastic in engaging with a process that cedes decision making to remote individuals who are presented merely because they were willing to compromise their beliefs to extraordinarily similar political parties.

I think this means that we have to relegate existing political parties to participants in a discussion on constitutional change and devolution instead of letting them define it. Without a clear mandate they will instinctively tinker with constitutional change in order to reinforce their own dominance. This is clearly demonstrated in the half baked notion of an English parliament and the constant moving of electoral boundaries.

The instinct for self interest is not peculiar to Westminster. The recent claim from the English core cities (basically the large cities in the UK that aren’t London) that the rush to constitutional change should confer to them greater decision making, and theoretically more money, is equally flawed. I live in one of the core cities and recent years have seen that characterised by a complete failure in governance. An inability to provide basic child protection, rubbish collection and endemic gender discrimination in its pay structure has left Birmingham floundering. Many of these issues have been compounded by a significant drop in funding but fundamentally this has been caused by political failure by all parties.

So I would suggest that if we are to explore greater devolved decision making then we need to start that with building up units of decision making from the very bottom upwards. This begins with communities and communities of interest. The most basic unit of decision making should come from communities that share an identity. In the main this is likely to be geographical but need not be exclusively.

People with a shared understanding of an area who are provided with real opportunities to influence that area will take part with decision making. In Birmingham we’ve tried to follow a process of devolving local decision making by creating “constituency” structures. The principle reason this has failed has been the bizarre decision that whilst decision making should be devolved it should be devolved to Councillors in a central building overseen by Council officers. This is devolution in the model used by the Soviet Union with its satellite states.

Also through using parliamentary constituency boundaries decision making didn’t automatically relate to the way that communities identify themselves. This is a principle problem in creating devolved decision making structures; they must not be created merely to enable easy management.

This has been a consistent problem with the plethora of changes we’ve seen in recent years to public services. Be it health organisations (Clinical Commissioning Groups) that are shaped by who plays golf with who, or police structures that are based on lines hastily drawn on maps that “sort of look equal”. This is devolution that is intended to confuse and alienate people.

This can also be seen in our regional structures. The drivers behind Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEP) were Local Authorities that liked each other. Not communities that shared culture, history and aspiration. To use Birmingham as an example, the Greater Birmingham LEP exists because many of the bordering Authorities didn’t like our previous Council Leader. This is ludicrous.

We need to build units of local decision making that are consistent across organisations, which the people who live in them understand and that recognise culture and history.

This is a long process that requires people to talk to communities and not simply make central decisions (looking at a map) or rely on the “local” knowledge of politicians. This is true be it small community units or even regional units. These all need to be reshaped to include the voices of the people that live in them and to give people a sense that they can influence change beyond the irrelevant political pageantry.

Across every community there are groups and individuals that are shaping and influencing their local environment and they’re doing it whilst bypassing political structures and simply not understanding the range of quasi legal public services that pay lip service to engaging with them.
We should harness these people and groups and work with them to formulate devolution. It’s unlikely we’ll get this done by May.

Posted in Birmingham, Politics | Comments (0)

Skills and Employment

April 19th, 2012

My home city, Birmingham, has recently embarked on a voyage of reflection to see how it can promote greater social inclusion. I don’t really want to comment on the process, I get a bit lost about how these things are supposed to translate into practical action. You can read about it on the Fair Brum site and come to your own conclusions.

One aspect of this that has caught my interest is a debate on what qualities (I can’t think of a better word than qualities and it isn’t quite right) are needed by employers. This is linked to a previous blog post that was on the Podnosh site about skills in Birmingham. I read this when it went up in January and was tempted to comment but the moment went and I just forgot about it. The latest post on the Fair Brum site has reminded me that I had something to say. I think it is worth mentioning that this isn’t really related to Birmingham as such, many of the issues are replicated in other cities.

