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From friends to foes: angry exchanges as trailblazing triborough terminates

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Relations between councils are usually handled with decorum even when under different political control, particularly when they share services.

The accusations hurled over the seemingly sudden dissolution of the pioneering triborough scheme in west London parted sharply from that norm, and came with a conundrum worthy of the board game Cluedo

Was the knife held by Hammersmith & Fulham LBC leader Stephen Cowan (Lab) – as Kensington & Chelsea RBC and Westminster City Council claim – or by those two Tory administrations, as Cllr Cowan has asserted?

Last week Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster served notice on Hammersmith & Fulham to end sharing children’s services, adult social care and public health on 1 April 2018, blaming a secret plan by the latter to move these services into a new in-house department without keeping its partners informed.

There has since been a big falling out among friends, although Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster intend a ‘bi-borough’ arrangement.

Writing for LGC, Kensington & Chelsea’s leader Nicholas Paget-Brown (Con) highlighted growing anxiety among staff for ending the arrangement as there were concerns about being left “with a structure that would undermine every aspect of co-operative working”. 

However, Cllr Cowan, also writing for LGC, cited a number of issues including claims triborough represented poor value for money while contracts procured “put the lives of disabled children at risk”.

He also claimed his conterparts did not discuss their intentions at a meeting just days before they served notice.

Triborough does not now look like the ‘high trust model’ drawn up at its 2011 launch, when then communities secretary Eric Pickles hailed it as an example to others.

As a report to full council last week by Kensington & Chelsea’s chief executive Nicholas Holgate put it: “Since January 2017 it has become clear that [Hammersmith & Fulham] has been actively making alternative arrangements for children, adult and public health services and it is no longer tenable to continue sharing those services in circumstances where one borough is seeking its own alternative arrangements.”

Triborough does not now look like the ‘high trust model’ drawn up at its 2011 launch, when Eric Pickles hailed it as an example to others

Mr Holgate said it was not apparent when Hammersmith & Fulham would serve the anticipated termination notice and this state of limbo was “creating significant uncertainties among staff”. He added cabinet members were “concerned that the quality of our services will be adversely affected unless action is taken … to provide some certainty”.

Staff now face anything but certainty. Mr Holgate said staff could in theory return to their employing borough but as “services have been integrated for over five years, the disaggregation of staff will not be a simple exercise”. 

His report said: “In some cases, one borough has more staff than they would need for a solo borough or bi-borough service and in other cases there are not enough staff for a particular council if the services were to be split.”

Cllr Cowan has insisted he did not act first and that the other two devised a long-term plan to end triborough, due to political discomfort at working with a Labour partner.

Although there had been an ugly dispute over what Cllr Cowan called a “botched” contract procured by Westminster for special educational needs school transport, the nub of the argument has been over savings.

These were put at £50m-£100m during triborough’s 2010 gestation. By 2012 Mr Pickles hailed the councils as “heroes” for saving £7.7m.

Mr Holgate’s paper – and a very similar equivalent in Westminster – said each council “generates an estimated gross average of £14m in annual ongoing savings across the shared services”.

Cllr Paget-Brown has speculated Hammersmith & Fulham will face extra costs on its own “likely to be in the millions”. Cllr Cowan told LGC Cllr Paget-Brown was “talking nonsense” and said Hammersmith & Fulham’s last two budgets yielded £31m in savings of which triborough contributed a mere £200,000.

He said most savings credited to triborough were ones his council could have made anyway.

When Labour recovered control of Hammersmith & Fulham in 2014 it asked former transport secretary Lord Adonis to review triborough, in the course of which Hackney, Camden and Lambeth LBCs opened their books for comparison “and the savings we’d made were no greater than they had”, Cllr Cowan said.

Lord Adonis concluded Hammersmith & Fulham should have its own chief executive, instead of sharing with the other two, and that while triborough had delivered benefits and should continue, “improvements need to be made and a number of challenges addressed”.

It’s a moot point whether triborough could have survived even had Hammersmith & Fulham stayed Tory, given the personal relationships have gone with none of the leaders or chief executives who established still in office.

The depth of the current division was illustrated by Mr Holgate’s paper: “RBKC and WCC consider that the triborough shared arrangements have been a resounding success and … a key reason why residents in our boroughs have been spared the financial consequences of deep service cuts incurred elsewhere.”

Cllr Cowan by contrast asked: “Triborough was always talked about as the great future, but if it was so great why did no one else do it?”

Despite Mr Pickles’ enthusiasm, and much attention in the sector, no one attempted anything similar apart from some vaguely expressed intentions to adapt triborough among Berkshire unitaries last year.

Even though the precise cause of triborough’s death remains disputed it will be fairly simple to see, a few years from now, who was right about whether Hammersmith & Fulham’s costs soared.

Triborough timeline:

October 2010: Hammersmith & Fulham LBC, Kensington & Chelsea RBC and Westminster City Council decide to share services and some staff with savings projected between £50m and £100m

December 2011: Hammersmith & Fulham’s leader Stephen Greenhalgh (Con) stands down and is replaced by Nicholas Botterill (Con)

January 2012: Westminster’s leader Colin Barrow (Con) stands down and is replaced by Philippa Roe (Con)

June 2012: Triborough savings, mainly from shared children’s and adult care services, hit £7.7m

April 2013: Kensington & Chelsea RBC and Hammersmith & Fulham LBC joint chief executive Derek Myers and Westminster City Council chief executive Mike More announce within minutes of each other they will stand down from their roles. Meanwhile, Sir Merrick Cockell stands down as leader of Kensington & Chelsea and is replaced by Nicholas Paget-Brown (Con)

September 2013: Charlie Parker appointed Westminster’s chief executive. Nicholas Holgate takes on joint role overseeing Kensington & Chelsea and Hammersmith & Fulham initially on interim basis

May 2014: Labour regain control of Hammersmith & Fulham. Leader Stephen Cowan immediately commissions former transport secretary Lord Adonis to review triborough partnership

September 2014: Then communities secretary Eric Pickles says Labour’s victory in Hammersmith & Fulham puts triborough at an “enormous crossroads” but believes arrangement will “survive”

October 2014: Lord Adonis’s review recommends each borough should have its own chief executive. Hammersmith & Fulham appoint Nigel Pallace to the role. Mr Holgate reverts to overseeing Kensington & Chelsea. Hammersmith & Fulham, and Westminster leaders rule out further formalising triborough partnership through a combined authority

March 2016: Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea become first councils to have their children’s services rated ‘outstanding’ under Ofsted’s controversial single inspection framework

November 2016 Cllr Roe stands down as Westminster leader following elevation to House of Lords as Baroness Couttie. She is replaced in January 2017 by Nickie Aiken (Con)

March 2017: Mr Pallace announces unexpected departure. Three weeks later triborough agreement collapses amid acrimonious accusations

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