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Intervention: Life under the microscope

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LGC’s essential daily briefing 

Birmingham City Council interim chief executive Stella Manzie has a reputation as a tough trouble-shooter with a track record of bringing up standards at failing authorities.

Speaking at the Local Government Association conference earlier this month, Ms Manzie drew on her experiences of working at councils at risk of intervention and how to make intervention work.

She said avoiding relationships between officers and members that were too close, or distant and acrimonious, was important to avoid the governance failure that can land a council in intervention.

Councils in intervention should maintain reasonable expectations about the pace of change, and faced “tricky” conversations over the prioritisation of changes, Ms Manzie said.

Mary Ney, former Greenwich RBC chief and a commissioner at Rotherham following the child sexual exploitation scandal (and a colleague of Ms Manzie’s in this respect), has also previously shared lessons from intervention. Ms Ney said councillors and commissioners had to work together to regain the public’s trust because “local political legitimacy” was essential.

But what about the view from the other side of the intervention relationship?

Mark Rogers, former Birmingham chief, has been frank about his intervention experience there.

Writing for LGC in 2016, he described how working with “curtailed” autonomy was “hard to swallow”; how he did not “always [find] it easy to take advice”; and how it is difficult to judge, when his or other staff’s ideas differed from those of commissioners or the improvement panel, if it was right to speak out or do as instructed.

Nonetheless, Mr Rogers said working with the panel and commissioners to achieve sustainable change or “rehabilitation”, as he put it, had been helpful.

Tower Hamlets too experienced a high-profile intervention following the scandal surrounding disgraced mayor Lutfur Rahman (Tower Hamlets First), and both its new chief executive and mayor have shared their experience of the improvement journey with LGC.

Chief executive Will Tuckley wrote about the significant improvements necessary at Tower Hamlets to bring it up to scratch. Mayor John Biggs (Lab) revealed in an interview that although he was initially disappointed the commissioners sent in “didn’t disappear the next day” follwing his election, he has come to appreciate their help given the scale of the challenges at the East London borough.

So far, so positive.

In the past few weeks, there have been calls for a full-scale intervention at Kensington & Chelsea RBC in the wake of the Grenfell disaster. While communities secretary Sajid Javid has not ruled this option out, he has for now only appointed an “independent recovery task force” to help the borough, the details of which have not yet been published.

Is intervention always the answer? Clearly in exceptional cases, councils can fall so far into decline and are so blighted by poor governance that they cannot improve without external scrutiny and support. The scale of the tragedy of the Grenfell fire might create a desire for an equally dramatic remedy.

But Mr Rogers today warned against a knee-jerk reaction for interventions.

For one thing, councils should be able to make mistakes – even serious ones – and learn from them, rather than always having a higher power swooping in to fix things, Mr Rogers said. Second, he said there is a tendency to believe “the act of stepping in itself is a remedy to failure” and that simply assembling a panel or commissioners comprising “the great and good” isn’t necessarily appropriate for the council in question.

And, perhaps most worryingly of all, when councils themselves advocate intervention more and more, they create the impression of an inability to self-regulate and undermine their own case for self-determination, Mr Rogers warned.

Mr Rogers retired from Birmingham amid accusations that the improvement panel at the authority had threatened to recommend putting the council in special measures unless he left. Many in the sector were angered by the move, suggesting Mr Rogers had paid the price for “speaking truth to power” and that such interference set a worrying precedent.

Proportionate intervention when councils fail in their duties has to remain an option – but in a system regularly criticised as being the most centralised in Europe, the government must take care that intervention does not go too far.

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