Category Archives: Blog

£45 million housing Brummie Bond – that’s just for starters

When I became the leader of Birmingham City Council I promised to explore radical ways to generate new funding so that we can build the homes Brummies so desperately need.

I’m delighted that the first ‘Brummie Bond’ under my leadership has been sold, raising £45 million that we will be able to use to significantly boost our housing investment plans.

The decision by Phoenix Life to lend to the council through a bond issue represents a major vote of confidence in Birmingham by the private sector.

Phoenix Life, as you might expect, conducted due diligence into the investment, including a credit review, and concluded that Birmingham city council’s finances were sound and that lending money to the council was a good proposition.

Not only will the bond bring much-needed investment to address an acute housing shortage, it will save the council money because we have been able to negotiate an excellent rate of interest.

The interest rate the council will pay to borrow the money, at an average of 2.36%, is lower than that charged by the Public Works Loan Board (PWLB), which means we will pay £1.4 million less over the course of the loan than would have been the case had we borrowed from PWLB.

I’m determined that the Brummie Bonds programme will go from strength to strength.

With our spending plans facing a relentless austerity assault by the Tory Government, this Labour-led council is determined to be more imaginative and identify ways to generate funding to bring jobs and homes to Birmingham.

This council won’t raise the white flag of surrender and we’ve shown that, to make us less reliant on rapidly shrinking Government grants, we’ll go out and bring in millions of pounds that would normally go to London markets.

Typically, this is Birmingham doing what it does best. Buckling down, being pragmatic. Brummies are doing it for themselves.

We must not underestimate the scale of the challenges that lie ahead.

The Birmingham Development Plan makes it clear that some 89,000 new homes will be required for Birmingham citizens by 2031. We estimate there is sufficient space within the city boundary for just 51,000 homes, leaving 38,000 properties to be built in neighbouring local authorities across the city border.

Radical plans to build new homes in Birmingham city centre are taking shape. We expect over the next few years to deliver 10,000 properties at Smithfield, Snow Hill and Curzon Street, an unprecedented rate of growth in city living.

Birmingham city council stands ready to play a leading role through the Birmingham Municipal Housing Trust, which has built over 2,000 new homes for sale or affordable rent since 2009, with plans for up to 500 homes for affordable rent also in place.

During 2015-16, BMHT built 562 new homes in Birmingham. That was 30 per cent of all new homes in the city.

Give us the powers and we will lead the post-Brexit economy

Localis report

As consultation on the Government’s Industrial Strategy Green Paper draws to a close, I want to underline the importance for Birmingham and the wider West Midlands of a joint approach towards one of the biggest issues facing this country.

I’m determined that we will lead the country in showing how cities can be at the forefront of a new, post-Brexit, industrial strategy.

The countdown to Brexit is about to begin. The Prime Minister has signalled she will trigger Article 50 next week and whether we like it or not, the UK will leave the European Union in two years.

This means the requirement for a sound industrial strategy, with buy-in from both central and local government, has never been greater. Post-Brexit it is vital that investment currently coming from the EU to Britain is maintained, that we address the skills shortages holding back the economy and the prospects of local people, and maintain investment in our transport infrastructure and new homes.

This won’t be easy but the task will be even more difficult, impossible perhaps, unless the Government is prepared to move at pace to allow important strategic decisions to be taken locally, at a level where councils and business leaders know what is best for their local communities and can react swiftly to trading opportunities as they arise.

Devolution of budgets and powers from Whitehall has to be far more than just a sound-bite – the advent of a West Midlands mayor alongside a united Combined Authority with metropolitan and district councils working together as never before presents this region with a unique opportunity, and we must be up for the challenge.

The three-LEP geography of the Combined Authority is the right level at which to deliver a regional industrial strategy. But we are also working closely with the Midlands Engine project on those aspects that require a bigger canvas, such as cross-regional transport investment and selling the Midlands globally.

A new report from the think tank Localis, makes the case for radical devolution which would enable Birmingham and the West Midlands to deliver an industrial strategy to create jobs and inclusive growth for the region post-Brexit.

The report recommends that the West Midlands be given:

  • A new Accelerated Growth Fund, to replace EU funding and pool all existing local funding
  • Powers to more effectively plan for current and future labour market needs, including co-ordinating local skills provision
  • Leadership on local land provision for housing and jobs and on the use of all public land, stronger compulsory purchase powers
  • A duty to develop local transport strategies and control over investment planning
    Control of local bus services
  • Power to control a Community Infrastructure Levy across the area and new Zonal Infrastructure Levies
  • Greater discretion over business rates and pilots of fiscal devolution steps such as a local corporation tax top slice, localised VAT and wider borrowing powers
  • Rights to propose public sector relocations from London, such as government departments or Quangos.

The report is particularly welcome as it is in line with the arguments we have been making to the Government on the need for more devolution so that we can deliver the investment needed to prosper after Brexit.

These changes would go a long way to enable Birmingham and the West Midlands to make a greater contribution to the nation’s prosperity and achieve the full potential we know exists in the region.

When the Industrial Strategy Green Paper was published, the Prime Minister promised the Government would step up to a “new, active role that backs business and ensures more people in all corners of the country share in the benefits of its success”.

The Government said it would look favourably on the type of sectors that will shape the economy of tomorrow, with life sciences, low carbon vehicles, industrial digitalisation and creative industries expected to be at the front of the queue for investment.

