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Analysis: Is the government's Rotherham intervention the strongest yet?

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Communities secretary Eric Pickles has described the government’s decision to take over the running of Rotherham MBC as “exceptional” and a move that he would carry out with a “heavy heart”.

Mr Pickles will introduce five commissioners, who will take over the executive functions of the council, including overseeing children’s and adults’ services and appointing the most senior officer

It follows the publication of a report by Louise Casey that described the council as having an “unhealthy” culture in which “bullying, sexism, suppression and misplaced ‘political correctness’ have cemented its failures”.

It is a further-reaching intervention than that imposed on Tower Hamlets LBC, where in November Mr Pickles announced the appointment of three commissioners, saying there was “no place for rotten boroughs in 21st century Britain”.

In the London borough, the commissioners are not expected to replace the role of the mayor or the cabinet, and have been given specific functions of overseeing the awarding of grants and property sales: areas called into question by an external report by accountancy firm PwC.

It is also further-reaching than that imposed on Doncaster MBC in 2010. Mr Pickles accused the authority of “15 years of failure” and of “dysfunctional politics, poor services and ineffective leadership” following a critical Audit Commission report that found the council was “failing”.

Doncaster also saw the appointment of commissioners, but they did not take over the role of the cabinet. Instead, the cabinet continued to carry out its functions, but with the restriction that any decision to reject a recommendation by senior officers would be referred to the commissioners, who had the power of veto.

A second intervention, in 2013, saw children’s services being removed from the authority and handed to an independent trust – a move that may have felt more heavy-handed than the Rotherham intervention, but which left ultimate accountability with the council itself.

Perhaps Rotherham’s closest parallel is with the Welsh government’s intervention in Anglesey. In 2011 Wales’ local government minister Carl Sargeant appointed a panel of commissioners, who took over the cabinet’s executive role after accusing the authority’s councillors of “the politics of the playground”.

Tony Travers, director of the Greater London group at the London School of Economics, told LGC the Rotherham intervention was a “watershed”, and that the Anglesey intervention was its “only real parallel”.

“Those of us who believe in local autonomy have to accept that if things go wrong then there’s a role for national agencies in helping put things right again,” he said.

“At times a local solution can sort problems out but every now and then there will be a need for central intervention. That’s why I think Eric Pickles is right to do what he’s done in Rotherham, and why the opposition is right to support him.”

So how have interventions fared?

An independent evaluation of the Anglesey approach, published in September, found the intervention was “necessary” and “justified”, adding that it was “widely seen as having got the council back on track”.

Doncaster, too, has improved since the introduction of commissioners: the intervention was last year brought to an end earlier than planned, and an independent report commissioned by the LGA found that the model had “successfully provided a check and a balance on otherwise dysfunctional political decision making.”

Jo Miller, the council’s chief executive, has attributed much of its success to support from other councils in the form of sector-led improvement. 

Mike Bennett, director of UK Research and Consultancy Services and one of the authors of the LGA-commissioned report, told LGC the government appeared to have learned from previous interventions when designing its approach to Rotherham. 

“Where this intervention design seems strong is that the commissioners are presented as a team with distinct roles rather than just a collection of the great and the good,” he said.

“The lead commissioner will effectively be the new ‘leader’ - probably an ex-politician - and the managing director commissioner will be an experienced chief executive.

“This will be important in being able to develop a shared approach and understanding of what needs to change and how.”

However, he added that the government seemed to be “at risk of repeating a design flaw” if it failed to properly coordinate two separate interventions: the appointment of a children’s commissioner by the Department for Education and the appointment of other commissioners by the Department for Communities & Local Government.

The government’s intervention in Doncaster had suffered because of a lack of coordination between these roles, he said.

Mr Bennett said Rotherham’s new commissioners would face a similar dilemma to that of Anglesey’s. On the island, commissioners invested time and effort in “building councillors up to leadership positions”, he says, only for those councillors to lose their seats at the local election.

“It meant the commissioners were starting from zero again,” he said. “Ultimately, the aim of the commissioners will be to build capacity so that when they leave, [Rotherham] can govern themselves.

“The dilemma they will have is, should they write off the next year and a half, or invest in people?”

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