Do you remember that incredibly funny sketch in a Morecambe and Wise programme with Andre Previn? Previn is trying to conduct an orchestra whilst Eric Morecambe plays the accompanying piano – terribly. When Previn challenges Morecambe, Ernie patiently explains to Previn that Eric is playing the right notes but not necessarily in the right order or at the right speed!!
Regrettably, that is a hugely amusing sketch that appears to be what is happening in Liverpool today. There is a huge jumble of reports, statements, hiring of consultants, training of staff, culture change and a whole host of other goodies which ignore the basic principles of improving councils.
We all seem to be ignoring the established play book which turned around Liverpool from 1998 but which is replicated in all the other councils like Hackney, Lincolnshire, Islington, Hull, Oldham and Walsall which were also named as ‘the worst council in England’ two decades and more ago.
It needs strong political leadership, supported by strong managerial leadership working with a strong and committed government who wants to help. None of these factors exist in Liverpool now.
These are the elephants in the room that need to be addressed so I’ll take them in turn.
Nothing works without strong political leadership. A Council, or indeed a Government, needs to have a strong sense of direction and it needs stability. Liverpool currently lacks either of these. Our so-called City Plan is clearly deficient. What should have started with a big conversation with the people of Liverpool and its businesses and organisations was signed up to by 16 Chief Executives (or similar) in isolation during the lock down period.
By Christmas all but 6 of those Chief Executives will have left their position. Not that it makes much difference. All those C-Exs signed but appeared to do nothing about it in practice. Drill down into the organisations and there is no joining up of the public sector organisations never mind the private sector into one coherent operation which will move the City forward.
Why is this important? Because the Council is the only elected body which has a democratic mandate to lead the city as whole. For every £1 that the Council spends the rest of the public sector spends £5. The total of that is £6 billion. It is vital that the public sector as a whole pulls together and supports other parts. Unless we do that there is a lack of direction and a huge waste of resources as organisation compete.
The political leadership of the Council will shortly move into a turmoil situation which will last at least a year. At the start of September, we will definitely know the new boundaries on which we will fight the all-up elections next year. There will be a huge turnover in people as many people leave the council because they want to, because they have been deselected or because they lose to another Party. This seems to mean that at least 40% of the Council will be new and struggling to get to know a system which is new to all of us. Even if we had the most acute political leadership, and we do not, they would struggle to cope with the turmoil which has been created by external advisers who thought they knew best.
Nothing works without strong managerial leadership. We need to create a cadre of the strongest managerial leaders in local government in the Country. That will be extremely difficult in Liverpool now. We had a competent and respected Chief Executive. He was respected throughout local government and admired within the Council. Patiently he restored morale within the Council, made sure that corruption was rooted out and began the long change process that was required. All that has been thrown away by intemperate and ill-considered actions.
This is important because although we politicians like to think that staff come to our councils because of our brilliance, they do not. They come because they see a good Chief Executive, a strong senior management team and say I can learn and grow from this and know they can be part of something that is exciting, and which will help people who really need help.
In Liverpool, we have begun the process of creating such a team. We have excellent new appointments for the City Solicitor, Director of Adult Services and Chief Operating Officer. However, the most important part of the team, the Chief Executive, was chopped off and the second most important, the Deputy Chief Executive and Finance Director also left us. We don’t have a Chief Executive, Director of Resources or Head of internal audit. We have interim Directors of Neighbourhoods, Finance and Regeneration only one of who has a detailed and long-term knowledge of the City.
Who is going to come to Liverpool to fill all the gaps with no clear political or managerial leadership? Who is going to enter an arena in which they will clearly not be able to rely on support and stability from the political or leadership teams and where, in the short-term, they will have to report to a third party, the Commissioners who are assuming the responsibility for making all senior appointments?
There needs to be a strong relationship developed with the Government. As part of the Lib Dem team that turned the City around, I pay tribute to the Labour Government of the time. Of course, we had to do the right things and show the right attitude but when we did put forward pragmatic ideas the Government responded with support. People like David Henshaw, Mike Storey and Paul Clein spent a lot of time talking to Ministers.
The best example of that was the way the Council and Government dealt with the threat of taking away control of schools from the Council. The threat was made, the Council both politically and managerially responded in a variety of ways and the threat was withdrawn. A new partnership was created in which the Government and the Council worked together in a number of ways. One way was to provide some money, but money was not the most important factor it was joint working and shared aspiration.
What are the chances of this happening with a Department for local government which has little experience and a Government who is more desirous of taking the Council on than working with us? More money to replace that both lost by the Council (at more than £170 million now) or taken from us by so-called austerity measures is not going to come. Apparently, according to Liz Truss, the Council actually pays its staff too much and any spare money is not coming to places like Liverpool City Region which ahs lost a shedload of cash as we have left the EU.
So, what can we do? Well let me suggest three things:
Firstly, we need to make every effort to get a new Chief Executive and Director of Resources. I doubt that it is worthwhile trying to get other senior staff into the organisation until those positions are filled as people will not know who they will eb working for and with.
Secondly, we must go to meet the Ministers responsible for us. I am unaware of any attempts by the Mayor to go and meet key national politicians, but this must be done and now is the time to do it. Under Johnson we had two very poor and unengaged Secretaries of State, Jenrick and Gove. We now have an adult in the room with Greg Clark filling the position short term. Greg understands local government and has a good track record, for a Tory, of trying to help our sector. This probably means that he will be removed by Truss forthwith!!
Thirdly, we have to create a real vision for the City to which all citizens, businesses and organisation are invited to create and to contribute to the delivery of. That engaging vision should be looking as far as 20 years ahead for the challenges and opportunities facing the City and Country but in deliverable five years outputs and outcomes and a regular review.
Unless we do these things everything else is just fluff. No number of plans, training, PowerPoints and exhortations will ever replace solid political and managerial leadership. These are the challenges I will place before the Politicians of the Council, its current managerial leadership and the Commissioners later today. I can only hope that they will respond.