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New year’s honours: Leading Rotherham figures recognised
Andrew Carter: City leaders have a common ambition for change
There is no doubt that Rotherham MBC’s transformation from a so-called basket case council, characterised by a bullying, macho culture which contributed to an estimated 1,400 children being left to suffer harrowing exploitation, to one that is now an exemplar of recovery was an admirable group effort.
But the role of Mary Ney as part of a team of government-appointed commissioners working in extremely difficult circumstances was undoubtedly key. She not only had to challenge internal resistance but also faced external hostility borne of the unprecedented scale of the failings which had such devastating, horrific consequences.
While her admirable work in Rotherham will be remembered, it is her services to local government in general that prompted her to receive a damehood in the Queen’s new year’s honours list.
In a series of articles for LGC, both prior to and during her role as a commissioner in Rotherham in 2015, she provided invaluable perspectives on the ongoing challenges facing councils and the lessons that can be learned from adversity.
In February 2015 Dame Mary warned that local government had done itself a disservice with “simplistic consultation exercises and online games” when trying to engage the public on how decreasing funds should be spent. She said this approach can present “false choices” between cuts in different service areas, arguing “the most effective financial strategies are those that are driven by a clear strategic council vision and set of priorities”.
In the following March, Dame Mary declared that the undervaluing of culture and leisure services was “short-sighted” as these could help councils to maximise income and grow the local economic base.
Following the 2015 general election, Dame Mary revisited a similar theme arguing that each council must drive its growth strategies “firmly interfaced with its financial strategy” so reducing services to “unacceptable levels and failing [the] most dependent” could be avoided.
Post-Northamptonshire CC’s section 114 notice, dwindling reserves have become a key indicator of potentially catastrophic financial failure. In June 2015, Dame Mary highlighted the importance of a strong, shared financial and strategic vision between chief executives and political leaders at a time of funding pressures “to avoid the temptation to let targets slip, to duck a decision or to unwisely raid the reserves to buy time”.
Back on the subject at the core of her experience in Rotherham, Dame Mary in September 2015 called on councils to be “proactive” in assisting the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, despite the challenges of gathering, analysing and providing the data the inquiry will require.
In March 2016, Dame Mary wrote on the lessons that can be learned from the government’s unique intervention in Rotherham. She highlighted the resolve and energy of senior councillors to tackle past failings and work collaboratively with commissioners as a key factor in progress being made, as well as the importance of commissioners working full-time because “parachuting in once a month, being wise and then leaving town and letting the council get on with it was not an option.” Her efforts helped to result in the government announcing in July that it would be ending its intervention in Rotherham.
This long-term dedication to improving local government and the lives of those it serves makes Dame Mary worthy of the recognition she has received.
Jon Bunn, senior reporter