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‘I have a plan'

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Just 33 when he took over as leader, Clyde Loakes - with chief executive Andrew Kilburn - has turned around Waltham Forest.

A lot has changed for Clyde Loakes since he took over at the helm of Waltham Forest LBC seven years ago, finding himself at the age of 33 the UK’s youngest council leader.

For a start, he was still working as a DJ - spinning a mix of alternative rock and Northern Soul.

He no longer spins the discs, even having to pack away the decks at home - although that primarily was to avoid the prying fingers of his toddler. But the changes at chez Loakes are nothing compared to the transformation of Waltham Forest.

When Cllr Loakes took the helm of the council’s Labour group, following the suspension of his predecessor, the north London borough had just been given a ‘poor’ rating in its Audit Commission corporate performance assessment (CPA).

Now, Waltham Forest has a four-star CPA rating, making it the only council to rise from bottom to top of local government’s performance regime.

This success has led to Cllr Loakes being showcased in a new Improvement and Development Agency (IDeA) book on member leadership , which is out today.

LGC took the Victoria Line to an icy Walthamstow to find out how one of local government’s biggest basket cases became an example of best practice.

Cllr Loakes confesses that he never expected to be council leader as soon as he did - only five years after becoming a councillor and with just one year’s experience in Waltham Forest’s cabinet. When he took the post, he was a junior civil servant in the Department for Work & Pensions .

“It was a massive step. There aren’t many 33 year olds who have a responsibility for a£370m budget and 8,000 staff.”

But it is clear that the burly Cllr Loakes is a fighter. “I ummed and aared at first, but then I thought, an opportunity like this doesn’t come around very often, if at all.”

“It was very daunting, I had some very challenging issues that I never thought I would come across.”

One of his first tasks was to talk to the chief executive, who hadn’t spoken to Cllr Loakes’s predecessor for six months - an illustration of how dysfunctional the authority had become.

The next challenge was to get the organisation to face up to the commission’s verdict.

“The whole CPA process was a new process and it was a big wake-up call. There had never really been anything as comprehensive as the CPA.

“You get an end-of-term report and it shows that while people had been thinking it was an okay-ish organisation, it turns out that it was one of the worst two in the country.

“The key lesson was to get the organisation to listen and act upon it, not to do kneejerk response, but take on board challenging criticisms and act accordingly. It wasn’t there to undermine the organisation, it was saying there are things you are doing wrong, these are the broad areas and here are some suggestions on how to do it.”

It was crucial that the borough’s political leadership were keen to grasp the nettle, says Cllr Loakes, whose flat vowels betray his Northampton upbringing.

“We had accepted mediocrity and that’s how we had got there in the first place. The new political leadership came in and were prepared to accept these challenges and this interpretation of where we were.”

“We’ve had five years of leading the improvement agenda, not just leaving it to officers. We had to respond because of the political pressure coming from ministers.”

“It has been a team effort. The politics in Waltham Forest have come of age. The preparedness to be mediocre and offer poor-quality services and defend that is not there any more. We do want to offer quality services, we do want to think beyond the town hall.”

What was most valuable about the CPA approach?

“The rigour of the approach and the stark message: there was no different way of interpreting what was being said. It was blatant, it was very in your face.”

Change meant a lot of new faces. Early last year, 130 staff were made redundant, he says. “I wanted a team that was prepared to embrace change and over time that is what we have done” says Cllr Loakes. “To deliver that you need to have some personnel changes both politically and managerially to bring in people with new ideas and new ways to achieve them.”

“As our reputation has improved and increased, we’ve got some really, really good officers now.

“Waltham Forest was a council that very few people had heard of, it had very little reputation and all of a sudden you had a reputation for being bad.”

But attention brought upsides as well as downsides, acknowledges Cllr Loakes.

“Okay, they had come to the door with a conclusion that you might not ideally not have liked to have come with. But once there, they were there to help and it wasn’t about seeing them as an enemy.”

