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FEATURES - SAFE PASSAGE

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The loss of a leader is difficult. If the executive also resigns, chaos can follow. Gillian Taylor offers a surviva...
The loss of a leader is difficult. If the executive also resigns, chaos can follow. Gillian Taylor offers a survival guide

From the end of August until mid-October last year, Burnley went through a political crisis. The May elections had left a minority Labour administration and, in August, the leader and executive resigned. The council ended up without political leadership for almost six weeks.

Other authorities have since faced similar situations, albeit for a shorter time. The challenge for Burnley was, arguably, harder due to its political group comprising 21 Labour members, 11 Liberal Democrats, six British National Party members, four Conservatives, and two Independents, plus one independent not aligned to the Independent group. This meant attempts to form alliances between the parties to achieve a majority coalition administration was very difficult.

What did the episode teach the council, how did it feel and what can others take from the experience? I can only write from my personal experience and not on the part of the authority as a whole.

Pre-empt problems during calm periods

Review the council constitution to ensure that, if it has no leader and/or executive for a period, the chief executive has sufficient emergency delegated powers to run the authority effectively. Like many councils, Burnley's constitution is based on the national model and it was only after the leader and executive resigned that the council realised such powers were not in place.

Take advice

This is a spectator sport. Failure to appoint a leader and an executive is clearly unlawful. But what that means in practice and what sanctions might be invoked as a result are uncertain - at least in the immediate aftermath of political meltdown.

While the local media ran headlines about deputy prime minister John Prescott arriving mob-handed to grab councillors by the scruff of the neck, senior Office of the Deputy Prime Minister civil servants found the whole thing fascinating but could not offer concrete solutions. That meant dire warnings to the councillors were tempered by the knowledge that actual sanctions available and ministers' enthusiasm for using them were, at best, unclear.

This is uncharted territory and there are no off-the-shelf solutions available.

Have an open dialogue

The communication and diplomacy skills of the chief executive and the monitoring officer are vital in this situation, to find ways to keep channels of communication open and brokering between parties. Nevertheless, the Burnley experience was that group leaders, while of prime importance, could not be expected to keep all their group members fully up to date with the developing situation, including the detailed personal and legal implications for members, and the options under consideration.

Burnley briefed all councillors and they were sent a letter from the monitoring officer about their personal responsibilities and duties in the search for a resolution. It was important to overcome political allegiances, especially as the impasse dragged on.

Treat all parties the same

This may sound obvious, but it is often not put into practice. Councillors who have been in executive positions for, in some cases, many years, may have different expectations due to their close working relationship with the chief executive and monitoring officer.

Handling this requires tact and sensitivity but the personal integrity of the chief executive and monitoring officer are paramount and they need to publicly demonstrate they are even handed.

Give reassurance

It is important to let staff know what is happening and to deal with any concerns. Tell them it is business as usual as far as their important services are concerned. Don't let them first hear of the latest developments in the media. Do the same for partners and the local strategic partnership. Burnley had all the parties agree that the core policy platform of the council would continue regardless. This reassured council partners that major projects and programmes would still be delivered. This was an important message.

External communications

Communication is important on two levels. First, the government office, district audit, ODPM etc should be kept informed at every step. Given Burnley's profile, the level of interest reached ministerial level.

The public presented a different challenge. At first, Burnley's message was one of reassurance - services would continue as normal and there would be no distraction from core business. This worked well until the chief executive was given emergency powers to make key decisions in the absence of the executive. The public, through local radio programmes, asked why councillors were needed if the chief executive could run things perfectly adequately. In response, the democratic value of elected members in local government was regularly stressed.

Decision making

To keep the chief executive's use of emergency powers to a minimum, Burnley adopted a traffic-light system for decision making. Red meant the chief executive would take the decision, letting all the group leaders know in advance. Green could wait and amber was 'keep under review'. The day after a leader and executive were finally elected, there was a programmed public meeting of the executive. The previous one had been cancelled. Had there still been no executive in place, the plan was to hold this meeting anyway, with all the reports in public as usual, but with the chief executive taking the decisions rather than councillors. The prospect of this taking place in public focused minds.

Emotional intelligence

The chief executive should have a good relationship with the monitoring officer and head of legal services, as they will work more closely than ever before. This is a high-pressure environment, not least because of the charged emotions and considerable media interest. The stages in the bereavement cycle - denial, anger, sadness, withdrawal etc - are good to keep in mind when going through the inevitable one step forward, two steps back negotiations. Understand how painful this process is for most councillors.

Use the resources at your disposal

Burnley benefited greatly from the support of its district audit manager, who addressed a council meeting. His presence was mainly symbolic but reinforced the point that the council was acting unlawfully and had to resolve the situation quickly - the fact this came from the district audit manager had a powerful effect. Late in the day, Improvement & Development Agency councillor mediators were called in when all other negotiations had foundered and relations were at their lowest point. The mediators' value was limited as they had been brought in at crisis point. However, they will be used during the rebuilding exercise. One critic did give a jaundiced opinion of the decision to use IDeA peers: 'If you're serious about getting a solution, surely the last thing you need is even more politicians in the room.'

Think about the long term

During the drama and the hours of frustration, it is easy to forget the long term. Think about how to help rebuild the relationships between parties. If necessary, do the same for the management team and senior councillors. On top of this, never forget the council's long-term public image and reputation.

Gillian Taylor

Chief executive, Burnley BC

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