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A new beginning
Local Government Chronicle – 7 May 2008

Once the initial shock has passed, those who have lost their seats can console themselves with the fact there is life after political death, Mark Smulian discovers

Anyone who played the childhood board game Careers will recall that players could lose their money, happiness or fame by landing on certain squares; indeed they could do so while following a political 'career'.

Council leaders can lose all three at once if voters so decide. The advent of allowances that can be equivalent to a decent wage, and of full-time leaders who also sit on a host of local partnerships, has made the blow of losing all the greater.

Some former leaders return, and others vanish. But they have marketable experience and a growing number work as consultants for bodies such as the Improvement & Development Agency and the Local Government Leadership Centre (LGLC), using their skills to guide other councils through the shoals of local politics.

Stephen Taylor, LGLC chief executive, says: "Being a leader is interesting and exciting work and most have been in local government to try to make a place better, and it's difficult as they have to give that up when they are defeated."

The centre uses them when councils need political advice, though they sometimes work in tandem with a former senior officer who will advise the top managers.

Mr Taylor says: "I'm not a politician and I would not presume to advise politicians on political matters, that needs someone who has been there and who is acceptable to the council concerned." For those who lost on 1 May, there is life after political death.

Sir Bill Taylor (Lab), former leader of Blackburn with Darwen BC

Sir Bill Taylor was beaten in 2004 after 25 years as a councillor - three of them as Labour leader of Blackburn with Darwen - because, he believes, of the Iraq war.

He was also agent to local MP Jack Straw, then foreign secretary, and in a 60% Muslim ward says he had noticed "a lot of people saying they would not vote for me that time to teach Jack a lesson over Iraq". Losing, he says, was still a kind of shock and he decided to take stock.

"I'd had a full-time job as youth and community work manager for Lancashire CC while I was leader at Blackburn with Darwen, and worked 70-80 hour weeks.

"My wife says I used to leave the house at 6.30am to do my day job then go to the town hall and not be home until 10.30pm," he adds.

Two years later Sir Bill took early retirement from Lancashire and began a new career as a consultant, drawing on his experience in public consultation and council improvement.

He worked initially with Vision 21, a market research company. He later launched his Improve Your Council consultancy, which helps councils improve performance.

"There is an old saying up here that in the mills you learned by 'sitting next to Nellie' and once you've been there and worn the t-shirt you can pass it on," he says.

Sir Bill avoids political mentoring though, having rethought the role of party politics in local government.

"I think the problem of local government is that it tries to be a mini-national government," he says.

"People are concerned that the bins are emptied and old people are safe, not with some of the political shenanigans."

Steve Hitchins (Lib Dem), former leader of Islington LBC

Steve Hitchins was leader of Islington LBC from 1999, when the Liberal Democrats won control, until 2006 when he lost his seat as Labour slashed his party's majority.

The next day he announced he would not stand for public office again, and looked for a way to use his local government experience.

He now works mainly for the Local Government Leadership Centre, the Improvement and Development Agency and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers.

"It is very different because as leader you are almost like the fairy on the top of the Christmas tree. Suddenly you are a sole trader," he says.

"I've found though that there is an acceptance that you are somebody who has been there and done it and has experience to give.

"The local government family has been welcoming, though you are a bit like a doctor visiting."

Mr Hitchins thinks he was helped in his new work by Islington having become well-known for rapid improvement, from a 'poor' comprehensive performance assessment to 'good' in only three years.

His activities include Project 2010, an all-party attempt by London Councils to improve the calibre of future councillors. In addition, he still sits on a number of public bodies.

One new avenue he has discovered is to act as an interpreter between the private and public sectors.

"You find they [private companies] do not understand officer-speak or member-speak. It's a matter of inviting contractors to meet councillors, and you have to be careful about how you do that - there is a gap there".

He will though never again be 'Cllr Hitchins'. "There is no way back and it was time for someone else to have a go without me there," he says.

Anna Waite (Con), former leader of Southend-on-sea BC

Anna Waite served one year as Southend-on-Sea BC's leader before she lost her seat in 2006 amid controversy over her championing of a seafront casino project.

Although leader, she was not in one of the safe Tory wards and her seat reverted to its traditional Liberal Democrat allegiance.

She was back a year later as cabinet member for planning and transport, having won a Labour ward by just 17 votes.

"I felt I had unfinished business, so I went back because there were things I still wanted to do to improve Southend," she says.

Losing was a shock and she spent most of the next year working on her house and garden, having abandoned her career as a primary school teacher when she became a councillor.

"I had been leader, been on the Thames Gateway South Essex partnership and all the other boards, and one day you are fully occupied with a virtually full-time job. Then suddenly, its all gone," she recalls.

"You no longer have any staff, you just have to go into the civic centre with a box and get your stuff. The worst of it was that the council would not even forward mail to me."

Her advice to any other defeated leaders, apart from "have a glass of red wine", is not to react hastily.

"Don't get involved with the press, and don't make statements until you have decided what you really want to do," she says.

"I got terribly upset on election night, and the press was vicious. If you want to go back then go back, but some might decide they can use their experience elsewhere."

How officers cope with change at the top

Having a new leader is a challenge for any chief executive, particularly when the result is a surprise. Some do not long survive the transition if they are perceived as part of the old administration's furniture.

But an ability to understand politicians' priorities and some forward planning can smooth the path.

In May 2007 North West Leicestershire DC went to the Conservatives, despite having been under Labour control since it was formed in 1974.

Chief executive Christine Fisher had expected at most a switch to no overall control.

The political upset was so great that some Tories who had never before been councillors took cabinet positions.

Ms Fisher says: "The key thing was building relationships with the new leadership, listening to what they wanted and understanding where they were coming from.

"I had to explain that the council had its priorities for work, some of which were national agendas, and that these needed to continue.

"They agreed, and that gave a lot of confidence to staff that they were not suddenly expected to work from a blank sheet of paper.

"Many of the new cabinet come from a business background and understand business language, so you can talk to them about choice, for example. But there was a change in tone as most of the previous leadership came from the old mining communities."

Business backgrounds have helped relations with officers since the new councillors "know that in their working lives there will be times when they turn to specialists for advice before taking decisions", she says.

Neighbouring Hinckley & Bosworth BC had regular changes of control, so six months before last year's election chief executive Steve Atkinson met the Tory, Lib Dem and Labour groups to discuss their programmes.

"We asked each what they wanted to achieve and explained what was deliverable," he says.

He thus knew what to expect when the Lib Dems ousted the Tories and set up a meeting for all staff to meet the new leadership.

Mr Atkinson says in practice 90% of what a council does doesn't change with administrations because it is national policy.

The main change has been in Hinckley's town centre regeneration, the issue that swung the election, where plans to build new council offices have been abandoned.