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Sir Michael Bichard quit his job as permanent secretary of the Department for Education and Skills because of disag...
Sir Michael Bichard quit his job as permanent secretary of the Department for Education and Skills because of disagreements on how Whitehall should be run. Now Sir Michael has published his views on reform of the civil service.

The answer, he says, is not to create yet more central units - it is to offer incentives to civil servants, and to appoint ministerial champions for issues that cut across government.

Events seem to bear him out. The first tsar has already been deposed. Keith Hellawell, ex-chief constable of West Yorkshire, proved no match for the Whitehall infighting.

Meanwhile, the key job of public sector reform has been given to the formidable Wendy Thomson, ex-chief executive of Newham LBC.

Dr Thomson is certainly tough enough. She is used to delivering results. But can she drive through civil service reform without a ministerial champion? Report to the prime minister she may. But is this enough?

Councils face a constant challenge to popularise their activities. Gateshead MBC has hit on a new wheeze. Beers will be named after its regeneration initiatives. Local pubs will stock Millennium Bridge Ale to celebrate

the new bridge across the Tyne.

That, of course, is a glamorous project. How about using the same ploy on essential but more boring services. How about school stout, pothole pale ale and social care lager?

Ring of destiny

Throughout the country last month parents and their offspring anxiously awaited the envelopes holding the school examination results.

Directors of education anticipated the results anxiously too. They will be judged on standards in their council's schools. Failure could mean privatisation.

Yet, curiously, councils are not given the results. They have to ring round their schools to find out. Does this not strike you as strange?

Andrew Rawnsley's Servants of the People gives a compelling and unexpurgated version of the activities of the New Labour government. Sadly local government fails to feature - except for one interesting reference.

Writing about the government's predilection for setting targets, Mr Rawnsley says: 'Councils were instructed on the annual gross weight of dog turds they were expected to scoop.'

Was this really a performance indicator? Did councils meet the target? Can anyone enlighten me?

Flushed with the success of rail privatisation, the government wants to privatise the tube. One private sector mystery is how directors capture huge bonuses even when the performance of their company is disastrous.

Now London Underground has anticipated its privatisation by adopting this private sector practice. Managing director Derek Smith has been awarded a£17,000 performance bonus despite missing all seven performance targets.

When I was a county chief executive an indignant ratepayer wrote to me. In her letter she complained the council was spreading its testicles all over the county.

But the tentacles of SOLACE Enterprises spread to the most remote corners of the world.

Robin Mitchison has just returned unscathed from an assignment in Nepal, which has been locked in civil unrest since the royal holocaust. Terry Pollard is back from Faisalabad, LGC columnist Tony Elliston has just finished an assignment in Qatar, and Brian McAndrew has a long-term assignment in Damascus.

Some councils might like to send their chief executive to such places without the interpolation of SOLACE Enterprises.

Has Kenneth Clarke, dubbed 'the thinking man's lager lout', had a sudden conversion? Mr Clarke is well-known for his aversion to local government.

The hang-up is not inherited. His father resigned from the Labour Party when George Lansbury, ex-mayor of Poplar, was defeated as party leader.

As a minister, Mr Clarke never hesitated to criticise councils. Ten years ago he alleged Newcastle City Council had more non-teachers than teachers on its payroll. The council showed they employed 47 education advisers and 2,200 teachers.

But his campaign for leadership of the Conservative Party may have changed his views. Criticising apartheid between Tory Party rank-and-file and the party at Westminster, he drew attention to Conservatives serving as councillors. They were, he said, 'an immense resource of expertise and experience, which should be the foundation stone of Tory policy development'.

Of course Mr Clarke's chief lieutenant is LGC columnist David Curry. Perhaps he influenced this more constructive view?

Food for thought

The famous walker and Kendal Council treasurer A Wainwright offered a free pint to anyone who did the Pennine Way walk. Now LGC columnist George Jones offers a free lunch to readers of his biography of Herbert Morrison.

Co-authored with Bernard Donoghue, the book has been republished with a foreword by Morrison's grandson, Peter Mandelson.

Because of his background as leader of Hackney and the London CC, Mr Morrison was a great champion of local government.

And the free lunch? That goes

to anyone who can show Mr Morrison really did say he would build the Tories out of London. The famous quote is a myth.

Now that the dust of her departure has settled, we should reflect on the fate of Dame Helena Shovelton.

From modest beginnings as a volunteer at the Tunbridge Wells Citizens' Advice Bureau, she became CAB national chairman. From there she impressed the great and the good. Quango after quango flowed into her hands - the Local Government Commission, the Banking Standards Board, the Competition Commission, the Energy Saving Trust. The damehood came as a matter of course.

As chairman of the National Lotteries Commission she took advice from Treasury lawyers. When it misfired, the Department of Fun and Leisure tried for to protect her, but when the going got hot they ditched her.

Now ministers will not reappoint her as Audit Commission chair. Rumour says she is to carry the can for best value's failure. But this cannot be so. Dame Helena believes she lost the job because she spoke her mind (LGC, 10 August).

In both her jobs she made misjudgments. In one she took civil service advice and became the scapegoat when it went wrong. In the other she made up her own mind and was sacked.

The parable of Dame Helena illustrates the difference between quangocrats and councillors. The government can depose quangocrats. Only the voters can kick out councillors.

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