I’m in danger of over simplifying the claim set out in both posts but it seems to be that economic improvement, and specifically the needs of employers, are addressed not through qualifications and skills but through communication and networks.

I would not discount the vital role of people having communication skills nor the ability to facilitate movement of labour via networks but in the overall scheme of things these are useful but not essential.

Over the last 20 years the thing that has become abundantly clear, in economic terms, is that investment in skills is the only factor that has a tangible effect on growth. The Chinese economy being the prime example of a revolutionary change from a low wage, low skill economy to a highly technical, highly skilled economy. Albeit one with relatively low wages. We can see from the German economy that investment in skills has allowed a seemingly unique area of economic prosperity that is contrary to the rest of Europe.

Simplistically this is because both countries have a lot of people that know how to do things that we don’t.

The original posts are fairly dismissive of qualifications, I think based on a misunderstanding of what a qualification is supposed to represent. Qualifications are a good method of conveying an aptitude to learn, in many cases the individual subject matter is a secondary benefit to knowing that someone can learn. The ability to learn and the tools that support learning are really the skills that employers should treasuring above all. Education is the process of learning to learn not acquiring knowledge.

Qualification are also a proxy indicator of ability. Whilst I appreciate that there is merit in to know individuals and valuing their enthusiasm this is not something that can be replicated at scale. For our economy to begin to thrive we need a sea change in our economic activity but also the scale we are doing it at. With the best will in the world the model of networks outlined is not going to be capable achieving large scale recruitment and ensuring there is consistency.

A system of qualifications that employers have faith in is the very least we need to support a minimum standard of recruitment.

The original posts are also fairly dismissive of skills, I think this is the part that I most take issue with. The original posts assume a level of skill transference which doesn’t seem credible. Whilst it is possible that in some jobs it is fairly easy for an employer to confer skills onto a new employee this is surely a minority.

The Fair Brum post makes the rather surreal claim:-

“There are of course career paths that require the “rubber stamp” of education and training; lawyers, doctors etc. But what about the rest of the workforce? Is further education really THAT relevant?”

The notion that doctors achieve skill through the “rubber stamp” of  education is bizarre. Doctors achieve skill through ridiculous amounts of structured training, not the least of which is years of monitored employment.

Would we also say that engineers are merely rubber stamped as well? If you are starting to build a plane do you start your recruitment based on someone who seems quite cheerful and assume they will pick it up as they go along? Well, you can do, but I’m not getting on your plane.

That might seem like a glib example but the reality is that skills are what add value to a product and are the barrier to anyone just replicating what you do because they just fancy it.

This is also not an efficient way for industry to act. We are not going to achieve economic development if it is always beholden on employers to equip their staff with the skills they need to do their jobs.

I can see that in some sections of industry the focus on soft skills are relevant but these are a minority. Focussing on communication and networks does a gross disservice to the young people  that are currently suffering from decades of disinvestment in skills and short termism.

This concerns me for two reasons. Firstly networks, as they exist in Birmingham can be exclusive, whilst they might circulate jobs amongst a connected elite they can exclude those sections of society that are the more vulnerable to poverty and worklessness.  This is a compelling argument to improve networks but first we must harness the potential we have in our population. An example, that might be peculiar to Birmingham, is the vast array of skills and life experience (practical and qualifications) that exist in our immigrant community. For example many refugees are the most qualified people of the countries that they are trying to escape, they are not plugged into our social networks and do not have the same access to employment.

Secondly I believe the notion that skills are easily transferred from one person to another, seemingly by osmosis, buys into the something for nothing society so loved by New Labour in the 90s. We need to produce things with worth and the transient nature of an ephemeral service sector does not do this. These are the ideals that created the financial apocalypse and the X Factor.

Sorry, I had to come back and edit this so it ended on a bombastic and ridiculous note.

Posted in Birmingham | Comments (0)

Yes or No?

