The leader of a council currently the subject of multiple police investigations has spoken about how she is trying to turn the local authority around.
LGC previously reported how the Department for Communities & Local Government is closely “monitoring” Cheshire East Council amid calls, from a group of Independent councillors, for the cabinet to resign.
In an exclusive interview with LGC, Rachel Bailey (Con) said she found the calls for commissioners to be sent in to the council “bizarre” and “frightening”, especially as the local authority had proactively referred to the police the most recent matters which are now subject to investigation by officers.
“We are not shouting from the rooftops ‘It’s fine! It’s fine! We haven’t got a problem!’ We’re being honest and open, and as painful as it is I do believe people are hearing that,” she said.
“It will take a lot longer to quell the cries in the council chamber but my Christmas present for Cheshire East’s officers, members and residents would be that I’ve reached the back of the cupboard.”
Finding skeletons in cupboards has been an ongoing theme since Cllr Bailey became leader in February 2016, taking over from Mike Jones (Con) who had resigned in relation to an independent investigation into a procurement contract.
Chief executive Mike Suarez was subsequently suspended with the investigation ongoing.
Then, in May this year, Cheshire East’s chief operating officer Peter Bates was stripped of section 151 officer duties while monitoring officer Bill Norman also had his responsibilities taken off him.
Last month, Cheshire Constabulary launched an investigation into allegations that the council manipulated air quality data after the council alerted police officers to concerns. Police are also investigating the allocation of public funds to Berkeley Academy and concerns about land purchases after the council referred the matters to them.
“It’s not very nice standing up and calling a cross-party meeting to announce there are going to be three further police investigations,” said Cllr Bailey. “But it is far nicer to say we are getting our house in order and we are dealing with matters while delivering services to a high standard.”
Cllr Bailey, a former medical secretary who also worked as an office manager for a major high street store for five years, has sat on the council since its creation in 2009 and served as cabinet member for children and families from 2012. However, she admitted she found herself in “a completely new situation” when she became leader.
“I came in wanting to put things right because I knew there were some issues,” said Cllr Bailey, although she admitted she “didn’t expect” to uncover the additional matters now being investigated by the police. The matter relating to Berkeley Academy has since cost her deputy David Brown (Con) his job.
After being appointed leader Cllr Bailey found “a will to succeed” in the council but added the right “mechanisms weren’t necessarily in place” to ensure every decision is taken in an open and transparent way.
Cllr Bailey said her predecessor Cllr Jones, who still sits on the council but has since resigned from the local Conservative group, brought an “ambitious and visionary” style of leadership.
“Michael isn’t someone who was used to the processes and protocols of local government, being from private enterprise,” she said. “His style was not always something that I agreed with. However, I did make that clear… I did see myself as a critical friend and I would point out if I wasn’t happy about something. I obviously didn’t do it enough.”
Cllr Bailey indicated some of Cheshire East’s issues go back to 2009 when the unitary was created out of Macclesfield, Congleton and Crewe & Nantwich BCs and Cheshire CC. Getting the new authority up and running in a year was a “mammoth task and one that continues to this day”, said Cllr Bailey.
She said bonding different teams and embedding a good culture “was terribly difficult”.
“You can understand why drive and ambition was welcomed at Cheshire East. I repeat, different leaders bring different things. I’m a woman so I like my cupboards tidy,” said Cllr Bailey.
Amid allegations of bullying at Cheshire East, Unison has set up a helpline while the council has since instigated a peer review into its culture. The fact a lot of existing staff have stepped up into the most senior roles, including acting chief executive Kath O’Dwyer, has helped to provide the council with “stability”, said Cllr Bailey.
Cllr Bailey is on a mission to “engage hearts and minds” both inside and outside the council, and feels heartened that a recent staff survey and series of interviews indicated the culture is improving. However, she said: “A good operating authority is always checking and auditing and ensuring its processes are appropriate and its staff are safe.”
With a need to find £20m savings before 2020, on top of £65m savings delivered in the last four years, Cllr Bailey insists the investigations have not caused too much of a distraction from the day job.
The council has just secured £58m government funding for the Middlewich Eastern bypass, on top of a long list of other infrastructure projects it has been backed to deliver alongside work to make the area HS2 ready, while just over 94% of Cheshire East’s pupils attend good or outstanding schools.