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New horizons and changing chiefs

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A commentary on this week’s significant departures and appointments  

“Because Birmingham has a very difficult history over a number of years now it’s also attractive in the sense that somebody’s got to get it right. It’s not going to be easy but it’s a really exciting job.”

So Dawn Baxendale told LGC when her appointment as Birmingham City Council chief executive was announced in late 2017. Ms Baxendale relocated her family from the south coast, where she had been at the helm of Southampton City Council for five years, and seemed to be in it for the long haul.

So news this week that she is to swap the West Midlands for one of the farthest corners of the southern hemisphere certainly caught the sector by surprise. Ms Baxendale is to head up Christchurch City Council in New Zealand.

It is tempting to interpret her move, after just 16 months in the job, as evidence Birmingham remains a basket case (the council was subject to government intervention from 2014 until earlier this year). Surely Ms Baxendale’s decision must mean she has come to the conclusion that the county’s biggest local authority is beyond help as it continues to battle with militant trade unions, a major funding challenge and the organisation of the 2022 Commonwealth Games, which the improvement panel earlier this year highlighted as presenting a “unique level” of risk?

However, speaking to LGC this week Ms Baxendale said the decision was largely personal.

“It’s a unique opportunity in the world to do this type of job – fundamentally you don’t turn that opportunity down. It’s an opportunity for my family for the future, for my kids.

“I would never have left Birmingham for another job in the UK.”

Ms Baxendale’s appointment to New Zealand’s third largest city follows former Doncaster MBC chief Jo Miller’s move last month to Hutt City Council, the country’s seventh largest city. The two women are unlikely to bump into each other though, being an eight hour drive apart and on different islands.

By all accounts though Ms Baxendale has had an impact during her short tenure. The council finished 2018-19 with an underspend of £66m, compared with an overspend of around £70m in the year before she joined, and recently resolved a long running contract dispute with Amey. Under her leadership the government appointed improvement panel disbanded, although noted the council still had a way to go to complete its turnaround. Melanie Dawes, permanent secretary at the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government, tweeted that Ms Baxendale has “much to be proud of” during her tenure.

There was happier news today for another council that has been through more chiefs than is sensible of late: Lewisham LBC announced Kim Wright as its preferred candidate, subject to approval by councillors in a couple of weeks. After Barry Quirk left after 24 years to head up Kensington & Chelsea RBC in September 2017, the council’s executive director of resources Janet Senior was acting chief until the appointment of Ian Thomas six months later. However, Mr Thomas left after just seven months due to difference with the new mayor and Ms Senior has again been holding the fort.

Ms Wright, who started her local government career as a leisure centre manager, will join from Hackney LBC where she has held a number of senior director roles over almost 15 years, including 11 years as director of social care and most recently group director for neighbourhoods and housing.

With some serous senior experience under her belt in an authority serving a population not too dissimilar from Lewisham, Ms Wright certainly looks like a good fit. Let’s hope Birmingham can find someone similarly suitable to lead it through the next stage of its improvement journey.

Sarah Calkin, deputy editor

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