Tony McArdle, Lincolnshire CC’s departing chief executive, has called for the combined authority model to inspire public sector transformation in all parts of the country.
In an LGC interview marking his exit this month from the council after 12 years in its top role, Mr McArdle said the “rationale has passed” for two-tier local governance but said areas that had yet to reorganise had an opportunity to be bolder than merely merging councils.
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“I think there’s an opportunity for proper public-sector transformation, where counties, districts, the probation service, police, NHS and others can be brought together under local democratic accountability,” he said. “If you could achieve that you can achieve a lot more than simply the unitarisation of counties and districts.”
Mr McArdle said this transformation could be driven by “the amount of money that’s being wasted in default of having it”.
There’s an opportunity for proper public-sector transformation, where counties, districts, the probation service, police, NHS and others can be brought together under local democratic accountability
He said he had sympathy for George Osborne’s devolution vision of “a single point of accountability that can spread influence, power and control across a wide range of public services”. Mr McArdle said the devolution and shared accountability spearheaded in Greater Manchester was a model “you could apply across the country”, albeit “probably without a mayor in rural areas”.
He believed Lincolnshire could be the right size for such accountability, praising the county unitaries of Durham CC and Wiltshire Council for being “good at being big, good at being small”.
However, Mr McArdle was sceptical that local county/district consensuses would emerge in support of restructuring, adding: “You’ve got to accept that it’s the government that will produce the geography for that.”
Questioned over whether he was urging top-down solutions, Mr McArdle said: “Ultimately it requires primary legislation to do it so, yes, if you want to call that top-down then it’s top-down but you could just call it leadership.”
Mr McArdle said Greater Lincolnshire’s councils had made a “conscious political decision” in 2016 to reject the devo deal offered to them because they considered it inferior to that of other areas. He admitted it subsequently took the county “a while to repair relationships with its neighbours”.
Indeed, Mr McArdle said his biggest disappointment from his time there was failure to get the county/district relationship to the “place it might have got to”. As an example, he said the creation of a joint county/district waste operation could save £8m annually but “we don’t do it because it’s too difficult for one reason or another”.
Lincolnshire has been transformed from its previously pitiful state during Mr McArdle’s long partnership with leader Martin Hill (Con).
“The Audit Commission had in their corporate governance inspection described Lincolnshire as having failed political leadership, no managerial leadership and no prospects for improvement,” Mr McArdle said of the time of his arrival. “The leader [Jim Speechley] had been jailed for corruption in public office, his successor [Ian Croft] was then debarred from standing for [office] by the Standards Board.” In addition, the county’s fire service was “the worst rated… in the country” and its social services were “one of the worst rated”.
He noted Lincolnshire’s staff had the same qualifications, ethos and desire to do well as those on more successful authorities. His aim was to “get those staff to believe in themselves and be better managed and better motivated”.
Now the relationship with the centre is transformed, alongside the council’s overall performance: “We have the attention of senior civil servants and ministers when we need it and the opportunity to exert influence.
“We have the lowest council tax of any county and are the second lowest government-funded county, and yet all of our main services are in the upper quartile of performance. In absence of things like [comprehensive area assessment], that to me is a good measure of success.”
Mr McArdle has no new role lined up. He will stay on as a consultant in Lincolnshire until the summer, examining potential options for when the council’s outsourcing contact with Serco ends in 2020 and how the county’s NHS relationships could improve.
He said he could consider a permanent NHS leadership role – or even becoming another council’s chief, expecially an urban authority.
However, Mr McArdle, who had a previous eight-year stint as Wellingborough BC chief, admitted: “The difficulty of that is having been in two-tier local government for so long people see you in that mode.”