“Now we must educate our masters,” the Victorian politician Viscount Sherbrooke remarked after an extension of the franchise made the country’s rulers take fright at what new voters might do with their power.
What though, should be done if one is a chief executive, and one’s ‘masters’ are a newly elected party, among whom only the leader has any experience as a councillor?
Some advice is at hand for any officer who wakes up to this on 2 May. It happened to Boston BC’s chief executive Mick Gallagher after the May 2007 elections swept the Boston Bypass Independents (BBI) to power, unseating almost every previous councillor in the process.
Their main objective was to press Lincolnshire CC to secure a bypass for the town’s traffic-choked centre, on which some 40,000 vehicles converge daily in the largest town in England with no outer relief road.
Congestion is so bad that bus services are disrupted by traffic jams and shops have pulled out of the centre because their customers cannot get there.
These issues had inflamed public opinion enough for Mr Gallagher to have kept his ear to the ground and taken BBI seriously when it formed in 2006, initially as a pressure group but soon with the intention of fighting elections.
He says: “I saw this coming. A lot of people felt it was just a single-issue group that would fade, but by Christmas that year I thought something really big was going on, and they started getting a lot more media exposure and growing.
“I told my staff to clear my diary for May and most of June because I would need all that time to put plans into effect if what I expected did happen.”
Potential for change
Boston had no opposition until May 2007, since all three main parties and a group of independents (unconnected to the present ruling group) were represented in a joint administration.
This had ended a period of trench warfare, but in solving that problem another had arisen. With no opposition, public discontent could coalesce only around a group outside the council.
Mr Gallagher recalls: “The customer satisfaction results were starting to go in the wrong direction.”
Meanwhile, he says, BBI ran a “media-savvy campaign and knew how to promote themselves. I said to officer colleagues that I thought the potential was there for change and we needed to plan for this”.
There was indeed a change. The election delivered a council of 25 BBI, five Conservatives and two other independents, a big enough change for Solace Enterprises, the consultancy arm of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, to decide this would make a case study for its chief executives’ leadership programme.
Deserting the mainstream
The consultant who carried this out, Terry Gorman, thinks what happened could occur elsewhere as voters desert the mainstream parties. He also found that the main parties did not treat the BBI seriously, assuming it would prove ephemeral.
“The learning points are a strong message to the major political parties about the power of local leadership and the need not to take the electorate for granted,” Mr Gorman says.
“It also reaffirms the fact that in local councils a groundswell of independent thinking is taking hold, [and] the vital importance in this of the role of the chief executive, senior management and their relationship with leading members.”
Mr Gorman attributes much of the BBI’s success to its leader Richard Austin, who already sat on Lincolnshire CC as an independent. The other parties “did not reckon on the tenacity, knowledge, and local position of Richard Austin”, he says.
Mr Austin had worked in the agricultural industry before his retirement and was involved with environmental issues and local causes. According to Mr Gorman, Cllr Austin was “well-connected, and used this to persuade other local people to join him”.
Cllr Austin recalls: “A group of us decided the only way to get anything done would be to take over the council, and I felt councillors were not doing enough to press for relief from traffic.”
While Mr Gallagher devised his mentoring programme for new councillors, BBI had done its own training for six months, “taking advice from experienced councillors on how things work”. It did not, Cllr Austin says, stand on the bypass issue alone.
In any case, the election result found Mr Gallagher well prepared. He says: “It was incredible and it was challenging but we had time to plan and within days I set up an evening seminar for them with the whole management team and described the problems they would have to deal with.
“Seminars ran May to December, so we could go into detail on every aspect. The new councillors knew about the services the council provides but did not appreciate the full extent of partnership work.” Help was also at hand from Improvement & Development Agency, and Cllr Austin has since completed its leadership course.
Political mentoring came through IDeA from Jonathan Huish, a Plaid Cymru councillor from Rhondda Cynon Taff CBC.
Facing the challenge
Mr Gallagher notes: “New councillors can get frustrated by council procedures and bureaucracy, though it’s a necessary evil, because they want to get things done and don’t always realise the constraints.
“It is difficult when people have come from the private sector, especially from small businesses where you can wake up with a good idea and implement it by lunchtime.”
BBI’s priority was highways and transport, but other challenges faced the new councillors.
Boston has changed rapidly with what Mr Gallagher thinks has been the largest inward migration outside London, mainly people drawn to agricultural work.
He says: “Five years ago there might have been two or three foreign languages spoken, now its 30-odd and the very rapid growth of new people in the community can create tensions.”
Another problem arose from reports by the Department of Health and Sport England, which labelled Boston as England’s least-fit district.
The old council had agreed a transport strategy, which included a£2.5m contribution from the district for infrastructure, including car parks and a new bus station. New councillors felt there was a lack of emphasis on the bypass issue and wanted to take a tougher stance.
“I pointed out they would not be able to affect Lincolnshire’s policy if there was no relationship there,” says Mr Gallagher.
“They had good ideas to contribute that the county council had never thought of, such as switching off some traffic lights to make the traffic flow better. That has been tried and now made permanent.”
The BBI administration did not just sort out the transport strategy. By February this year there was also a draft community plan in place and a financial strategy to cope with a 10% cut in revenue spending over three years, plus action planned on health and fitness. Mr Gallagher notes that the progress achieved is “quite remarkable for people who had never been in local government before”.
Solace Enterprises’ director Rita Sammons thinks Boston offers useful lessons because “the increasing trend for councils to have balanced politics, coupled with the trend of appointments of chief executive posts from outside the local government sector, make it all the more important that new chief executives and their teams know how to handle the political management challenge in all its diversity”.
She adds: “We have also noticed that candidates for senior manager posts now tend to have less political exposure than before, making the step up even tougher, which is why we are also focusing on developing those skills in future organisational leaders.”
Local political history is littered with single issue groups that flared and vanished. But sometimes they win big, and officers must judge carefully how seriously to treat new political forces.
What if it happens to you?
Mick Gallagher’s advice to chief executives:
Take the temperature of the area, know what is going on
Be thinking six to nine months before an election about what might happen, as the results can always be unpredictable
Think through what new councillors will need to know
Take the time to plan well in advance what you will do