March 5th, 2012

I’ve got to admit that the debate about whether we should have an elected mayor in Birmingham has left me completely cold. I can’t really motivate myself to have an opinion one way or the other. I’d say that this isn’t a symptom of apathy, I’ve worked in the very bowels of our local government and have an unhealthy interest in governance.

With the referendum in only a few short weeks I’ve decided this is something that I probably need to have an opinion on. You never know, it might ignite public interest and it would be handy to be able to argue one way or the other convincingly.

There seems to be a fairly vociferous campaigns on both sides and I’ve been trying to see if they have any compelling arguments either way. The Yes to a Birmingham Mayor campaign looks fairly slick and purports to have at least some grass roots support. I’m not completely sure how widespread this really is, I don’t meet many people who are that bothered by the efficacy of the Leader/Cabinet model of government.

We do need to remember that when the Birmingham Mail tried get a petition together to trigger a referendum they met a steely disinterest.

Looking at the Yes campaign they make some interesting points which I will go through laboriously :-

1 ) You can directly elect your leader and if they fail, you can get rid of them at the next election.

That seems fair enough, the current system means the council leader is selected by the ruling party. It’s not the most accountable system.

2 ) You will know who your mayor is and the rest of the world will too.

There is nothing to stop the leader of the council being visible. Having the title of mayor does not excuse poor communications. I’m not sure why the rest of the world is relevant, if people in Birmingham understood slightly more about who was in charge then that would be a start.

3 ) Birmingham is struggling and a leader with a genuine mandate can drive positive change.

I don’t buy this. I think change is achieved through consensus and I’d say that the current system, where Councillors select their leader means that they have more of an interest in achieving change. If you consider Birmingham to be struggling then this is a symptom of the policy environment rather than the system that brings it to us.

4 ) You’ll be able to see how decisions are made and who makes them.

The current system is pretty transparent and I can’t see there being much of a change if we have a mayor. In fact all the systems will remain the same.

5) A mayor can make sure decisions are made closer to you and your community.

I would completely dispute this. At the moment local Councillors take local issues and feed them up to their leadership, if you have a Councillor who is in the ruling party then they might have some influence. With a mayor the intelligence from communities will be disconnected from the policy process. If decisions by a  mayor reflect local views then this would happen  despite the system rather than because of it.

6 ) A whole layer of unaccountable government bureaucracy can be removed by combining the Leader of the council and the Chief Executive.

There is nothing to stop us combining the role of leader of the council and chief executive now. It would be a spectacularly stupid thing to do but we could do it. The local authority can influence the spending of around £3 billion, the day to day management of this should not be left with someone who wins a popularity contest.

7 ) The mayor can celebrate our successes and bring people together to solve problems by being a recognisable leader.

Again there is nothing implicit in the mayoral system that means we can’t already do this with better communication.

8 ) A directly elected mayor can help Birmingham fulfil it’s potential. Nearly every major city in the world has a directly elected mayor. Birmingham deserves one too.

Is this even true? I mean the bit about every other City in the world having one? It seems quite a claim. As for Birmingham deserving one, well they do say that people deserve the Government they vote for.

Comparing this with the No campaign becomes a bit more problematic. First off the web site looks like it was made twenty years ago. The aesthetic shouldn’t undermine the central point but the reality is it doesn’t present an image you can engage with. This is emphasised by the No campaigns ability to get into an argument with itself on the front page.

After offering to supply speakers for events it has a little debate with itself on what the optimum number of speakers should be. Glancing at the bottom of the page you will notice that this has been put together by MP John Hemming, the written word is not his natural medium (or seemingly web design).

There is a handy list of reasons for a no vote so let’s go through those as well (I haven’t linked to the individual points as they use frames, yes frames in the 21st Century) :-

1 ) One person cannot listen to a million

This is a fair point and is a good rebuttal made to the yes claim that decisions will be closer to communities. This point does drift off into nonsensical rubbish about how a mayor would hold an advice surgery, as nobody with any sense expects them to do this we’ll just ignore it.

