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LGC FINANCE SUPPLEMENT - 1966 AND ALL THAT...

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Ted Lush began his accountancy career the year England scooped world cup glory. Happily he's been a bit more consis...
Ted Lush began his accountancy career the year England scooped world cup glory. Happily he's been a bit more consistent than our footie stars. Kerry Lorimer reports

The year England won the World Cup, Ted Lush was in a callbox outside the brewery where he had been working over the summer. He had heard the West Wiltshire water board was looking for a trainee accountant and thought that since he was OK at figures he should give it a shot. The water board said all right, could he start on Monday?

Quite a lot has changed since the heady days of 1966 - not least recruitment processes and England's international scoring record. But Mr Lush continues to be pretty good at numbers, just one reason why he is one of the most highly-regarded treasurers in the country.

As director of finance and property services at Stockport MBC, Mr Lush is responsible for the management of a£310m budget. Stockport's ascension to the local government elite - it earned four stars in the last round of comprehensive performance assessments - is all the more remarkable given the low levels of central funding it has received over the years.

'We are four stars and skint,' says Mr Lush. '[Getting four stars] was something the council was single minded about, and it is quite an achievement given the lousy settlement we get.'

Demographically more typical of a county than a met, with pockets of real deprivation alongside areas of affluence, Stockport has struggled with a poor settlement for years. But according to Mr Lush, this year's is the worst yet. The council has been forced to reduce its planned expenditure by£10m, and that on a base which has been substantially reduced by the removal of schools funding.

He says there is no doubt the books will be balanced - thanks to the government's ongoing threat of capping.

'Capping works, which is why we will have more of it. It's self-fulfilling, self-enforcing.' Capping is, he says, the ultimate exercise of power without responsibility. 'They have the capping power, and we have responsibility for making cuts,' he says.

He believes there is genuine support within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister for local government and local accountability. But that is not shared by the prime minister's office and the rest of Whitehall, who are inclined to see councils as 'hopeless whingers'.

If capping is one unwelcome addition to the local government landscape, an innovation Mr Lush says has worked well is the comprehensive performance assessment itself.

'CPA is good for councils because it makes you stand back and look at yourself,' he says. 'Use of resources is actually an interesting exercise to do. It lets us prove to ourselves we're quite good, but also to know where we can improve.'

Although the process itself has been helpful, Mr Lush believes the 'earned autonomy' promised under the regime has not been forthcoming. He feels strongly that policy on local government has been developed to deal with a number of dysfunctional councilsin London instead of the reality of how well authorities perform in the country at large.

'So much local government policy is based on what happens in London - things go wrong in Hackney or Islington or wherever and the solution is applied everywhere,' he says. Bad practice is clearly not confined to the capital - Manchester has 'had its moments' in years gone by and North East Lincolnshire Council is now, of course, the worst council in the land. 'But [councils outside London] are basically there and getting on with the job,' he says.

Another sore point is the practice adopted by some London boroughs of setting up council tax and benefits centres in cheaper areas like Greater Manchester. While boroughs are actively encouraged by the Audit Commission to consider the relocation of back-office staff as a means of cutting costs, the result can be the damaging departure of trained staff from northern councils to boroughs who can offer better pay.

So far Stockport has lost a number of workers to a centre set up by Islington LBC. 'I wish they had spoken to us about it,' he says. 'If they had discussed relocation beforehand, they could have worked with us to deliver solutions to our mutual advantage. There's no animosity, but it was a crass way of doing it.'

But concerns about the settlement and the doings of London boroughs will soon be far away, as Mr Lush is retiring in April after 15 years in the job.

Although he is reluctant to list his achievements, he looks back with particular pleasure on his presidency of the Society of Municipal Treasurers and the fact he oversaw a whopping 99% poll tax collection rate.

Most of his satisfaction is derived from doing the day job well, which he sees as producing balanced budgets that achieved the objectives of the politicians he served.

'I don't pretend to be an innovator or revolutionary. If that's what others want to do, I ensure they have the resources to do it,' he says.

'I only ever wanted to do the basics well - collect the money, get the budget in on time, close the accounts. I have no regrets about that.'

Mr Lush has no delusions about a personal legacy - 'three months later nobody remembers who you are' - but says the skill of individuals in Stockport's finance department will stand the council in good stead. 'I've hopefully nurtured and brought on talent in my team,' he says. Then adds, with irrepressible humility: 'But maybe that's because I'm lazy.'

What they say about Ted

'Ted has been a wonderful role model for me and countless others over the years. A warm, friendly, humorous, modest and immensely wise and capable man who will be enormously missed.'

Sue Higgins

Strategic director of resources group,

Sutton LBC

'Ted has been a stalwart of local government finance in the north-west. His retirement will leave a gap that'll take some filling.'

Ian Coleman

Director of finance, Wirral MBC

'Ted's west country burr and gift for stories complement his commitment to finance. He's been unofficial social secretary for the Greater Manchester Treasurers as long as anyone can remember.'

David Postlethwaite

Borough treasurer, Tameside MBC

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