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Truth is the first casualty in the war against the sector

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As I write, it’s now just over three weeks since my world was turned upside down. It’s about the same time since my 19 specific complaints about two offending Daily Telegraph articles were sent to the Press Complaints Commission.

The threats of violence are easing and no longer are there the 25 pages of negative press once you google my name. But life is still far from normal.

And just what was my offence? It was to take early retirement as chief executive of South Somerset DC in 2010, so that South Somerset and East Devon councils could begin the process of management merger under one chief executive.

I had thought that was something Mr Pickles was strongly advocating. Apparently not, because earlier this month he told the Conservative conference in Cardiff about the “scandal” of the £500,000-plus paid to the former chief executive of South Somerset. No mention of the real sums, no mention of what the two councils were trying to achieve.

So what were the real figures? My salary was £133,000 for running one of the largest district councils in England. We could debate all day about whether this was too much. The fact was that it was set at the average of the salaries paid to chief executives at the biggest 12 districts in England.

Our gross budget was about £100m a year, with a population of 162,000 covering a rural area of 370 square miles. Hardly a ‘tiny’ council.

The internet went mad. The death threats via all manner of blogs. The swearing at the petrol station. The pointing at the supermarket. I had to take the family away in the night as we feared for our safety.

Once it was evident that only one chief executive would be needed for the newly combined role, I applied for voluntary redundancy as it suited my personal circumstances.

The council scheme was that once the statutory redundancy calculation was done, a multiplier of either 2.46 (for voluntary redundancy) or 3.46 (for compulsory) was applied. This resulted in a gross payment of £167,000 for loss of a £133,000 job. As I was of pensionable age within the local government pension scheme, the council was required to make a lump sum payment to the scheme of £239,000. There was some leave outstanding and payment for some of my notice period that amounted to £23,000 gross.

The two councils determined that immediate savings would amount to £166,000 per annum and pave the way for more savings at other levels. Payback was determined at well under three years and costs were split 60/40 between South Somerset and East Devon councils.

The reality, apparently, didn’t bother Daily Telegraph reporters Steve Swinford and Holly Watt. Ms Watt contacted the council prior to writing the article and is alleged to have told the press office she thought the salary level “disgusting”.

In all this hell I am so grateful for the support from so many friends and former colleagues and the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives’ secretary, Mary Orton

Steve Swinford called at my house on the Thursday before the story first broke. On answering the door at a quarter to nine in the evening I was met with: “Are you Phil Dolan? Do you want to comment on the £570,000 payoff you got from the council?” My reply was: “On the basis I never got anything like £570,000 from the council, come in and I’ll answer your questions.”

I am still embarrassed at being so naïve.

The following day, the photographer set up in the street, which caused consternation among the neighbours. Then the story broke. Front page in the Daily Telegraph. The internet went mad. The death threats via all manner of blogs. The swearing at the petrol station. The pointing at the supermarket. I had to take the family away in the night as we feared for our safety.

We had moved beyond the truth meaning anything, such is the power of the national press.

In all this hell I am so grateful for the support from so many friends and former colleagues and the Association of Local Authority Chief Executives’ secretary, Mary Orton. She recognised this went further than an attack on one former chief executive and her comments raised my spirits.

I still love local government and, with my circumstances different from 12 months ago, I hope some day to work in the sector again. But it may be that any reputation I had in leading one of the best-performing district councils in England is in tatters. In that sense, Holly Watt and Steve Swinford probably did a good job.

But as for my views on both the local and some of the national press, well, they are not really suitable for a professional journal.

Philip Dolan, former chief executive, South Somerset DC

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