Why did Birmingham City Council chief executive suddenly quit and other unanswered questions

webnexttech | Why did Birmingham City Council chief executive suddenly quit and other unanswered questions

Broken, beleagured Birmingham City Council sent out a carefully manicured press release last week announcing its chief executive of three years, Deborah Cadman, was leaving suddenly. It seemed the highest paid and most visible member of the council’s corporate team had decided she had endured enough. Accompanied by positive comments from the council’s Labour leader John Cotton and Government appointed lead commissioner Max Caller, Ms Cadman’s departure was of her own volition, we are told. And rather than being a hasty decision, one triggered by stress, say, or a falling out, it was one she had ‘always’ intended to take, once the most damaging budget in the council’s history was signed off. For those who don’t know, Birmingham City Council is currently in a critical state and under the oversight of a team of Government appointed commissioners. They were parachuted in to run affairs last autumn. The council has a deficit of at least £300m which it has to plug with huge service cuts, job losses and a 10% council tax hike this year. READ MORE: Live – Birmingham Council chief Deborah Cadman quits £260k role Ms Cadman, announcing her departure, said: “It was always my intention to leave the council once the budget (2024/25) was agreed, and we had a clear route to recovery and improvement.” It was ‘time to hand over the baton’, she said – though as things stand there is nobody to hand it to. That version of events doesn’t appear to stand up to scrutiny. It is at odds with an interview with BirminghamLive just a few weeks earlier, on January 9, when Ms Cadman voiced her determination to stay and doubled down on her commitment to the city she loves. Asked if she might quit, she said: “Absolutely not. This is the hardest job I have ever done but also a job I am completely committed to.” She added: “This is my home city…it is really important to me that this council assumes the position of being the best in the country. I know this council needs to be better and can be…I am not being heroic, but it’s important that I continue to do the best for this council, but more importantly for the city I love.” She went on to say: “If people are not committed to being with me and the leader on this journey then there is a question mark about their commitment to public service, in my opinion. I am committed to this organisation and to continue to deliver great services to those who need them.” READ MORE: Broke Birmingham City Council’s chief executive Deborah Cadman quits What changed? And was she already on her way out? It also jars with a conversation I had with a senior officer at the council just two working days before the announcement of her departure last week. I had made an inquiry about an official complaint that had been made against Deborah Cadman – later reported here after the council belatedly responded – and had also been told she was off sick. ‘Is this a cover? Is she on her way out of the door?’ I asked. Corporate answer – she is genuinely off sick, and no. It’s not the only thing that now looks like a massaging of the truth – not an uncommon feature of Birmingham’s recent travails. The council corporate press office and council leader Cllr Cotton were both at pains to point out that Ms Cadman is not departing with a golden handshake, as if that somehow would reassure residents facing their own financial hardships. She won’t be getting some over-the-top tip for her public service, or a pension upgrade, they said, beyond the entitlements that came with her job. This was a decision made by agreement, they said. What anyone failed to point out, however, was that Ms Cadman has a contract with a lengthy notice period set to protect both sides from just such a scenario. She departs on Friday and if, as we understand it, she has just given in her notice, she will likely have negotiated to be paid up in full on her contract. On six months notice, that would pay up to August or thereabouts. Based on a £260k salary, you can do the sums. Had this been a planned departure, she would have workd on, at least through some of her notice, and help bed in a successor. Something must have happened to trigger such a move, and residents ought to know what. READ MORE: Birmingham City Council loses ninth chief executive in seven years amid ‘pariah’ claim Our unanswered questions include a request for clarity about when Ms Cadman decided to leave, whether she has left of her volition or been forced out, when her notice period started, and the terms of her departure. Our inquiries have received a firm ‘no comment’. Ms Cadman has so far kept her counsel and not taken up our interview request. We have also flagged inquiries with the council about secretive internal inquiries being carried out into the council’s finances, whistleblower complaints and the Oracle situation – so far without a response beyond ‘no comment’. Even using the Freedom of Information Act has failed to ilicit answers so far, though we persist. We have also requested and so far been unable to secure an interview with commissioners who have reported being too busy to do so. It’s an exasperating state of affairs. Ms Cadman started her tenure with such optimism, as our first story at the time indicated. Her calibre and experience, including most recently as CEO at West Midlands Combined Authority, and her love for and roots in Birmingham, were seen as vital. She was one of the most influential people in local government, according to a top 100 list. Local government sources described it as a great move. Also seen as an important step in one of the country’s most ethnically diverse communities was that she was blazing a trail by becoming the council’s first CEO of colour. READ MORE: Council’s first chief exec of colour hailed ‘a turning point’ in battle for equality at top But Birmingham City Council breaks people, or people break it; It’s hard to know for certain what goes wrong. It could be that early promise fades as the immensity of the role emerges. Or it might be that reporting into and relying on elected politicians of variable quality to direct you undoes even the most resilient. Throw in having to share your every move and decision with commisioners with almost dictatorial powers, and the task becomes even more undesireable. The last incumbent to stay more than three years at Birmingham City Council was Stephen Hughes, who was at the helm from 2005 to 2014. His legacy ended with the landmark Kerslake report into the council’s affairs. Some would argue Ms Cadman’s resignation – referred to since by council leader Cotton as her retirement – was overdue given the enormous blow to the council’s reputation from its de facto bankruptcy last year. No matter now if it emerges that she was left a lame duck by a weak political leadership, or was let down by trusted chief officers on bloated salaries or fees. As head of service with financial oversight, the buck stops with her. Others say she should have been sacked because of the failure to protect Birmingham’s finances, saying it amounts to misconduct. Yet others, including opposition councillors, say we have lost a talented, committed officer who was our best hope of recovery. Whatever your perception, thes are the facts. Since Ms Cadman’s arrival in March 2021, initially on a temporary contract, the council has gone ‘live’ with a catastrophic IT and finances system upgrade that’s going to cost at least £100m to put right. Its shadowy equal pay challenges have exploded into the light, in part because of a failure to curb unfair working practices in its bins services. It’s also become clear that the grip on financial best value has been, at best, loosely applied. But there have been achievements too. Its children’s services and adult care services have improved, according to regulators, and it was making headway in tackling its long standing failings in SEND services. The Commonwealth Games in 2022 were a triumph. Ms Cadman also set out a transformation plan for a future, smaller council, and was trying to tackle poor performance. But there were rumours of bullying and a toxic culture among the council workforce, sometimes involving senior staff., that hadn’t diminished. A critical governance review shed light on some of this – as reported here. The impacts on the financial and digital teams are said to have been especially dire. Lead commissioner Max Caller was said to be on ‘team Deborah’, even when officials at the Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities were said to be less convinced that continuity was the best way forward. Asked about Ms Cadman at Christmas, and specifically if she was still the right person to be the city’s CEO, he said: “Deborah Cadman is a good chief executive, she has a track record of success in many authorities. When she came here, her number one challenge was to ensure the Commonwealth Games was delivered. Nobody could say she did not do that. “What’s important is that there are now clear targets (for the CEO) that will be public and shared with full council, who can then hold her to account. Then you can reasonably ask questions about whether she is delivering or not.” He added: “The Kerslake review (back in 2014) identified a lot of problems with the city council; the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (2023) identified a lot of the same problems…you cannot blame Deborah for anything that happened before she was here.” Whether their relationship has eroded since is unclear. Caller has certainly gained a formidable relationship for being ‘ruthless’, appearing to revel in his previous moniker of ‘Max the Axe’ for making council cuts. Ms Cadman is also not the only highly paid officer of the council to depart over the last 12 months from senior roles in services that have fractured. Departures have included the director of council management Becky Hellard, who oversaw financial affairs up to April 2023, director of IT and digital services Peter Bishop and director of transformation Meena Kishinani, who left last month, interim director of people services Darren Hockaday and city solicitor Janie Berry, who left in September. But through this turmoil, the political leadership has remained intact and consistent. None of the Labour leadership group of councillors who form the Cabinet – most of them serving the city council for many years and with oversight of multiple failings – have suffered a Damascene moment and announced their departure. Some seem to be relying on a distant, future public inquiry to abdicate them of responsibility, or to provide the hard evidence of wrongdoing that would force their hand. They don’t have an imminent local election to worry about either – the council is not up for re-election until 2026 – though voters could make them pay at the mayoral and PCC elections in May. Until then, they apologise and carry on. We, however, will continue to ask questions on your behalf, and hope for the honesty and openness that those at the top of Birmingham City Council profess to wish to provide. * Prof Graeme Betts, currently Corporate Director for Adult Social Care, is stepping up temporarily to be chief executive alongside his current role while the council works with commissioners on the next steps. Please email [email protected] if you’ve an interesting story I need to pursue. Keep up to date with all the latest politics news with our politics newsletter. You can sign up for free here to get stories delivered straight to your inbox to read at a time convenient to you. Get more stories by Jane Haynes here

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