Meirion Jenkins: The Conservatives have a real chance to win in Birmingham

21 Jan

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

The dreaded date has now been confirmed (again) and the Labour administration in Birmingham will introduce the city centre driving tax (known as CAZ or Clean Air Zone) in June. This is a tax with no mandate (Labour omitted its plans from its manifesto in the run up to the election) and which is likely to be very damaging for the city. If I were on the Left, I would say it is a regressive tax because it will harm those least able to afford it and will increase pollution in some of the city’s poorest areas as traffic is moved to the ring road. Labour says that the Government forced them to introduce this tax, but this is not true. The Government said that the city needed to improve air quality, and, in our last election campaign, we laid out plans to do just this without a tax on hard working motorists. There should be no doubt that a profound anti-car culture sits as the root of Labour’s plans. If elected in 2022, we will reverse this policy and remove the city centre driving tax.

Apart from London (which is a very different environment), nowhere else in the UK taxes motorists in this way, although Bristol and Bath might follow. There have been several referendums (Manchester, Durham) which have rejected such schemes. Labour knows that the people of Birmingham would also have voted against a tax of this nature had they been given an opportunity.

Further evidence of the absurd approach displayed by Labour towards transport can be seen in the Sutton Coldfield ring road cycle lane. Labour spent £75,000 on a cycle lane of about 0.5 mile in Sutton Coldfield, only to be forced to remove it in the face of fierce local opposition before it saw a single cyclist. At the time of writing, we have asked how much it cost to remove the failed scheme and we were told ‘about the same’ as it cost to build. We will submit a question to full council in February to establish the true cost but, for now, it looks like a dreadful waste of £150,000 of taxpayers’ money.

The Labour administration in Birmingham is hopelessly incapable of delivering value for money. In this column, I have written previously about the Commonwealth Games athletes’ village fiasco. The Commonwealth Games accommodation was part of the Perry Barr Regeneration Scheme – which now won’t be able to accommodate any athletes because of delays on the project. This was the only part of the games organisation that sat solely with the city council. Therefore, the project has now become a large property development (speculation?) on the part of the city council. If property prices climb, then it may be fine, but, if property values do not climb, then there is considerable financial risk for the Birmingham taxpayers. Echoing many of our concerns, the external auditors, once again, have imposed a value for money qualification on the city’s statutory accounts because of the Perry Barr scheme. There was also a second value for money qualification because of Labour’s failed handling of the highways contract.

Another example of eye-watering waste has come to light. Our group has recently called in a decision relating to a report about the home to school transport scandal. This involved a serious breakdown in the service provided to transport vulnerable and special needs children to school, many of whom were put at risk because of failings in the way that Labour had administered the scheme. It’s also a service that had been criticised at scrutiny committee for budget over-spends for several years. The report, which was commissioned at a cost of £92,000, only managed to consult with nine external people, i.e. £10,000 per consultation. Users of the service were further frustrated when the Leader said that the ‘Parent & Carer Forum’ were happy with the progress being made, only to be swiftly rebutted by that same group who made it clear that they were anything but happy.

Whatever view one takes on the effectiveness of lockdowns as a strategy, the recent increases in restrictions have provided the Labour administration in Birmingham with an opportunity to extend virtual meetings well into the future. We will soon be at the point where there have been no proper council meetings for over a year. Whilst Teams may work, to an extent, for smaller committee meetings (such as audit committee or scrutiny), it is a hopeless format for full council meetings – which are close to a complete waste of time in terms of what they achieve for the residents of Birmingham. I noticed that the proceedings in Washington recently were conducted in person, albeit with the precaution of wearing masks.

So what are the chances of us winning Birmingham in May 2022 – and will any of these matters influence the way that people vote? Is there the Birmingham equivalent of a ‘red wall’ across the central areas of the city or an issue that will galvanise voters in the way that Boris v Corbyn, or Brexit v Remain, did in the General Election? On the face of it, with the council currently being made up of 101 councillors, of which we have 25, Labour 65, Lib Dems eight (surprised they managed that many) and three others/vacancies, one might think it is a difficult ask. However, as ever in a first past the post system, a relatively small shift in the vote can make a large difference to the seat distribution.

Remember that in 2018 we had a five per cent swing against us nationally, and yet in Birmingham we achieved a six per cent increase in our vote share, adding 18,000 votes, with Labour down 0.5 per cent. We need only 4,483 more people to vote Tory (or 2,242 to change how they vote), albeit in the right place, to give us a seat majority in the chamber. Excluding London, there is no other large urban authority in the country where the Party is this close to winning. In 2018, there were five seats where we lost by only a handful of votes; these included Longbridge 15 votes, Pype Hayes 17 votes, Vesey 105 votes, Kings Norton 127 votes, and Oscott 300 votes. With sufficient campaigning resource, we believe that we can bring the days of this failing Labour administration to a timely end.

