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Has Northamptonshire CC really become so bad that it needs the services of one of local government’s few self-declared exorcists?
Tony McArdle left Lincolnshire CC in February having become chief executive 12 years earlier, when he melodramatically promised to carry out an exorcism after former leader Jim Speechley (Con) had been jailed for misconduct in public office and Mr Speechley’s political associates had ousted chief executive David Bowles, whose whistleblowing had led to the case being brought.
Becoming lead commissioner at Northamptonshire, charged by housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire with cleaning out the stables there, is one of local government’s toughest jobs but should be child’s play by comparison.
He has put Mr McArdle, and finance commissioner Brian Roberts, in place until 2021, taking over governance and scrutiny, appointment of statutory officers and strategic financial management.
This suggests that the reorganisation advocated by Max Caller in his withering inspection report on Northamptonshire’s manifold failings cannot be implemented until then.
His report said Northamptonshire’s performance had become so appalling that it should cease to exist and be broken up in some unspecified configuration.
Mr McArdle joins a select group of people who have been appointed commissioners.
Although a certain kind of opposition councillor tends to call for commissioners to be ‘sent in’ every time a council leader gets a parking ticket, governments have been remarkably reluctant to do so.
They have calculated that taking responsibility for a council where some catastrophic failure has occurred is unlikely either to enhance the government’s reputation or bring about a solution, and steered clear even where there might be some short-term political advantage.
Among the few examples, commissioners were sent to Rotherham MBC after its child sexual exploitation scandal, and to Tower Hamlets LBC after revelations of electoral corruption became too loud to ignore.
Doncaster MBC had commissioners imposed in 2010, though as then local government minister Bob Neill said at the time, this came after “15 years of poor governance and dysfunctional politics”, which suggests restraint on ministers’ part.
Mr McArdle’s appointment is unusual in that he is not expected to turn Northamptonshire around but rather to keep the show on the road until its anticipated demise in a reorganisation.
Given the frosty relations between the county and its districts – and rivalry between districts as to how any unitaries could be configured – he will be kept busy.