External support was crucial, he acknowledges, including that of the then local government minister.

“Nick Raynsford was very keen and interested in giving us support. And I had great support from some of my peers,” he says, namechecking Jules Pipe (Lab) and Sir Robin Wales (Lab), the elected mayors of the neighbouring Hackney and Newham LBCs.

“I had only been a cabinet member and all of a sudden, I was leader. They were a tremendous source of help. Generally, the local government family is very supportive.”

The IDeA’s officers were “fantastic” and more recently London Councils’ Capital Ambition team has been a great support, he adds.

He also pays tribute to Roger Taylor - interim chief executive from 2007 until last year - who, he says encouraged staff to think more strategically.

Mr Taylor has now made way for Andrew Kilburn, previously chief executive of Oldham MBC.

Laughing off the suggestion that his recent appointment and that of John Foster at Islington represent a ‘northern invasion”, Mr Kilburn says “I don’t think you could call me and John an invasion.”

He arrived at Waltham Forest from Oldham with a reputation for building community cohesion developed in the wake of the mill town’s 2001 riots. Waltham Forest has its own history of extremism - convicted airline plot bomber Tanvir Hussain lived in the borough, for example.

Cllr Loakes concedes that Mr Kilburn’s knowledge of community cohesion issues was an important factor in his appointment, but not the key one.

“We wanted experience and Andrew had that in bucket loads. We wanted a full-on chief executive, who had experience of working in an urban area and had the knowledge of regeneration. That’s what we went out to get and that’s what we got.

“We didn’t just want to recycle somebody from inside London. We were interested in finding out what people from outside London were offering,“ he adds.

And, Cllr Loakes says, Mr Kilburn takes over a council that no longer has “to bounce from year to year”.

“We are a better and more competent organisation and we can plan three or four years into the future to deliver better services. The old days when the whole organisation was based around an annual budget and there was no forward financial planning are long gone.”

Mr Kilburn’s job now is to implement a long-term efficiency plan for the borough, he explains.

“We are going to have to drive out between£40 and£50m over the next five years,” he says. “We are working out a detailed programme, recognising that it has to be done over a five year period so that we are not forced to make decisions if they are not economic and don’t make sense. Some of the savings we have identified will be over that longer period.”

But in the new world of the soon-to-be introduced comprehensive area assessment, Waltham Forest will need to look beyond its own performance. And it is. Proof includes the council’s recent groundbreaking ban on takeaways opening near schools.

Cllr Loakes adds that the council is working with the local primary care trust on addressing its performance and developing new models for commissioning adult social care.

In addition, the council is developing a multi-area agreement (MAA) with its Olympic borough neighbours, the key themes of which are tackling poor housing and ingrained worklesness.

The MAA is designed to enable Waltham Forest to capitalise on the opportunities created by the 2012 Games. “To help us make that a success, the MAA gives us the tools without which we could struggle to achieve,” says Cllr Loakes.

Mr Kilburn is confident that the council’s success can rub off on the surrounding area. “If you have a look at the sort of improvement the local authority has achieved, that’s a reflection of the sort of change we might see in the area.”

But it is distinctly possible that Cllr Loakes won’t be around to see the next chapter in the Waltham Forest story.

He has recently been selected as Labour candidate for his home town seat of Northampton South. The constituency, a Tory-held marginal, has become more winnable following recent boundary changes.

But he refuses to tell LGC when he plans to step down as council leader to concentrate on his Parliamentary ambitions. “I have a plan, that’s all you need to know.”

And he insists that he can do both jobs: “I’m managing okay thank you very much.”

But he believes the experience of running a council has equipped him for a career at Westminster. “Politically my understanding has grown, no two days are the same. I’ve had some pretty tough decisions and achieved some great results and I have a much wider understanding of how local services work.”

But he admits, in at least one sense, he hasn’t changed. “I’m still pretty impatient for change.”

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