The new administration at Birmingham City Council has obviously been working for some time on their plans for how the city is governed. It’s good that they’ve taken power with the energy and determination to – at least on the face of it – shake things up and run the authority differently. Whilst I’m proud of a lot of what we achieved over the last eight years, I wouldn’t pretend for one minute that the systems we had in place were perfect. However, this new approach – of no longer having Cabinet Members tied to one department, but rather, having them working ‘across’ the council to direct policy – means we no longer have a figurehead at the council for Leisure, Sport and Culture.
I think this is a huge mistake, though I would love to be persuaded otherwise. It strikes me that L,S&C is a ‘department’ that really benefits from having a focal point for national and local organisations to deal with, someone to champion the sector and take the flack for when things go wrong. I chaired the corresponding Scrutiny committee last year (now ‘deleted’), and worked on the ‘Music Birmingham’ report, and time and time again it came up that a clear, single point of contact at the city was essential in terms of knowing who to lobby and ask for support and advice, whether it was in terms of funding or dealing with other council departments.
And that was at a time when we had one politician overseeing the portfolio. Now it seems we have the following: the Deputy Leader – sharing with the CM for Commissioning, Contracting and Improvement – responsibility for management of assets and grants; the CM for Social Cohesion and Equalities overseeing major community and cultural events of citywide, regional or national significance and, potentially, the relevant District Committee Chairmen looking after community arts, libraries, and the local sport and leisure service. This is far too confusing and doesn’t offer the clarity that I believe many people involved in arts and culture in this city are looking for.
I’m sure the new administration recognises the importance of the creative industries sector in this city. After all, city based cultural organisations contribute over £270m to the region’s economy every year – though of course, with the right level and quality of support, this could be so much more – and the strength, or otherwise, of our cultural offer is one of the key drivers for people deciding whether or not to stay in or move to our city. And I’m not interested in making party political points out of this issue. However, they need to identify someone in the city council to champion arts and culture, ideally at cabinet level, and they need to do it soon.