2 ) It will cost more in hard times

Any way you look at it, it will cost more money. If it delivers better governance then it could be a price worth paying.

3 ) It is not within the British tradition

Er, what the hell has that got to do with anything? If the current system doesn’t work then change it.

4 ) It leads to corruption

This is a bold claim. There have been corrupt mayors but I don’t think Birmingham can really claim any sort of anti-corruption moral high ground with the existing system.

5 ) It takes attention off important issues and concentrates on personalities

I suppose the mayor possibly being a more visible presence could be considered to be a focus on personality but I can’t see that this could be represented as a bad thing. You only have to look at the City Council sponsored Forward magazine, and their fascination with current leader Mike Whitby, to realise that we have this already.

6 ) Birmingham’s villages will be ignored with concentration on the City Centre

I haven’t seen a more succint summary of what has been wrong with Birmingham’s governance for the last 20 years. The Bullring and the new Library are shiny testaments to how much Birmingham’s “villages” are currently considered. So no change there then.

7 ) The mayor is likely to spend a lot of time travelling outside Birmingham and less time in Birmingham

This is probably the most amusing claim. So where is Mike Whitby this week? The Carribean? India? Dubai? China? The man’s not short of frequent flyer points.

8 ) The pro campaign cannot explain how it will improve things

I have some sympathy with this. The yes campaign doesn’t make a very compelling argument but simply stating this doesn’t take the debate any further. It actually comes across as a bit childish.

9 ) People normally vote against it and Stoke got rid of one

This is just strange. The argument for not having one is that a number of other referendums have said no in other cities. The whole point of this process is we get a referendum so we can decide. If we don’t want one we don’t have to have one.

10 ) Birmingham’s successes in the past came without a directly elected Mayor

Well this is true. Equally Birmingham’s failures have come without one as well. Reading the text associated with this claim is just confusing. It seems to be alluding to an article that it claims was written in 1890 yet alludes to the 1940s. A remarkably prescient bit of writing.

The no campaign does have some good points, it just makes them in a really ham fisted way.

I was referred to this article written by Cllr James Hutchings that makes a much more coherent case for not having a mayor. It covers many of the same points but is better written and less patronising. I’ve always been a fan of Cllr Hutchings.

The problem with all of this is,  although the no campaign hasn’t made a good argument, they don’t have to. We know how it works now, we need to be persuaded that the system in the future will work better. I can’t see that the yes campaign has come anywhere near doing that.

There are a few things that aren’t addressed by either group. In reality will the new system be any different? Ostensibly, no.

To campaign successfully across a city the size of Birmingham you need infrastructure, you need people putting leaflets through doors, you need money to make leaflets. An independant would need to buy this in or generate a lot of good will really quickly. I don’t believe that examples such as Hartlepool and Middlesborough are relevant to us, both are much smaller in area and both had candidates that had their profile raised through other media.  (there is an excellent assessment of why I’m wrong here)

Would a mayor aligned from one party be that different to the current situation? I don’t think so.

After all this I’m not sure I’m any closer to having an opinion. Hopefully the campaign will galvanise some sort of proper arguments one way or the other, though they better hurry up.

Posted in Birmingham, Politics | Comments (1)

Home of Metal

September 12th, 2011

I thought it might be an idea to write something on here that wasn’t based on my simplistic 6th Form analysis of recent political events.So instead I’m going to write about Heavy Metal, which is much more sensible.

Yesterday I went to visit the Home of Metal exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I’m not a great museum visitor, they tend to bore me, but an exhibition devoted to Heavy Metal seemed like something I should do. Though it has been on since July and I only got round to it a week before it finished.

I think I should start this with stating that it is a great exhibition, it’s well made and does a good job of holding your hand through a very different bit of Birmingham’s history. I also recognise that Capsule, who put it together, have done a vast amount for music in Birmingham over the last decade, they’ve let me see Lightning Bolt and Shellac for a start.