Meirion Jenkins: The lack of democratic accountability in Birmingham is worse than ever

18 Aug

Cllr Meirion Jenkins is the Shadow Cabinet Member for Finance and Resources on Birmingham City Council.

One good thing that politicians might say about Covid, is that it will provide an excuse for so many failures that have little to do with Covid, or were destined to fail long before the virus appeared. And so it is with the Labour council in Birmingham. With the Birmingham Commonwealth Games now less than two years away, audit committee had classified the athletes’ village as a ‘red risk’. The athletes’ village is the only part of the games that is wholly within the control of Labour and, like most things that Labour’s Birmingham administration handles, it’s another shambles.

The village has now been cancelled. Goodness knows how much this will cost the taxpayers in Birmingham through unrecoverable sunk costs. According to the last business case, which increased the costs by £92 million, £226 million had already been spent by the end of March 2020 on this project. The council chose to fund the village itself with no central government intervention, using a complex finance arrangement and with a view to making a turn on the property development. It was just last December that Labour mysteriously rushed through the purchase of a National Express bus depot, refusing to allow scrutiny or call in of the decision on the grounds that it was urgent, despite paying eight times the budgeted price (£16 million) for the land.

Strangely, this ‘vital’ piece of land was not planned to be needed until the Games and, even then, was only to be used as a depot. It’s now not at all clear whether it will be needed at all. When the Games were taken on at short notice, the Conservative group suggested that the use of student accommodation would represent a lower risk and lower cost option, but the Labour leadership preferred the ‘legacy’ of the athletes’ village. This has now proved to be a disastrous decision and it will probably be student accommodation that meets a large part of the requirement.

The running of the council and lack of democratic accountability is as troubling as ever in Birmingham. Full council and the elected members have now reached the point of being an irrelevance. At the last council meeting (Teams of course), we found ourselves debating a proposal to spend £7,000 on joining a special interest group, whilst the real decisions involving millions of pounds are taken secretly behind closed doors with no scrutiny allowed. Lip service is paid to councillors but we are effectively prevented from doing the job that our residents elected us to do.

We have reached the stage where Labour cabinet members have said in full council “we don’t know what else the officers are hiding from us”. After the meeting when this comment was made and in a separate matter, it emerged that Birmingham had made a decision to pay £1,000 incentives to care homes to take patients regardless of their unknown Covid status. This decision was made as an ‘emergency decision’ and therefore outside of the usual scrutiny process. Senior members of the cabinet are also privately expressing frustration about lack of access to information and lack of consultation on important decisions. Rows break out in audit committee over the Labour administration’s continuing insistence on keeping audit committee in the dark.

I’m also not sure what I find the most remarkable: is it that the Leader of the council is not included in the group of officers that run the council, insofar as the exercise of emergency powers is concerned, or the fact that the Leader is happy to accept this situation? The emergency powers were designed to allow the council to take urgent actions and intended to last just hours or a few days at most. Four months on, we still don’t have the democratically elected leader of the council directly involved in the decisions deriving from the exercise of emergency powers.

I regret that many Labour members (with some notable exceptions) seem content with and motivated only by the status they associate with being a city councillor, but care little for the fact that the role is being diminished to the point of irrelevance. Attempts by me and my colleagues to persuade them to do the right thing and protect the role of the councillor fall on deaf ears. Whilst online meetings can be useful when there is no alternative in a crisis, they are in no way a substitute for proper meetings. Despite this, there is resistance from the Labour administration to re-convening even hybrid meetings, let alone a proper return to full accountability.

Labour Birmingham remains a fully paid up member of the anti-car club. Even when John Lewis decided to close their flagship store in the Bull Ring and we saw press reports about how the city-centre driving tax might have influenced this ( Clean air zone blamed for closure ), Labour stuck dogmatically to their plans to tax hard working motorists for bringing cars into the city. To whatever extent the plan influenced the closure, it is hard to deny that anti-business / anti-car policies will discourage investment. If the city centre is harder and less convenient to access, then this is bound to discourage shoppers and business people from visiting.

Labour seized on the Covid crisis to attempt to introduce a 20mph speed limit as a default throughout Birmingham. Fortunately, they couldn’t do this without the approval of the Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, and their request was turned down. I wrote to him to object to Labour’s plans. Ironically, new reports show that one of the areas with worst congestion (and which is densely populated) is Birmingham’s ring road (e.g. Dartmouth Circus ). If Labour are successful in implementing their new tax under the justification of clean air, then they will be moving extra cars and pollution to some of the areas where air pollution is already worst.