As I have sat by the pool in Spain contemplating Independent on line and my daily fix of the LGA press service I have been thinking of the similarities between Liverpool and Doncaster (by the way this was before the jug of Sangria!)
Back in 1988 when the Lib Dems took control of the City it was without a doubt the worst council in England. It was a mainstay of Private Eye; had the third worst service delivery; had a council tax 20% higher than the next council; was the butt of every comedians jokes (remember calm down, calm down?); looked on its glorious past rather than looked forward to a glorious future; had been led by indifferent politicians in the aftermath of Derek Hatton and company who preferred to whinge about the problems than solve them. On top of all that within weeks of taking control the then Labour Government decided that our education service was so bad that they wanted to take the service away from us.
See the similarities? For more than 20 years Donnygate with its racy yarns of Doncaster races and politicians greed and avarice made the whole of the town and not just it’s council a laughing stock. Attempts to deal with it were unsuccessful as generations of Labour Councillors followed each other into the court room! In a desperate attempt to shake off its political past the Town voted for an elected mayor and for a few years all looked promising. Then there was the inevitable fall out between the Mayor and his Party; the resignation if his highly competent deputy and then the election of an English Democrat Mayor that no-one really wanted but no-one liked the alternatives even less.
That mayor has now gone and a new Labour administration came into office and was greeted by a Government, this time Conservative, threatening to take education away from the Council because it was so badly failing the children of the Borough.
In 1988 the changes to the education service led so capably by Paul Clein and Mike Storey showed that we meant business. Within three months the education department had moved from cramped, poky offices to a new suite of offices on an entire floor of the Lewis’ store.
New staff were taken on board, firm targets were set and a new relationship was established between schools and colleges and the council.
All this was undertaken with the admission of failure of the councils incompetence, a peer review (one of the first) led by current DCLG maestro Bob Kerslake, and a determination to lead the city forward by building on its past and not moaning about it. Within months a totally daft idea was agreed upon and worked up. We would bid for the European Capital of Culture 2008. When the sniggering died away and people saw we meant business the rest of the city and indeed, in many ways, the rest of the Country joined in.
Over the next 6 years we saw the development of the most skilled political/managerial leadership I have even seen with David Henshaw and Mike Storey and the council leapfrogged many others to become one of the best service deliverers in an urban context in the Country. Education was not forgotten. When we said our priorities were education, education, education we meant it. Our schools were reformed with proper support and major improvements were made to our school stock without too much use of the dreaded PFI.
Now we see that, in a slightly different way, Doncaster is to keep much control of its education service and will similarly place education at the centrepiece of its work. Like Liverpool Doncaster has appointed a new Chief Executive ( born and dragged up in Liverpool of course) and is setting out to put its sad political past behind it.
So let me offer three pieces of advice based knit only the Liverpool experience but in those of other places lie, Hull, Walsall and Bristol who also went through tremendous change:
1. Don’t forget your past but build on it. Doncaster has a tremendous location and many, many small businesses with strong engineering and other skills. Create your SWOT analysis around that past, the changes that are happening in society and the economy and the future that is attainable.
2. Don’t aim for what you think is achievable but aim for 10% higher than that. If you only aim for what is achievable you will undershoot. Aim higher and you will achieve your potential.
3. Be confident and the world will respect you. You cannot put 50+ years of decline right in a few years of a political mandate, any more than we could in Liverpool but you can put Doncaster on the right path.
As I look at what is happening in Liverpool now the Labour Party is simply carrying on with the directions and strategy that we put in place. If we had not turned the corner for the city and won Capital of Culture, if we hadn’t seen the most comprehensive redevelopment of a city ever seen, if we hadn’t seen the development of the best new shopping centre in the UK, a massive conference centre and arena and thousands of new hotel rooms the current proposals of the Labour Party would have been mere pipe dreams.
Doncaster is better than its politicians have been in the past. My Lib Dem colleagues in Doncaster did their best for years in infertile territory. Donaster is represented in parliament by 3 leading Labour members including Ed Milliband. But they have done little and can do little to turn the Borough around. Doncaster’s new leadership should be given an opportunity to try and turn things round and I hope that all people of goodwill will support them in their endeavours.