With that caveat I have to say I left the Home of Metal feeling at a bit of a loss.

One thing I’ve learnt in the 20 years I’ve been living in Birmingham is that it has always been seeking an identity to distinguish itself from other cities. It’s constantly fighting to define itself as the second city of the UK, when I say fighting I’m not really sure that Manchester is aware that there is a fight going on nor is actually that bothered about how UK cities are prioritised.

Birmingham is jealous that other UK cities appear to have a more defined musical heritage. I don’t think other cities have a greater heritage of music but they do seem to be able to bundle things together. Liverpool had Mersey Beat and Manchester had the MADchester thing of the early 90s. Birmingham hasn’t had anything equivalent. Birmingham has had international fame with ELO, Duran Duran and of course Black Sabbath but there hasn’t been a unifying marketing ploy behind them.

These themes, or close groups of bands, are nothing more than a device by record companies to promote bands that otherwise wouldn’t get anywhere. As such I don’t think Birmingham has really missed out.

This lack of a Birmingham “sound” now seems to have been addressed by the attempt to claim the genre of Heavy Metal as being a product of Birmingham (and the Black Country to an extent).

Heavy Metal is a really difficult type of music to define. It is incredibly subjective to distinguish where hard rock stops and heavy metal begins. Essentially it is a semantic difference but one that still seems to be a pre-occupation for some people. It is also a semantic difference that seems to be at the heart of Birmingham’s claim on musical history.

Whilst growing up in Eastbourne (the home of The Mobiles and Top Loader) I listened to a lot of Heavy Metal, I’m not proud of it but it is a fact. In the 80s we were probably past the first blossom of Metal as a genre and just at the beginning of what I’ve been repeatedly been told was a new wave of British Metal (the NWOBHM).

I missed the early 70s on account of not being born so am on delicate grounds to refute Birmingham’s claims to have invented a musical genre. Whilst I was aware that Black Sabbath existed I couldn’t have told you they came from Birmingham and I would have struggled to explain to you why they were more important historically than Thin Lizzy, Rainbow or any number of other bands.

Before I started writing this I did spend a bit of time looking at Wikipedia, it was useful to try and get a sense of what happened before I was born. I have many albums from before I was born but little knowledge of when they came out and no real understanding of their impact or relative sales. I was struck that Black Sabbath do indeed seem to be considered as some sort of originator of this type of music.

This confuses me quite a lot. I am at a complete loss to figure out what is that different about Black Sabbath (the album) and Deep Purple’s In Rock, or King Crimson’s In The Court of the Crimson King? All dabbled with occult(ish) references, all relied on riff based songs and all came out at roughly the same time (King Crimson the year before and Deep Purple a few months later). Certainly sales don’t seem to distinguish Black Sabbath from the others. This is before you consider Born to be Wild which came out two years before Black Sabbath and mentions Heavy Metal in the lyrics of the title song.

Obviously one band doesn’t mean the birth of a movement (I know Heavy Metal cannot be defined as a movement). The Home of Metal appear to emphasise this by devoting a fair amount of space to Judas Priest who are from Walsall (a bit). I don’t know what to make of Judas Priest. As I grew up I had always assumed they were a joke band, apparently they’re not a joke band. They didn’t seem to innovate anymore than any other band around and when their first album came out in 1974 they were considerably behind bands such as Kiss and Aerosmith in terms of world wide profile.

Which leads on to the main point that is only hinted at in the Home of Metal. Of the time when Black Sabbath came to prominence the biggest band in the world, after The Beatles, were Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin II predated Black Sabbath and much of it seems to be a template for Metal/Hard Rock through the last four decades. The problem with Led Zeppelin is that their Birmingham/Black Country roots are shakey. Yes Robert Plant grew up in West Bromwich and John Bonham was born in Redditch but the other two were born and bred southerners. Can Sidcup claim to be the home of rock because John Paul Jones was born there and Keith Richards went to college there? No, that would be tenuous.