This is potentially good news for Birmingham and the West Midlands where our hospitals and universities are already blazing a trail in medical research, and where JLR has expressed a wish to look at building a new battery and assembly plant for electric cars.

But as I’ve already made clear, there’s much more the Government should be doing if it wants to rebalance the economy and promote inclusive economic growth, with well-paid jobs for all citizens. Enhanced capital allowances should be considered to stimulate investment in manufacturing, the Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative should be resurrected, and funding gaps for small firms in the supply chain need to be plugged.

I welcome the Green Paper’s recognition of the importance of individual councils and combined authorities as key local institutions but again look for a stronger commitment to devolution to enable us to deliver.

The Government must ensure that governance at a regional level, whether through combined authorities, local enterprise partnerships, or mayors, should be able to work with development bodies that can intervene more widely and strategically at a regional level, and do smart specialisation through regional level industrial policies.

Why Government must investigate council pension fund fees

The scandal of UK councils’ pension funds and their sky-high investment management charges is even greater than previously imagined, and now surely warrants a Government investigation.

While the Centre for Policy Studies reported that the 89 local government funds in England and Wales paid out £10 billion in management fees over the past decade, I can reveal the true figure for the entire UK must have been far higher.

Based on research into local government pension fund accounts for the entire UK, taking in Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as England and Wales and including the Transport for London fund, fees for 2015-16 alone were £1.015 billion!…..and that’s just for a single year.

So over a ten-year period, the £10 billion estimate is certainly on the low side.

This wouldn’t be so bad if investment managers were adding value. Unfortunately, the funds have generated very poor returns for their members, despite thousands of millions of pounds being handed to city-based ‘experts’.

The West Midlands Local Government Pension Fund (WMPF), into which Birmingham City Council is being asked to pay about £125 million a year, is diverting a higher proportion of its assets to managers than the UK average.

The average spent on administration expenses by all UK funds during 2015-16 was 0.36 per cent. But WMPF managed to spend 0.60 per cent of its assets on advisers and managers.

WMPF trustees signed off £86.3 million in 2014-15 on management fees and were set to pay £74.9 million in 2015-16. Payments at this level are, I believe, unacceptable, particularly given the poor return for the fund.

I am arguing strongly for management of the fund to be brought in-house to save money, and I also want to see a full breakdown of fees paid to investment managers, including bonus payments.

One local government pension fund does stand out as a beacon of frugality and good performance – West Yorkshire, which spent just 0.03 per cent of assets on management charges in 2015-16.

WMPF paid at least £1 billion on management fees over the past decade. By contrast, the West Yorkshire Pension Fund’s management expenses over the same period were £70 million. A billion pounds versus seventy million pounds, it just doesn’t make sense.

As the Centre for Policy Studies report candidly notes, dysfunctional governance and a lack of accountability means that local government pension fund members, past and present, are getting a bad deal, while councils are being short-changed because have to bail out the funds with money they would far rather use to run public services.

The blunt truth is that most of the funds would have delivered a better return simply by switching from active management to passive tracker funds, cutting management fees to the bare minimum.

As the Financial Times has reported, passive funds across the world grew 4.5 times faster than active funds in 2016 as investors retreated from stock-pickers due to concerns about high fees and disappointing performance.

But this is about far more than tackling eye-wateringly high management fees, as important as that issue undoubtedly is. With £214 billion wrapped up in local government pension schemes, the time is right for the Government to consider ways in which cash locked up in the funds can be converted to provide investment at a time when local authorities are suffering severe and continuing cuts in Government grant.

We need to think smarter and be more agile about how best to put that money to better use, paying for new infrastructure, housing and regeneration schemes, providing real benefits for communities and delivering better returns for the pension funds.

The Government should welcome such an approach since it would bring into play more than £200 billion, triggering a huge cash injection for homes, jobs and inclusive economic growth.

Many of the recommendations in the CPS study reflect those put forward in my book published three years ago, ‘The Secret Wealth Garden – Re-wiring Local Government Pension Funds back into Regional Economies’.

I argued for the 89 separate ‘mini wealth pots’ to be combined, either into a single national pot or a small number of regional funds. Either way, what’s needed is to make pension fund money work for local communities, which must be the right approach given that these significant pots of wealth are actually made up of the savings of pretty ordinary and low-paid people.

Out of the 15 proposals in the CPS study, the final one is perhaps the most significant:

“The Government should develop a parallel plan to de-fund the Local Government Pension Scheme and use the assets to seed a sovereign wealth fund, with a significant allocation to infrastructure. As a quid pro quo, a Crown guarantee could be provided on the pension promises, which would subsequently be met on a pay-as-you-go basis.”

This would change the historic approach of pension fund management, and do away with an iniquitous valuation system which in an era of low gilt prices and low inflation serves only to produce huge illusory deficits in funds that are actually healthy and wealthy.

And the second CPS recommendation can only be welcomed as an opportunity to claw back some of the many millions of pounds wasted on management fees: “Such is the scale of some individual funds’ unreported costs that DCLG, as scheme sponsor, should discipline the funds’ internal audit functions and consider suing their external auditors, not least to recover fees paid.”

Section 36(3) of the Pensions Act 1995, requiring trustees to take advice prior to making an investment, should be repealed since in its present form it steers trustees down the path of hiring expensive investment analysts in order to prove that they have taken advice, even if that advice turns out to be no more advantageous than placing pension cash in tracker funds.

In short, the time is ripe for a long overdue debate about the future of local government pension schemes. It is a debate the Government must have, and act upon.