Crisis at Lancashire County Council? Opposition brands council a ‘laughing stock’

Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver
Lancashire County Council leader Geoff Driver
0
Have your say

“Chaos”, “a laughing stock” and “anxious for the future”. Opposition councillors and trade union reps have spoken about their worries over the growing crisis engulfing Lancashire County Council.

Against a backdrop of dwindling finances, with a predicted £167m shortfall by 2020 and soaring care bills, the council is set for major organisational upheaval. Council leader Geoff Driver has hit back at critics, saying the Tories are “stabilising” council finances - but opponents have called for him to resign.

Warning over predicted £167m budget shortfall| Opposition brands council a ‘laughing stock’| Calls for leader to resign|

Issues facing the council include:

• Employment committee members will meet today to draw up a shortlist for the new role of interim chief executive and director of resources, despite warnings from opposition councillors that removing current senior officers could cost the council millions and devastate services;

• The ruling Conservative group is seeing its majority diminishing. Coun Paul Greenall and Coun Tony Jones resigned from the group in protest over their concerns were treated, while Coun David Stansfield was recently expelled by Lancashire Conservatives, Coun Jim Marsh has been suspended, and Coun Vivien Taylor has sadly passed away;

• Coun Driver is on bail until November 22 facing allegations of perverting the course of justice and intimidating witnesses following the lengthy Operation Sheridan police investigation into the workings of One Connect, the now defunct partnership between LCC and telecoms giant BT. The company was set up when Coun Driver was leader of a previous administration;

• The Government was asked by Labour leader County Coun Azhar Ali weeks ago to intervene in the row over the management restructure.

Councillors from four different opposition groups fear the costs of management changes will mean less money for services and they are concerned at a lack of public scrutiny.

Labour’s Coun Ali said: “I think we’ve become a laughing stock. The political leadership is seen as a laughing stock and lacks credibility. It’s affecting staff, morale is rock bottom, our reputation is shattered.”

Labour‘s deputy leader John Fillis added: “Morale is very low. People are extremely anxious about the future - about their own jobs and about services.”

Liberal Democrat group leader County Coun David Whipp said: “I think Coun Driver should do the right thing and resign and restore some confidence to the reputation of the county council, because his actions fall far short of those of a leader of the council.

“His actions in regard to the senior management restructure render him unfit for office in my eyes. There are few savings to be achieved from that.”

Independent councillor Paul Hayhurst, who represents Fylde West, warned the council two weeks ago that its public image is tarnished, telling members: “People do not have faith in councils these days. We are in a position where we are losing the faith of the people of this county.”

Green councillor Gina Dowding added: “It’s not giving a lot of confidence to people across the county what’s going on at county hall in terms of the administration.”

She added that Coun Driver should stand aside until such time as the police investigations conclude and called on him to put the council before his own ambitions.

She said: “Coun Driver should put the county before his own political career on this matter.”

But Coun Driver replied to his critics, citing the previous Labour administration’s record when it was supported by the Liberal Democrats.

He said: “They have no alternative policies and are simply trying to divert attention from the mess their alliance created and left for the Conservatives to sort out.

“We are doing just that by stabilising the council’s finances and providing the services the people of Lancashire want and are entitled to expect.”

Amid the turmoil, councillors cannot agree on the date to resume an extraordinary meeting calling for the resignation of Coun Driver and a full council debate on the senior management restructure which is being proposed by the leadership.

And opposition groups are speculating that if defections continue, the Conservative group could lose its outright majority, leaving a hung council with no party in overall control.

Union officials fear the council is set to run out of cash within a few years.

Elaine Cotterell from public services union UNISON said: “The balances are going to run out the year after next and they will not be able to sign the budget off. We are calling upon the council to ask Westminster for more money to finance public services.”

She added: “There’s a concern the council seems to have been floating from one issue to another and we’ve not seen a lot of policy decision-making.”

Noting council staff were already part way through the previous administration’s restructuring programme, she said: “Staff have been left in limbo with no idea what the plans are for those services.”

The union has dubbed the situation at County Hall “chaos” saying: “The people of Lancashire deserve better”.

It says it fears the county council will attempt to reduce its future financial shortfall by reducing workers’ terms and conditions. The union predicts a £150m funding gap in 2020/21 and a £167m gap in 2021/22.

Since the administration took power in May, it has begun fulfilling some key election promises, including to reopen all closed libraries and tackle potholes.

The cabinet approved a phased reopening of 16 libraries and expects many, such as Fulwood, to be up and running by April.

Road repairs have been allocated £3m as part of a £5.6m programme of grass cutting and drain cleaning.

The cabinet has also approved an extra £1m for bus services. A £45m cuts programme has been given the go-ahead, with savings from 30 services and 60 jobs on the line.

The Conservatives say all this is evidence of them moving swiftly to put right the wrongs they have inherited just weeks into their administration.

When the party was criticised during the recent extraordinary full council meeting, cabinet member Coun Andrew Snowden attacked the Labour group, saying: “They have no alternative vision, they have no alternative strategy. I say let’s rally together and get on with delivering our manifesto for the people of Lancashire and fixing their mess.”

