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'We seem old-fashioned' - Derbyshire leader defends reform

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Derbyshire CC’s axing of its chief executive role has improved accountability and given its cabinet a clearer “line of sight” down to the rest of the organisation, its leader has insisted.

In an interview with LGC, Barry Lewis (Con) discussed management changes, financial pressures, Brexit and how the council seeks non-structural reform with its districts as a more realistic alternative to full reorganisation.

He spoke about his council’s management restructuring, which culminated in the August 2017 announcement that chief executive Ian Stephenson would be leaving the county.

Cllr Lewis – whose Tory group had won control of the authority three months previously – said the move had resulted in a “clearer line of sight down the organisation” for the leader and cabinet. It had increased collaboration and meant the council could move more speedily on dealing with financial risk and on procurement, he said.

“The thing you find with a chief executive is that they step in front of that line of sight sometimes and act as a barrier to getting things done and to direct communication with the rest of the organisation. The communication with the staff [now] is much clearer.”

Cllr Lewis admitted that the impact on him is that “responsibility is greater” but said it resulted in a more “collaborative team approach”.

“I think that is better than having a chief executive so I would advocate it to any organisation who is considering doing this sort of thing,” he added. “I think it’s paid off in dividends here for us.”

Cllr Lewis said financial pressure was growing and, speaking prior to this year’s council elections, he expressed fear that there would be no three-year spending review settlement, impacting on the council’s ability to plan ahead.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “We were promised certainty when the government came into being but it does seem to have dissipated somewhat, so it does cause us slight concern.”

Derbyshire’s Enterprising Council ethos – an approach to commissioning services influenced by Wigan MBC’s The Deal – was resulting in a “very deep dive across all of our services”.

The council was moving much more to offering people “early help” but sought to reduce expenditure amid projections it must save £63m over the next five years. It also projected that its reserve levels would fall to £15m-£16m, from a current general reserve level of £39.9m in 2019-20.

Cllr Lewis said there was “always the tension in an organisation like this between officers and members [on] how we deal with the reserve situation”.

“There tends to be a tendency for organisations like ours to want to hold on as much as possible to the cash.” He added, banging the table to emphasise his point: “Members are a bit more clear about ‘let’s see our way through this tough time using that money if we can’.”

He also said he agreed with a Local Government Association peer review, published in January, that described Derbyshire as inward looking.

“We were a paternalistic council… we already knew that anyway, that didn’t come as a great shock to us,” Cllr Lewis said. “A lot of the things they said in that report were things we were already working on.”

“As part of the Enterprising Council approach you have to change the culture of the organisation. You have to remember that people have worked here for 20, 30 years plus… it’s very difficult to change the culture in an organisation like that.”

The new approach was “feeding through the organisation”, he insisted.

Cllr Lewis also gave some support to former Wigan chief executive Donna Hall’s criticism of the county sector. In February she described it as “very top-down,” and as having “a very paternalistic command and control structure”.

“We are reforming the way this county operates as a model for the future and so there may be some merit in what she says,” said Cllr Lewis.

“I certainly couldn’t disagree that sometimes we do seem a bit old fashioned and that is why we press the Enterprising Council approach, try to be a little less paternalistic and work with our communities a little bit more closely.”

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Cllr Lewis, a vinyard owner, told the public during a debate a couple of weeks ago, on Declaring a Climate Emrgency, that Global Warming was good for the British wine industry. He and his fellow Conservatives refused to support this motion. Not the sign of someone with a fresh approach to running a council - more like an ostrich with his head firmly buried.

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  • the chief executive role is a sensible check and balance against corruption and misuse of public office, which is hardly new to local government. Professional management is a must especially when a big organisation is going through change.

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  • What chief executives do, some of the time in some councils:"act as a barrier to getting things done" because the political leadership has a barking-mad or unaffordable idea and needs to be stopped and "[barrier] to direct communication with the rest of the organisation", to stop shoot-from-the-hip politicians saying things that will upset or demotivate staff - or worse!

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