Birmingham was booming. It was a city on the up, or so everyone said, anyway; and certainly that was easy enough to believe, if you came once a year or so for some conference or other. Each year seemingly brought fresh signs of regeneration, from the revival of its historic jewellery quarter as a creative hub to the fancy apartments shooting up, with further plans unveiled this spring for new parks and public squares.
Hosting the Commonwealth Games last year meanwhile showcased a British success story to the world: a young, energetic and culturally diverse city, with a proud industrial history of invention and the ability not to take itself too seriously. Visit England even promoted Birmingham as a swanky minibreak destination, where you could dine in Michelin-starred restaurants and tour locations used to film the BBC drama Peaky Blinders.
Only now, it turns out, Birmingham is not so much booming but bust. Britain’s second city woke up this week to the news that its council is virtually bankrupt, after paying out over £1bnon equal pay claims from female city workers in recent years and now with another £760m owing. It has filed a section 114 order – essentially an admission that it can’t pay its bills, and a cry for government help. The order prevents new spending on anything but the bare essentials it’s legally obliged to provide, though it’s still unclear exactly what that means.
New council leader John Cotton, who only took over this summer and was in New York reportedly celebrating his 50th birthday when the news broke, stressed that the most vital services – from child protection to collecting the rubbish – will continue, but he couldn’t promise they won’t be pared back to the bare minimum. Bins will still be emptied, but he couldn’t say how frequently, and staff have already been invited to come forward for voluntary resignations. Throw in the prospect of strikes if the council tries to balance its books with mass redundancies, and a messy autumn looms.
All of which means local government now joins sewage dispersal and school maintenance on the growing list of things that sound boring right until they suddenly don’t; unglamorous, everyday stuff you used to be able to safely forget about, without worrying unduly about getting sick from swimming in the sea or about your child’s classroom roof caving in.
It’s unfair not to find councils more absorbing, obviously, when they’re entrusted with everything from the safety of incredibly vulnerable children to public health budgets going into the fourth winter of Covid, and when there are very pressing reasons lately to take an interest. Although Birmingham is the biggest council yet to invoke section 114, six others have done so in the past three years, with another 26 potentially at risk of going bustin future.
These imploding councils weren’t perfect. Woking, in Surrey, and Thurrock, in Essex, got themselves into hot water with risky investments; Northamptonshire’s management failings ran so deep that a government-appointed inspector’s report said it should be broken up and rebuilt from scratch.
Birmingham council has been financially troubled for years, a legacy not just of the way it evidently treated its female cooks, cleaners and care assistants back in the 00s but also of more recent troubles, including a disastrous IT project. And in retrospect, did it have to host those glittering Commonwealth Games? (Max Caller, author of that damning report on Northamptonshire, says when he was appointed four years ago to try to help Birmingham council, he advised them to drop the Games and concentrate on sorting out their finances).
But as Preet Gill, the MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, points out, the government didn’t have to take a cumulative £1bn out of the city’s budget in austerity savings either. Blaming Labour-run councils for failing to absorb Tory cuts and then trying to make political capital from the resulting chaos – as Rishi Sunak promptly did, claiming that Labour had “bankrupted Birmingham, we can’t let them bankrupt Britain” – doesn’t wash when Thurrock and Woking ran into trouble under Conservative control.
The truth is that grants to local government were cut by a punishing 40% in real terms over the decade to 2020, shunting much of austerity’s dirty work on to councils of all political colours. Some doubtless coped better than others, but having let them take the immediate flak for painful choices, it’s cynical beyond belief to make town halls take the blame for the longer-term consequences.
One reason local government bore the brunt, of course, is that it doesn’t stir the blood like some rival Whitehall departments can. The unglamorous workhorse of public life was vulnerable in some ways because it was considered boring, a nudge perhaps to care more about it than we do.
But if anything, this week is a reminder that the hallmark of living in a civilised country is the privilege of not having to care about the basics, because the state manages them competently on your behalf. The reward for paying taxes without complaint should be the blissful freedom to get on with life, without having to worry about the bins getting collected, or the trains endlessly being cancelled, or what exactly school flat roofs are made of, or any of the other stuff that in a functioning country can safely be relegated to the realms of tedium because it just reliably works. Make Britain great again? Right now, I’d settle for making it boring.