Clancy’s TOE Problem

Yesterday at a meeting of Birmingham City Council, we approved the appointment of a new Interim Chief Executive, Stella Manzie. She looks to be an excellent appointment with a strong track record of turning around failing Labour Councils, but I am not permitted to say anything more than that about her employment, because the appointment was made in a private session.

Even within this private session, we were not given a complete picture of the terms of her appointments, salary etc, although we could probably work it all out from the information that was given to us. We were given various legal and procedural reasons as to why it had to be done this way but they all sounded pretty woolly when you consider that:

1. The Chief Executive of the Council will be working for and is accountable to elected members

2. We were the ones being asked to formally make the appointment

3. The government guidance Openness & Accountability on Local Pay makes it pretty clear that these kind of decisions should be open, transparent and made by those accountable to local communities.

Manchester City Council appointed a new Chief Executive in December 2016. The public report stated the exact salary the post holder. If they could do it why couldn’t we? The obvious answer is that our process for this, as with so many other things, is a mess. That is true enough. But more than that, I think the culture of secrecy is utterly ingrained within the Council. Rather than having a default setting that a piece of information should be in the public domain we seem to assume immediately that it should not be and find a million convoluted reasons to support that.

This was presumably the reason that the Leader of the Council, John Clancy, created the position of Cabinet Member for Transparency, Openness & Equalities (TOE) last year. The post was held by Cllr Waseem Zaffar until last month when he was forced to resign in the wake of a scandal relating to the Equalities bit of his portfolio. There is, apparently, an investigation into what actually happened but the details of that investigation are, predictably, confidential. There is to be no Transparency & Openness in the investigation into how the former Cabinet Member for Transparency, Openness & Equalities interpreted and applied the Equalities Act. Less than a year after creating the post, Cllr Clancy has a TOE problem.

Waseem has now been replaced by Cllr Tristan Chatfield. I have a lot of time for Tristan but I can’t help feeling he’s onto a sticky wicket here. All politicians are in favour of Transparency & Openness until it means that facts inconvenient to them have to be released, so in order to do his job well he will have to annoy many of his colleagues (that might, perhaps, explain why Waseem is no longer in post). I can’t quite escape the feeling that Cllr Clancy’s conception of that post is “to be Transparent & Open so the rest of us don’t have to be”. Just listening to the way some Cabinet Members answered questions yesterday tells you that this is exactly their approach. Cllr Lisa Trickett, who is currently presiding over yet another rubbish collection fiasco (20% of streets reported missed or late collections last week) was absolutely steadfast in her refusal to accept responsibility or to commit to refunds for those who have paid for garden waste collections that have not taken place. Cllr Peter Griffiths spoke at length and answered many questions, both friendly and unfriendly, but it was impossible to say whether or not he actually answered any of them because he appeared to be addressing his answers, very quietly, to his belt.

All of this matters because Stella’s appointment is surely the last in a long series of last chances for the Council. A long ago as 2013 Paul Dale, writing then for the Chamberlain Files but now Cllr Clancy’s communications chief, described the Council as being in “The Last Chance Saloon”. That description has been repeated (by Paul and by other commentators) many times since then. We have actually been in the Last Chance Saloon so long we have drunk the bar dry, started a couple of fights, wept into our empty glass and made an ill-advised pass at the barmaid. We have now crawled off to the toilet and can be found in one of the cubicles, hugging the bowl. It’s not a good look and we need to lose it soon, but how can we if every move we make has, usually for no reason at all, such a cloak and dagger air about it? How can anyone really have faith in anything the Council says or does when those who speak for it and make decisions always seem like they are trying to conceal something?

To be fair I made some of these points yesterday and the Deputy Leader, Cllr Ian Ward, did agree that with regard to the process for appointments at least, there is some work to be done to make everything more transparent. So I hope that we make some real progress on our TOE problem very quickly. Otherwise I fear the paramedics will soon be summoned to carry us out of the toilets in the Last Chance Saloon.

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