'Big issues' - Birmingham City Council Leader John Cotton responds to ‘deep seated blame culture’ report

Seven big questions posed to Cllr John Cotton as explosive report into Birmingham City Council’s governance finds ‘deep seated blame culture’ and lack of trust between staff
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Birmingham City Council’s under-fire leader John Cotton says it was vitally important “to hold a mirror up against ourselves” following this week’s damning report into the culture and workings within the local authority.

The ‘bankrupt’ council was found to have a ‘deep-seated blame culture’ and a lack of trust between staff, while the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CFGS) report - commissioned by the council - also detailed “a defensive culture where there is difficulty in speaking up about bad news, and confusion and disagreement about who owns and controls data”.

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It found the council is in an “exceptionally difficult situation” and the immediate challenge continues to be “dealing with the shocks to its finances, which emerged in the spring and summer of 2023”.

The local authority – the largest in Europe – issued a Section 114 notice in September, which meant it could not battle to balance its books. It follows a huge equal pay liability and a faltering IT programme. The council must now save £200m across the next two financial years in order to plug its spiralling debts.

Today (Tuesday, December 5), the Local Democracy Reporting Service was invited to speak with the council’s Labour leader, Coun Cotton, given the release of the explosive report overnight. Here’s everything that was said prior to today’s full council meeting at Birmingham City Council HQ.

1) ‘No trust between officers and members, a deep-seated blame culture and a lack of commitment to basic principles and good conduct.’ That’s what the report states. What’s going on John, there appears to be real disharmony here?

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Cllr Cotton said: “I was really clear on coming in as leader that there were some big issues that we needed to fix in this council. We jointly commissioned that governance review because we fully understand the issue of governance and culture within the organisation. It paints a very clear and very challenging picture for the organisation and it’s one we absolutely have to respond to.

“Accepting the recommendations within that will also be built into our wider improvement and recovery plan that we’re working on with the commissioners. It’s really a call to action for the whole organisation, members and not just the political members, but across the 101 members of the council to look at how we can work better and have the correct governance processes in place so we can focus on delivering for the people of this city.”

2) What about the culture here – the report basically states that not many members are getting on, they’re constantly at loggerheads hence why there’s an issue with decision making. Can you work with your peers and your opposition? Are there problems here in terms of pulling in the right direction?

Cllr John Cotton said: “One of the things the report says in relation to the ‘blame game’ is that we don’t get into a further blame game. We need to focus on the things that we need to put right. As members across all parties, they’re in this council because they want to do the best for the citizens. We may have political differences about what the best way is to address those but I think there is a genuine public service ethos across our members and there’s some incredibly talented and committed public servants who work as our officers as well.

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“Clearly the report sets out issues around governance processes, behaviours and a culture that we don’t want it to be – but what we now need to do is work collectively without getting involved in a blame game but put things right. We wanted to hold a mirror up against ourselves which is why we commissioned the report and it’s now incumbent on all of us to take the initiative in driving that forward as part of our general improvement journey.”

4) Are you doing enough and are you doing enough quickly enough because, historically, the council’s not got a great reputation. What about taxpayers and people who live in this city… There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.

Cllr John Cotton said: “There’s some big challenges we’ve got to take on. Certainly since I’ve become leader we’ve worked at pace to try and address those and that’s not to say there’s not a lot of work that we still need to do. We’re very much aware of that.

“Firstly, it’s about being up front and transparent about the challenges and, on my first day as leader, I went out and shared the facts about Oracle and about equal pay liability and we’ve continued to try and be up front around trying to take that forward.

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“We have made some substantial progress in some quarters so, for instance, in tackling the equal pay liability we now have a job evaluation scheme in place based on a methodology that we’ve agreed with our trade unions. There’s a lot of work going on to take that forward and ensure we get a pay-and-grading model that finally closes down that equal pay liability.

“We’re also working very closely with the commissioners on a whole series of changes to the council. Clearly, we’re addressing those financial issues and we’ll bring that report to cabinet shortly setting out the next phases of that. The central governance and scrutiny report is another set of actions that we will be taking forward ensuring that we have got everything happening at the pace and scale that needs to happen – but the single focus of all of this is delivering for the people of this city and ensuring that they’re getting the service they need and deserve from the council.”

Birmingham City Council leader John Cotton at an extraordinary meeting to approve ‘bankruptcy' notice and spending cutsBirmingham City Council leader John Cotton at an extraordinary meeting to approve ‘bankruptcy' notice and spending cuts
Birmingham City Council leader John Cotton at an extraordinary meeting to approve ‘bankruptcy' notice and spending cuts

4) We don’t have the 151 officer report yet, you say it’s with the commissioners, presumably that is going to deal with not being able to balance the budget this year. Can you tell us, is that on track to be sorted? Is that what that report is going to contain?

Cllr John Cotton said: “Yes. It will set out the direction of travel and how we address the financial gap we know we have within the authority. It will also start to set out the tough decisions we need to make in terms of looking at our spending of the council across the board. There needs to be substantial savings and there also needs to be substantial change within the organisation. 

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“One of the things we’re keen to look at is what you call cross-cutting savings where we can drive out further efficiencies and we’ll be transforming the organisation in a way that’s absolutely focused on delivering services. Some of that will be contained within the report that will come to cabinet next week.

“Clearly, we’ve then got a longer budget consultation that we’ll need to go through and we’re looking forward to that dialogue we’ll have with our partners and citizens around how we shape those budget proposals and that budget will be taken to council at the end of February, as is normally with the case with budget setting.”

5) Are people going to be able to look at that report in the next couple of days? When will we see that report and will they be able to see that a service they rely on will now have less money…

“There will be a certain amount of high-level detail around the savings programmes but there’s further work we need to do on the draft budget proposals that will go out for that public consultation so there will be a longer dialogue around that which will feed into the budget setting in February.”

Birmingham City Council HouseBirmingham City Council House
Birmingham City Council House
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6) Can you give an example in terms of what the city will lose, service-wise?

“We’re not yet in a position to share the details of the proposals. However, when you look at the £200m gap that we know we need to close, clearly that is going to require some really tough choices around spending and priorities. One of the things I want to ensure we do in this process is that we are continuing to tackle issues facing the most vulnerable in our communities, for instance we’re continuing our cost of living support because there’s lots of people in this city really feeling the crunch as a result of the crisis and we want to make sure we’re delivering on that cost of living programme.

“But we have to be up front about this – there are going to be some tough choices as we seek to close that gap and put the council’s finances back on a sustainable basis.”

7) How has the report been received council-wise, internally?

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“It delivers some pretty stark and blunt messages and members and officers are going through that report at the moment reflecting on what that means for their own personal field of operations and the organisation collectively.

“I’m certainly sensing from the cabinet and of my own group there’s an absolute determination to take responsibility and ensure to deliver the change. This is a moment of clarity for the organisation that we need to see.”

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