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FEATURES - GRASS IS NOT GREENER

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The idyllic image of rural east Sussex hides the reality of teen pregnancy, drug use and suicide, says Cheryl Mille...
The idyllic image of rural east Sussex hides the reality of teen pregnancy, drug use and suicide, says Cheryl Miller. Jennifer Taylor reports

IF THERE IS one thing that annoys Cheryl Miller, chief executive of East Sussex CC, it is the assumption that the county is a leafy place full of healthy wealthy people. She has constantly battled to convince people - including the government - that this is not the case.

'East Sussex is the poorest county in the country in gross domestic product terms,' she says. 'Our GDP is only two-thirds the national average. Our statistics on teenage pregnancy, drug use and young male suicides are on a par with any of the major inner city areas.'

While Ms Miller may be credited with bringing her council up two points in the Audit Commission's comprehensive performance assessment ratings, her own feeling is that the initial rating was inaccurate.

She says time pressures meant the Audit Commission 'cut corners' and that 'the system was technically flawed'.

Most of the council's scores were good but because of what she calls a 'serious weakness in one service', the whole council was given a weak rating.

'I don't think they got the weak judgement right the first time,' she says. 'This was evidenced by the fact the following year we moved up two grades. You shouldn't be able to improve your performance that much in one year if the judgements are right.'

Ms Miller's passion for people in deprived areas stems from her own upbringing in the north-west of England. But she feels fortunate that her parents saw the importance of a good education and largely credits this for where she is today.

She has strong views on the government's latest announcements on education: 'The supposed philosophy behind it is to open opportunities to children from deprived backgrounds and vulnerable children so they get a better education. I believe that education is the best way out of the poverty trap.

'But I don't believe that giving schools greater independence from the strategic authority will do what the government wants it to do.'

She argues that independence will lead to more excluded pupils, as good schools will be more selective and thrive even more, while struggling schools with complex social problems will perform less well as the brighter pupils move to independent foundation schools.

Ms Miller argues that the Department for Education & Skills has two conflicting agendas: the independence of schools, and integration. She says: 'If more high performing schools are reluctant to admit children who will bring attainment down, then teachers will be less interested in integration.'

Her solution is to increase the role of education departments. She says: 'Part of that is in the challenge they bring to schools. I don't think it is something that can be done that effectively on a national scale because you have to understand the local circumstances under which the schools are operating to be able to bring effective challenge rather than just conflict.'

Although the education announcements may be a further nail in the coffin of central and local government relations, Ms Miller says things have improved in the past 10 years.

Ms Miller worked as a civil servant for 16 years in the cabinet office and the department of trade and industry. She held a variety of posts including head of the civil service selection board.

Ms Miller is not a local government stalwart, unlike some more traditional chief executives who have been wedded to local government since their graduation. From an HR background, Ms Miller clocked up 16 years as a civil servant working for the Cabinet Office and the Department of Trade & Industry in various posts, including head of the civil service selection board.

In 1991, she joined East Sussex as its personnel director. She was the first woman to be appointed as a county chief executive when she took up the post in 1994, and she is the second ever female president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers.

When she made the transition, she says she was surprised at central government's arrogant way of treating local government, its ignorance of the way local government operates and its lack of understanding of the qualities in local government that did not exist in central government.

But in the last 10 years she says that respect and understanding at officer level have increased and there is a bit more interchange.

She adds: 'It is clear that the political class in central government still does not trust the political class in local government. It is a vicious circle where they will not give local government the autonomy it needs to do its job properly unless they are confident that the local political machine is capable of delivering it. But you're not going to improve the quality of the local political machine unless you give people real power.'

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