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‘We’re building a new town’

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Brent's chief executive Gareth Daniel, celebrating 10 years in the job, has seen the London borough come a long way.

“There was a standing joke that the annual financial crisis was written into the council’s calendar,” says Gareth Daniel , recalling the dire state of Brent Council in the 1990s.

“It would always happen around August or September when people realised that a budget agreed in March was not going to hold. Brent was a pretty dispirited, demoralised organisation.

"It had gone through a period of acute political instability and a massive amount of organisational change,” says Mr Daniel, whose slight twang betrays his Liverpudlian roots.

“There was a time during the late 80s and the early 90s when we were often described as one of the basket cases of local government and that was quite hurtful but pretty accurate.

“There was no doubt that the organisation had suffered quite badly from mismanagement politically and that the organisation lacked a clear vision about where it was going.”

Ten years after he took on the job of chief executive at the London borough, LGC has been to Brent to talk to Mr Daniel about his time at the top and ambitions for the future.

Internal marketplace

One of Mr Daniel’s first jobs was to unpick the John Birt-style internal marketplace operating across the council, which had split the organisation up into 150 separate business units, each with their own bank accounts and cheque books.

“In my view, that introduced a form of organisational anarchy which failed to deliver in terms of safeguarding public money or in terms of providing better services. It created an organisation where every one of the managers could do what the hell they wanted.

"There was a serious effect on the organisation. At one point we had about half a dozen payroll units all competing in an internal market place.”

Mr Daniel had been appointed by a recently elected “middle of the road” Labour administration, which represented a congenial fit. Eight years earlier, he had been a Labour councillor himself.

After cutting his political teeth leading the students union at Oxford University in the early 1970s, Mr Daniel immersed himself in local London politics.

He was a member of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council . After its abolition he chaired the planning committee at Ealing Council . He even stood twice for Labour as a parliamentary candidate.

But at the turn of the 90s, he had to make a choice following the introduction of the Widdicombe rules which barred senior officers from political activity.

Widdicombe rules

He believes local government is poorer for the rules, which are due to be relaxed by ministers. “The Widdicombe rules took a whole swathe of politically aware officers out of the local democratic process.”

But Mr Daniel claims it was not a difficult decision to, as his mother put it, “get a proper job”. “I had to make a choice in 1990 and at the time I had a young family. It wasn’t a huge wrench.”

He says his experience as a member helps him now. “I am not at all deferential. One of the benefits of being politically engaged earlier on is that you know where politicians are coming from and you understand their thought processes.”

And while admitting that the quality of even his own members is “variable”, he refuses to denigrate elected politicians.

“I do have genuine regard for people who give up their time for what is often a pretty thankless task. For executive members the rewards are greater than they used to be, but it’s still not a huge salary and a lot of people do a huge amount for relatively modest rewards.

“Politicians are what the electorate throw up and it is your responsibility to work with them and support them.”

Bulwark

He has no compunction about standing up to politicians. He views himself as a “bulwark” between officers and the members, enabling the former to get on with the job, free of political machinations.

“I respect politicians but I also have a clear view about what the boundaries are. I will stand up for the officer core. If my officers are going to be attacked unfairly in public, I will defend them.”

One of his tasks at Brent was to “recalibrate officer/member relations” by establishing proper professional boundaries. This professed impartiality was put to the test in 2006 when a Lib Dem/Tory coalition won power in Brent.

“There was a bit of suspicion, when the coalition came in, of the officer core generally,” he says, admitting he was particularly under the spotlight.

But Mr Daniel argues that he and the rest of Brent’s senior officer team have been able to win over the new leadership by showing them how to implement their plans.

“They [the coalition] came into office with an unclear programme with a lot of gaps in it. They know they need our help. Officers can make things happen,” he says, adding that cross-party agreement on issues like the environment mean traditional ideological dividing lines are less important.

Iceland exposure

Over the past couple of months, the council’s exposure to collapsed Icelandic banks has been Mr Daniel’s biggest headache. He defends the way they have handled the crisis, pointing out that they welcomed the Treasury’s decision to revise its investment guidance in 2003.

“It’s an inherently risky business. We have a fiduciary duty to maximise the returns on our investment. We would be criticised if we didn’t do that. At the same time, we have a responsibility to deal with public money.”

Any possible losses will merely put more pressure on Brent to maximise savings. While it has hit its existing cost-saving targets, Brent has just launched a new improvement and efficiency strategy.

“We’ve gone as far as we can on incremental improvement, but if you are going to improve services and generate efficiency, you have to look at things in a much more fundamental way,” says Mr Daniel.

At the heart of the council’s efficiency drive is a project to rationalise the council’s estate by building a new town hall. The new headquarters is due to be delivered on a parcel of land being developed as part of the regeneration of the vast area round Wembley Stadium.

“We’re effectively building a new town,” he says of the 4,200 home project.

“None of our major offices is fit-for-purpose including this mausoleum we are sitting in at the moment. It’s a Grade II-listed building, but if I had my way I would take a JCB to it and knock it down overnight,” says Mr Daniel, who argues that the 1930s structure doesn’t “resonate” with the young, multi-racial nature of Brent.

Old-fashioned and inefficient

“It would horrify the planners, but I think it symbolises everything that’s wrong about local government. It’s old fashioned, it’s inefficient, it’s not-fit-for-purpose.”

Under the council’s plans, all staff will be housed in just two buildings. The new town hall will contain core functions, including all strategic directors.

A total of 1,200 staff about half the council’s current workforce will be based there, including a new business transformation unit bringing together human resources and customer services. It will also house the dedicated team Mr Daniel is establishing to oversee the council’s capital investment projects, including its Building Schools for the Future programme and the regeneration of the North Circular road corridor which bisects the borough .

“I will have all senior managers sitting on the same floor that has never happened before in the history of Brent council,” he says.

“Email is no substitute for personal contact. I am determined to get all my major departmental heads in the same building because I want them to feel they are part of one organisation.”

And the new building will create a new heart for the borough, something it has historically lacked. “There’s a lot more you could do in a building with a big open air square where you could put on exhibitions.”

Bullish

However, while generally bullish, Mr Daniel has one regret: the council’s failure to beat the three-stars score it achieved in its last comprehensive performance assessment, back in 2006.

“We certainly think that we are already a four-star authority, but we will never get that validation.”

But he believes the council has now consigned the ‘barmy Brent’ monikor to history.

“It has improved so much in the last decade that it’s now pretty irrelevant.”

See also

A borough of diversity

Profile: Gareth Daniel

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