Kevin Lavery, chief executive of the new unitary county in Cornwall, says he is making up lost time for its April launch.
There cannot be many chief executives whose passion for local government has been rekindled by a fictional 10-year-old boy famous for his love of stink bombs and whoopee cushions.
But that’s what happened when Kevin Lavery, who had worked in the private sector for eight years, took his children to an exhibition about the Horrid Henry series of books at the Seven Stories centre for children’s literature in his native Newcastle. The experience reminded him of the influence chief executives can wield.
As chief executive of Newcastle City Council from 1997 to 2001, Mr Lavery helped create both Seven Stories and the International Centre for Life science education facility, spearheading the city’s regeneration, before he moved on to work for the private sector.
In an LGC interview held to mark his recent appointment as chief executive of Cornwall County Council , 47-year old Mr Lavery says of the centres: “When I was chief executive of Newcastle, they were two schemes that I played a small part in making happen. You only get that when you work directly in public service. You don’t get the same buzz when you work in the private sector because you are dotting around all over the place.”
So, when Cornwall advertised for a chief to oversee its progress to a unitary council and guide its much-needed economic development, Mr Lavery jumped at the opportunity. He got the job after the incumbent, Sheila Healy, decided not to apply.
Even before the onset of the credit crunch, the county suffered from a lack of large-scale industries, low incomes and second home ownership. And its council has often been rated poorly by inspectorates, including the Commission for Social Care Inspection .
Now the county faces new challenges as its six districts and county council are merged into a new unitary council. The process has stirred up significant resentment in an area famed for its unique, occasionally separatist, political character.
Mr Lavery, who became the youngest chief executive in the country when he took the top job at Newcastle in 1997, readily admits the task will be tough, and he insists he will remain in Cornwall long term after a number of job changes in recent years.
“I think we’ve got a big job to do - I don’t think it’s a quick fix to get the unitary performing,” Mr Lavery explains.
“My ambition is for the new unitary council to become an outstanding council over a period of time. That’s not something that can be done over 18 months to two years - I think that’s a five to seven-year journey, and I want to see it through.” He insists his pledge to move his family “lock, stock and barrel” from their current home in Yorkshire to Cornwall showed his commitment.
The creation of the new unitary looms largest in Mr Lavery’s inbox. The council admits to delays in key areas - noticeably the appointment of staff - and he has only until 1 April to ensure the new council hits the ground running.
Many of the problems stem from disagreements between members of the unwieldy 24-member implementation executive that has been overseeing the unitary process.
Already, delays in devising electoral boundaries have led to the postponement of the new authority’s first elections from this spring to autumn. This means existing county councillors will be in place for longer than envisaged and the new council will lack a fresh democratic mandate.
Meanwhile, the selection of a modern logo supposed to represent Cornish tartan, replacing the more traditional chough, has led 10,000 people to sign a petition in condemnation.
The strength of feeling suggests many residents feel the new council is being imposed from above with little involvement from them.
The animosity has rubbed salt into wounds existing from the county’s battle with districts who had submitted their own bid to create a unitary county.
“I’ve seen a widespread recognition from officers and members that we have to move forward,” Mr Lavery says. “It’s no secret - we’ve had a difficult birth as a new unitary. We’ve been slow off the mark in terms of appointments, and things like that, and need to catch up.
“There are some laudable ambitions that I want to make sure we commit to and resource properly, but they aren’t all going to be achieved on 1 April.”
Mr Lavery’s task is immense. Cost savings targets have increased from an original£17m to£30m annually, to be achieved in two years, with 400 job cuts envisaged. And he has to work with politicians to ensure residents of a county 100 miles long feel that they are locally empowered.
To combat feelings of alienation, the council is to be sub-divided into 20 ‘community networks’, featuring councillors and parish councillors.
The new units will scrutinise public bodies locally and oversee the devolution of some services such as grass-cutting and toilet cleaning that will be carried out by parish councils.
They will be free to devise their own models as to how they carry out their duties.
In the case of many of the new unitaries about to come into being, a strongly performing county council, already transformed over many years, is leading the transition. In Cornwall’s case, the creation of the unitary will precede much of the transformation.
At a time when Barnet LBC is considering reducing itself to a strategic hub that commissions services and Essex County Council is contemplating a massive outsourcing deal in which most services will be provided by a single private sector operator, some might speculate Mr Lavery’s appointment heralds a radical new direction for Cornwall.
However, council leader David Whalley (Lib Dem) disagrees. “We didn’t seek Kevin because he had private sector experience, although the private sector experience he’s had is very useful,” he says. “I’m a pragmatist. If you are asking me about my vision for the new council I see the public sector as a really important driver and I don’t see outsourcing as necessarily the way forward.”
Mr Lavery has a slightly different emphasis, stating that outsourcing is not at the top of his agenda - at least for the time being. “I wouldn’t want to say we should never do it in Cornwall - we already have a certain number of outsourcing contracts with the districts.
“Our first task is to manage those a lot better. In terms of any further outsourcing, that’s a long way down the line.”
The chief executive describes his role as being “a poacher turned gamekeeper”, helping the county to improve its dealings with private companies, using his experience working for outsourcers offering IT and support services to local government.
“I can help manage some of the poachers in a better way,” he explains. “Councils’ commercial nous and contract management skills are starting from a low base. They are better now than they were 10 years ago but they are far from perfect.
“I’ve often been in negotiations with local authorities who really aren’t really at the top of their game in terms of contract management. At Cornwall we have significant scope for improvement - no question about that.”
Among the possible improvements Mr Lavery intends is the contract management of private finance initiative projects, including one operating schools which still has 17 years to run.
Both he and Cllr Whalley express enthusiasm that Cornwall, with its stable and low-cost workforce, could eventually provide services for public bodies elsewhere.
But the immediate priority is to improve Cornwall to ensure the new unitary benefits the local economy rather than is merely seen as a technocrat’s dream.
Mr Lavery is determined that it must not destroy the county’s character. “I was born and bred in Newcastle where if you walk around the city centre, hearing people talk and feeling the cold weather, you could only be in one city. Cornwall is a bit like that. You feel the warmth, you talk to the people, you hear the accent and you see the amazing coastline and you could only be in Cornwall.
“There’s a fantastic opportunity to transform Cornwall, rather than just transform the council. It will be a transformation unique to this place, based on the strengths and the weaknesses of the Cornish economy.”