‘You just can’t trust them to run the economy’: Rishi Sunak reacts to Birmingham City Council crisis

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Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled his thoughts about the financial crisis at Labour-run Birmingham City Council on a trip to the West Midlands today (Tuesday, October 10)

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has hit out at Birmingham City Council’s Labour-run administration as a team of commissioners, led by Max Caller, get to work to fix the £1 billion financial crisis.

The PM was in Tamworth on Tuesday morning (October 10) supporting the town’s Conservative candidate, Andrew Cooper, ahead of next week’s all-important by-election (October 19).

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However, in Birmingham, it’s officially the first week of action as the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities seek to put together a strict financial recovery plan to combat £760m of equal pay liabilities and a budget shortfall of £87m. A further £100m is needed to fix the council’s IT system while all non-essential spending has been blocked.

Speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service on the plight of Birmingham City Council, PM Mr Sunak said: “It’s a result of massive mismanagement by the council that has led to this situation and they are entirely responsible for that. Look, that’s a glimpse of what you get with a Labour party in power, right? You just can’t trust them to run the economy and to run financial things competently on behalf of people.”

In a 10-minute interview, Mr Sunak was quizzed on a number of topics relating to people across the West Midlands. The PM was asked about the decision to scrap HS2 from Birmingham to Manchester, while also being reminded of his comments surrounding transgender people. Here’s every word the PM said…

Rishi, first your take on Birmingham’s financial situation? The commissioners are in, they started work yesterday. Is it a bleak outlook for Brummies? How are you seeing it?

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Yeah, look, I absolutely understand the anxiety and frustration the people will feel at the situation. It’s right that the commissioners go in and look at everything properly but, taking a step back, the situation here is pretty clear. You’ve got a Labour-run council who has appallingly mis-managed finances and the amount of resources the council had went up by over 10 per cent in this current budget year which is more than the national average. It’s a result of massive mismanagement by the council that has led to this situation and they are entirely responsible for that. Look, that’s a glimpse of what you get with a Labour party in power, right? You just can’t trust them to run the economy and to run financial things competently on behalf of people.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to St George's Park, in Burton upon Trent, StaffordshirePrime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to St George's Park, in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during a visit to St George's Park, in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire | LDRS

HS2 is a big talking point at the moment. You scrapped the Birmingham to Manchester leg last week. HS2 is integral to Birmingham’s economy – we have planned around it for more than a decade – can you honestly say you’d do something like this were it similarly important to London?

Well, a couple of things. First of all, HS2 trains are going to run all the way from Euston all the way to Manchester via Birmingham. Phase one is being completely completed as planned and that’s going to mean a massive reduction in journey times from Birmingham to London; it will increase capacity on the line. And at the time HS2 was approved as a project, everyone involved in it was clear that phase one on its own was something that would be enormously beneficial for the area and, as a project, it made sense on its own, right?

But if you take a step back and the decision we’ve made I think that’s going to be great for the Midlands as well. Not only is HS2 going to run from Birmingham to Euston but we’re going to take every penny that would have been spent expanding it beyond that and invest it in transport, not just in the Midlands but in the north and across the country and in forms of transport people use more often and we’ll deliver those benefits quicker.

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If you look at what’s going to happen here in the Midlands, not only is there going to be more money for road maintenance and potholes which, as Andy will tell you, when he’s out and about talking to people in this by-election it’s something they’re constantly raising with him.

We’re also going to upgrade the A5 which is a massive issue people again raise and we’re going to put money into improving that very key road. Again, Hinckley to Tamworth. And we’re going to be able to do the Midlands Rail Hub in full; £1.5 billion is going to connect up over 40 stations across the Midlands, including here in Tamworth, Nuneaton and improve frequency, capacity and reliability on that line.

People are actually going to see the benefits in weeks, literally in weeks’ time bus fares were due to go up to £2.50 now, as a result of this decision, we’ll be able to keep them at £2. Remember, buses are the most popular form of public transportation, millions of people rely on them, so I think it’s a better use of this cash to spend it on these types of projects. It’s going to be very good for the people of the Midlands and good for the people in Tamworth. The West Midlands and Birmingham are still going to get the benefits of phase one [of HS2] being completed.

Birmingham Council HouseBirmingham Council House
Birmingham Council House | arenaphotouk - stock.adobe.com

There’s a real problem on the roads here in Birmingham. You have talked of reversing a war on motorists – but what about the war on pedestrians and cyclists? In Birmingham, families are terrified to let their kids cycle and walk to school for fear of congested traffic, with three young people killed this year at the hands of drivers, and five cyclists. Evidence shows 20mph as standard will improve safety – are you so anti pedestrians and cyclists?

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No, definitely not. I’m a dad with two young kids and, of course, I want roads around our schools to be particularly safe. Twenty miles-per-hour speed limits around schools are often the right thing to do. My broader point on this is we have to recognise that most people rely on their cars to get around for their day-to-day lives; going to work, taking their kids around at weekends.

I think in too many parts we’ve seen this kind of ‘war on motorists’ and I don’t think that’s right. That’s why I cut fuel duty as Chancellor by record amounts so I put more money in people’s pockets; it’s why we’re investing in road maintenance and potholes.