The second part of Home of Metal relates to Birmingham’s role in the 90s with Napalm Death. I’ve always had a soft spot for Napalm Death but it is really hard to say they set the world on fire. They defined a new type of metal (Grindcore) but were relatively unknown outside of Birmingham, except to a core group of fans (and are massive in Mexico). Were they more influential than Anthrax, Metallica or Slayer? It would be difficult to claim they were.

The reality of the early 90s was that Heavy Metal was largely defined in LA through cocaine fuelled hair bands like Guns N’ Roses and Motely Crue. It wasn’t pretty but was strangely popular. It also, almost managed to kill the concept of Metal for a generation.

My point, and it has taken me a while to get to it, is that Birmingham did play an important role in the creation of Heavy Metal, but so did Hertford (Deep Purple), Sheffield (Def Leppard), London (UFO, Iron Maiden, Uriah Heep, Motorhead, and even Barnsley (Saxon).

It is no more the Home of Metal than any of these cities.

Birmingham does have a really disparate history of bands and it would be better off celebrating the difference in these rather than attempting to a create an artificial construct after the fact.

I know this comes across as quite sniffy about something that was created through a lot of hard work and with only the best of intentions. On the plus side it did provoke me to think about this in considerably more depth than is probably sensible, so on that level it worked very well.

Posted in Birmingham, Music | Comments (3)

Serviced Birmingham

June 4th, 2011

Birmingham has  many things to be proud of but its ability to manage the most basic publicity is not one of them. It absolutely confounds me that when creating the plan to outsource IT jobs to India, someone didn’t think about the publicity implications. From a PR point of view it ticks just about every hysterical box that you can imagine.

Since this managed to get itself  plastered all over the papers, I’ve been trying to figure out how a  Council could be so publicly inept. Birmingham’s problems with managing the current financial climate are well documented  but is the publicity garnered from the savings on 100 jobs really worth it? I do believe that savings should be made if we guarantee that money gets redirected towards the most vulnerable people. If sending some services off to India means we can spend more on people with disabilities then I think I’d grudgingly say, that’s something we should consider.

Unfortunately the economic reality in Birmingham is not that simplistic.

In 2006 Birmingham decided to take all of the IT infrastructure out of Council control and create a new organisation called Service Birmingham in partnership with Capita. The theory being that partnership with the  private sector would bring “efficiency” to the public sector. A contract was created and Service Birmingham is paid annually to provide IT services. The profits that are generated from the operation of this contract are split between Capita and Birmingham City Council (I don’t know what the split is).

As with any private sector company the principle driver is to generate profits for shareholders. The only way to generate profits is to drive down costs whilst maintaining the same income; outsourcing drives down costs.

So this raises an interesting question, if Service Birmingham are lowering their costs by outsourcing jobs to India then are they equally reducing their claim on the contract with Birmingham City Council? I have no idea what the answer to that question is  but I’d be very surprised that if, as a result of this process, there is any change in the terms and conditions of the contract we have with Service Birmingham.

This also raises the issue of the relationship of this quasi private entity and their political masters. The majority of the press coverage of this has labelled it as a Tory Council sending jobs to India. It would be quite a naive political organisation that wouldn’t consider the minuscule benefits of outsourcing 100 jobs to India against the nationwide bad publicity. If  you consider that the budget of Birmingham City Council is around £1 billion is it worth it? No, especially if you consider the paper thin majority the ruling coalition is sitting on.

The only conclusion I can draw from this is that it was a decision taken completely out of the political process and with little consideration of the people apparently in charge of the City. The only people likely to benefit from this are Capita shareholders and, apart  from the people who have lost their jobs, the people most  likely to suffer are Tory Councillors.

This really is a cautionary tale, beware the beast you create.

Posted in Birmingham, Politics | Comments (0)