Resignations, cuts, U-turns and legal battles: Welcome to Birmingham!
The Local Democracy Reporting Scheme is marking its first anniversary. Birmingham reporter Carl Jackson talks about unearthing stories and shining the spotlight on issues which likely would have been missed.
Covering Birmingham City Council for the fledgling Local Democracy Reporting Service one thing became immediately apparent — it is an absolute monster of an authority.
And that’s just a comment about its sheer size.
In the early days of trying to familiarise myself with the country’s biggest council I lost count of the number of zeroes on its total budget.
But as the saying goes with more money comes more problems, big problems.
Let’s not get into all that just yet.
As a new face trying to make a mark in a big city I found myself with a dilemma.
You see in many parts of the country the LDRS has achieved exactly what it set out to do; filling journalistic voids where cuts to regional and local newspapers means council coverage has gone by the wayside.
But that’s not the case with Birmingham, after all it’s too big to ignore and too much of a noisy political battleground to go unnoticed.
As such, at the time of my arrival the city council was already being closely covered by two long-serving and very well regarded journalists from the Birmingham Mail and BBC.
So how — sandwiched between two stalwarts — was I supposed to carve out space for my own presence?
As it happened, the council itself provided a solution.
One thing Birmingham does particularly well is scrutiny. Unlike many council’s every week of the calendar is packed with meetings.
So many meetings, in fact, that it had been previously impossible for one person to attend most if not all of them on a daily basis, until now.
So there I sat, a new face at the back of the committee rooms, taking notes, occasionally caught yawning on the webcasts — I love my job but it’s not all thrilling stuff.
However it wasn’t long before the big stories came along.
The first was a seemingly innocuous planning application for a primary school to put up a fence. But reading the reports closely revealed that the structure was needed to protect the pupils from neighbours hurling abuse at them.
The story attracted national attention.
Others soon followed; the air quality crisis at New Street Station, the council’s dire financial situation, the mysterious Brexit report which has never seen the light of day and the £50m black hole in the much-hailed city centre Paradise development.
There have been heart-warming tales along the way as well such as councillors opening up on personal experiences of domestic violence and mental health.
They have offered welcome reminders that they are, after all, normal people with normal people problems too.
Just being the guy in the room reporting what is said to a wide audience goes a long way towards getting noticed.
With each post of a story on social media a handful of new Twitter and Facebook followers have arrived.
Of course, in a city currently gripped by violent crime another uphill battle has been for council stories to be heard over the deafening noise of stabbings and shootings which sadly fill Birmingham’s news agenda.
But one story in particular — my biggest as an LDR and in fact ever — certainly resonated, and no doubt touched a nerve, with tens of thousands of people; ‘British white people set to become a minority in Birmingham’.
When you think about it, it’s a simple and not entirely surprising statistic when the diverse make-up of the second city is there for all to see.
But naturally, culture, race, religion and ethnicity are sensitive subjects and are often — wrongly in my view — treated as taboo.
Not in this case. The response on social media exploded. Sadly, and somewhat inevitably, a large amount of it was far from constructive.
But at the very least it ignited a debate clearly of interest, importance and relevance to people.
In the days immediately after the story other news outlets did their own productions around ‘super diverse’ Birmingham — exploring the good and the bad.
And that’s the point of the LDRS isn’t it? Setting the agenda and starting off a conversation around issues previously neglected and ignored.
To think, it merely came from a single line buried in the appendix of what was an otherwise dull council report.
As far as the city council itself goes, as alluded to earlier, it is an authority with massive problems.
Without giving away my own political view in many ways it is stuck between a rock and hard place and can’t win in the eyes of the public.
The cuts to its funding over the last ten years runs into nine figures, NINE!
At the risk of sounding like press officer rhetoric ‘difficult and unpopular’ decisions have had to be made.
Of course, the way in which the council has gone about making them is another matter.
U-turns and legal challenges have punctuated the last 12 months.
Opposition councillors have often criticised the ruling administration for a lack of transparency, public consultation, accountability and honesty. But then again they would do wouldn’t they.
With the end to my first full year fast approaching the council has become embroiled in an issue which dominated the year before; industrial dispute with bin workers.
It has also yielded the first cabinet casualty of my time.
Just when I thought I was getting to grips with Birmingham’s historical and current issues I have probably learnt more in the last 12 hours about the internal politics and influences driving decision makers than the last 12 months combined.
Councils are complicated things and it is no wonder the public gets frustrated with them. But clearly, and especially in Birmingham, they are not easy organisations to run either.
As for the LDRS there is no doubt it has hit the ground running in making a loud impact on the local news scene.
Even in areas like Birmingham where there was no void it has unearthed stories and shone the spotlight on issues which likely would have been missed.
On a personal note having been a reporter for seven years I am now for the first time covering my home city where I naturally have a vested interest.
The other bonus is that the shared nature of the service means I am still providing copy and contributing to the two newspapers that taught me the trade and helped me get to this point.