But also why when it comes to things like Low Traffic Neighbourhoods and 20mph speed limits, they shouldn’t be imposed top down in a blanket fashion. They should be done with local people in mind and with the consent and engagement of local people. That’s the key thing. They should not be imposed in areas against their wishes.

That’s what we’re about, right, about respecting and recognising why people use their cars and rely on their cars and we should be supportive of that. Again, look at what Labour did down in London with ULEZ (Ultra Low Emission Zone), you know, charging ordinary families £12.50 every time they were heading to do their weekly shop or taking their kid to football practice, see a GP – I just don’t think that’s right.

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We have a very different view about prioritising and respecting drivers and that’s what we’re doing. We’re also, by the way, investing tons of money into cycling. We’re improving the national cycle network by the tune of £35m and we’ve got all the details on the things that will be improved.

Also, just a few months ago we announced £200m for 100 different cycling projects all around the country to improve cycle lanes, particularly making the school run a bit easier for most people who cycle to school.

Are you happy with how Universal Credit is working? Is there anything more you plan to do with it, given that the number of people on it is now at a record high of 6.1 million?

Yeah, a couple of things. I know things are tough right now for many families with the cost of living. It’s why everyone on Universal Credit is receiving extra help this year to make sure that they can manage high energy bills , so they’re getting extra support for that.

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Pensioners are another group I want to make sure get help whether that’s in Tamworth or across the country so that this winter, alongside fuel payments, they’ll receive extra support to help them with their bills. But we also need to have a welfare system that’s fair.

Those who can work, should work and one thing we’re keen to do is to reform the welfare system to make sure it works in that way. I think we’ve seen quite a striking rise in the number of people who are deemed unfit to do any work whatsoever. That’s gone up sharply in the last decade. It’s gone up since the pandemic.

I don’t think that is right. I think it’s right and fair to everybody to have a look at that to make sure everyone who can work, is working because that’s ultimately what’s best for them and their families. It’s also what’s fair for the taxpayer.

It’s been suggested that you alienated trans people given your speech last week about a man being a man and a woman being a woman. That group of people suffer significantly higher suicide rates. What’s your take on what you said?

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Look, I’ve always said of course we should be compassionate, tolerant and understanding of everyone, particularly those who are going through a sensitive time questioning some of these things. But what I said is just a simple fact of biology.

I actually think the vast majority of people who heard it will agree with it because it is simple biology and it’s just common sense what I described. When it comes down to questions about changing rooms or sports or protecting women’s rights and their safety, we have to recognise that biology is important and, as I said, I think most people will agree that’s the common sense approach to this.

We can do that while also being compassionate and tolerant for those who are going through a period where they’re questioning some of these things.

Rishi, could you give us a quick mark out of 10 for the Conservatives and how well they’ve run the economy over the past decade…

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[Laughs]. Well, I’ll tell you what when I got this job I had five priorities for the British people. The first was to halve inflation because that’s the biggest challenge that people face; the cost of living, it’s inflation that’s putting the price on things up.

It’s inflation that’s dipping into people’s savings, it’s inflation that’s pushing up mortgage rates. Inflation is making people feel poorer and it’s why it’s right that was my number one priority.

I’m pleased that inflation is now coming down, right, the last month of data show it’s coming down and pressures are easing on families. But I’m not complacent. We’ve still got work to do and we’ve got to stick to the plan; that’s why it’s important that I and the Conservative government continue to make the right long-term decisions for the country that will bring inflation down.

I was struck that the shadow chancellor, yesterday, made almost a 45-minute speech which failed to mention the word inflation in it. It’s literally the number one economic challenge that the country faces and the shadow chancellor of the Labour party failed to even mention it.

Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, makes a statement about HS2 (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, makes a statement about HS2 (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
Andy Street, the Mayor of the West Midlands, makes a statement about HS2 (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images) | Getty Images

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It shows that they can’t be trusted with the economy but what they did mention was they’re going to borrow £28 billion extra. They confirmed that  so, again, that will make inflation worse; it would push up interest rates and that’s not going to help anybody and I don’t think that’s the right thing to do as an illustration of the difference between us who you can trust on the economy.

The other thing I’d say is that we’ve got fantastic local Conservatives who are doing a great job representing people. Whether that’s the Mayor, Andy Street, who is a tireless campaigner and leader for his region and you can see the difference, quite frankly, between Birmingham City Council’s leadership and Andy Street’s leadership in his area of building houses that people need, particularly on brownfield, and improving transport links and making sure Birmingham is creating jobs and opportunities for young people.

You can also see it here with Andy; you’ve got someone, right, who is a thoroughly local candidate who knows his community inside out, has served his country around the world and has got a track record of public service and delivery for people.

His values are the values of the people in Tamworth and I look forward to working with him to deliver for everyone here and I’m confident we can do a good job for them.

Tamworth by-election candidates in full:

  • Robert Bilcliff, UKIP
  • Andrew Cooper, Conservative
  • Ian Cooper, Reform UK
  • Sarah Edwards, Labour
  • Howling Laud Hope, The Official Monster Raving Loony Party
  • Dr Sue Howarth, Green Party
  • Peter Longman, Independent
  • Ashlea Simon, Britain First
  • Sunny Virk, Liberal Democrat

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