Other Tory election pledges included: preventing waste and using money wisely, supporting economic growth and new jobs, caring for the county’s most vulnerable residents and tackling flooding.

The top job shake-up will radically change the way the council is run.

A new post of Chief Executive and Director of Resources is being created, with an interim officer due to be appointed. This combines financial and financial scrutiny responsibilities with the post of Chief Executive.

Current chief executive Jo Turton would not be considered as she does not have financial qualifications.

The restructure also shifts responsibilities for services. There will be three executive directors - one for Growth, Environment, Transportation and Community Services, one for Education and Children’s services and one for Adult Services and Health and Wellbeing, plus six directors.

Deputy Labour leader Coun John Fillis says the changes will cost at least £2m plus. He claimed councillors could be personally responsible for compensation, with no ceiling on claims, if senior management staff are found to have been dismissed for whistle-blowing.

It is known staff in the possible firing line have given evidence to the police investigation Operation Sheridan.

Coun Fillis added costing relating to the reshuffle had not been made clear. He said: “We do know however the possible redundancy costs could be up to £1.7m. The cost for an interim chief executive for 12 months which is also being considered would be at least £1,000 a day. That’s another £365,000. That’s going on for £2m.”

With the changes predicted to save £250,000, Coun Fillis said it would take an unacceptable eight years to recoup the costs.

Coun Driver said: ”These were figures just plucked from the air. The argument was based on the false premise that this restructuring as taking place because certain people have co-operated with the police and nothing could be further from the truth. The arguments fall at the first hurdle.

“I don’t think the council is going to be liable for any costs other than the normal redundancy costs that may or may not apply to any of the people affected by restructuring. It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact some people have co-operated with police and some people haven’t.”

Fears cash will run out

Union officials fear the council is set to run out of cash within a few years.

Elaine Cotterell from public services union UNISON said: “The balances are going to run out the year after next and they will not be able to sign the budget off. We are calling upon the council to ask Westminster for more money to finance public services.”

She added: “There’s a concern the council seems to have been floating from one issue to another and we’ve not seen a lot of policy decision-making.”

Noting council staff were already part way through the previous administration’s restructuring programme, she said: “Staff have been left in limbo with no idea what the plans are for those services.”

The union has dubbed the situation at County Hall “chaos” saying: “The people of Lancashire deserve better”.

It says it fears the county council will attempt to reduce its future financial shortfall by reducing workers’ terms and conditions. The union predicts a £150m funding gap in 2020/21 and a £167m gap in 2021/22.

Restructure

The top job shake-up will radically change the way the council is run.

A new post of Chief Executive and Director of Resources is being created, with an interim officer due to be appointed. This combines financial and financial scrutiny responsibilities with the post of Chief Executive.

Current chief executive Jo Turton would not be considered as she does not have financial qualifications.

The restructure also shifts responsibilities for services. There will be three executive directors - one for Growth, Environment, Transportation and Community Services, one for Education and Children’s services and one for Adult Services and Health and Wellbeing, plus six directors.

Deputy Labour leader Coun John Fillis says the changes will cost at least £2m plus. He claimed councillors could be personally responsible for compensation, with no ceiling on claims, if senior management staff are found to have been dismissed for whistle-blowing.

It is known staff in the possible firing line have given evidence to the police investigation Operation Sheridan.

Coun Fillis added costing relating to the reshuffle had not been made clear. He said: “We do know however the possible redundancy costs could be up to £1.7m. The cost for an interim chief executive for 12 months which is also being considered would be at least £1,000 a day. That’s another £365,000. That’s going on for £2m.”

With the changes predicted to save £250,000, Coun Fillis said it would take an unacceptable eight years to recoup the costs.

Coun Driver said: ”These were figures just plucked from the air. The argument was based on the false premise that this restructuring as taking place because certain people have co-operated with the police and nothing could be further from the truth. The arguments fall at the first hurdle.

“I don’t think the council is going to be liable for any costs other than the normal redundancy costs that may or may not apply to any of the people affected by restructuring. It has absolutely nothing to do with the fact some people have co-operated with police and some people haven’t.”

Record in office

Since the administration took power in May, it has begun fulfilling some key election promises, including to reopen all closed libraries and tackle potholes.

The cabinet approved a phased reopening of 16 libraries and expects many, such as Fulwood, to be up and running by April.

Road repairs have been allocated £3m as part of a £5.6m programme of grass cutting and drain cleaning.

The cabinet has also approved an extra £1m for bus services. A £45m cuts programme has been given the go-ahead, with savings from 30 services and 60 jobs on the line.

The Conservatives say all this is evidence of them moving swiftly to put right the wrongs they have inherited just weeks into their administration.

When the party was criticised during the recent extraordinary full council meeting, cabinet member Coun Andrew Snowden attacked the Labour group, saying: “They have no alternative vision, they have no alternative strategy. I say let’s rally together and get on with delivering our manifesto for the people of Lancashire and fixing their mess.”

Other Tory election pledges included: preventing waste and using money wisely, supporting economic growth and new jobs, caring for the county’s most vulnerable residents and tackling flooding.