Back to articles • Back to home page

 
Claws out for a chief executive
Local Government Chronicle – 28 May 2009

Disputes besetting Somerset County Council involve an MP, a chief executive, a councillor, the chief constable, a 1930s singer and a talking cat. Mark Smulian unravels the tale of an extraordinary clash of personalities.

Being publicly vilified by a ginger cat must rank among the less common professional hazards faced by local government officers.

But that has happened to Somerset County Council chief executive Alan Jones at the paws of 'Mogg', the blogging feline alter ego of Ian Liddell-Grainger, the Conservative MP for Bridgwater.

His website has unremittingly attacked Mr Jones over Somerset's shared services contract Southwest One and the chief executive's alleged treatment of the council's former deputy leader Paul Buchanan.

Cllr Buchanan, a Liberal Democrat who now sits outside the ruling party group, believes Mr Jones has persecuted him for asking awkward questions about Southwest One and various personal matters.

Mr Jones in turn says that Cllr Buchanan sought to intimidate him - a question due to be judged by the Adjudication Panel for England (APE) in July 2009 - and behaved overbearingly towards staff.

The dispute raises wider issues for local government - what happens when three strong and determined personalities collide, how can officers handle attacks made on websites whose provenance may not be known, and how can they respond to attacks made against them by elected politicians?

Mr Liddell-Grainger's cat has kept up an almost daily commentary, and his website carries a surreal range of allegations and films about Mr Jones, chief executive since 2003.

A flavour is provided by one posted in early May 2009 of a performance by a singer named Allan Jones of the 1937 hit Donkey Serenade, and a slogan above the chief executive's face that asks viewers if they know of "a good donkey sanctuary".

Last November, the MP posted a claim that Mr Jones had addressed a foul-mouthed tirade about him to the Conservative local government spokesman Bob Neill, which was removed when Mr Neill denied this occurred.

Despite his unconventional approach, Mr Liddell-Grainger says he has acted to champion an underdog, even if Cllr Buchanan is a political opponent, and because he thinks Southwest One is a grandiose white elephant.

Under Southwest One, IBM provides shared back office services for Somerset, Taunton Deane Borough Council and Avon & Somerset Police. Its structure allows other public bodies to join, although none yet have. Mr Jones says it will provide services "beyond excellence".

According to a letter sent to Unison by Somerset's resources director Roger Kershaw, Southwest One will cost Somerset 35.3m in capital spending over 10 years but yield savings of 203m.

Mr Jones decided he needed an expert to pull together such a complex contract and turned to consultant Sue Barnes, who had just done a similar job for Norfolk County Council.

This choice later proved controversial, and became a source of recurring acrimony between the MP and Mr Jones. Ms Barnes is married to Avon & Somerset chief constable Colin Port. Although the police were not originally part of Southwest One, the MP has told parliament: "Her hubby, Colin Port, is now on the board of Southwest One. Funny old world, isn't it?"

The chief constable says of the issue: "In all my dealings in this matter I have been open and transparent; all the relevant facts are well known, and involve no impropriety."

This view is supported by Henry Hobhouse (Lib Dem), formerly his party's chief whip on Somerset.

"She was a consultant and the council asked her to do this job. It was before the police authority was involved, I know because I was a member of it", he says, curtly dismissing Mr Liddell-Grainger as "barking mad".

Southwest One was not originally politically controversial. Somerset's Tory group leader Ken Maddock does not oppose it and it is not mentioned in the Tories' manifesto for next week's elections, and only briefly in the Lib Dem one. The Lib Dems are defending a majority of just one seat.

But Mr Liddell-Grainger has attacked both Southwest One's implementation and what he says is its export of council jobs to distant IBM locations. He says: "I want to know why are jobs being exported from Somerset to Worcester, or to Southampton where IBM is based." Mr Jones counters that jobs are not being exported, merely the data storage.

The MP has also cited the lack of other public bodies joining Southwest One as a sign of its inability to deliver promised savings and improvements.

Cllr Hobhouse says: "The sad thing is that there are other public bodies that might have joined, but they would in effect have been exporting jobs to Somerset and if you do that you lose jobs in your own area. The savings are there anyway, others joining would have been a bonus."

The Audit Commission found in September 2008 that Southwest One's procurement and risk management were robust and its projected savings realistic.

While Southwest One was being developed, the sulphurous relations between Cllr Buchanan and Mr Jones culminated in the chief executive sending a raft of complaints to the Standards Board for England (SBE) about Cllr Buchanan's alleged unacceptable behaviour towards staff.

Additional ructions occurred when Cllr Buchanan accused Mr Jones of trawling among council staff to find complaints against him.

The APE it found there had been a trawl, and while that had not directly affected the merits of the complaints, "the fact that a formal complaint was only made in response to the chief executive's request was a factor to be weighed in deciding whether there had been a breach of the code".

It took the SBE two years to decide most of the complaints merited no action. It sent only five to the panel, which dismissed three and censured Cllr Buchanan for having sworn in the fourth. The fifth will be heard in July 2009.

Mr Jones declined to comment ahead of that, but a Somerset statement said: "Cllr Buchanan was found to be in breach of the members' code of conduct in terms of using unacceptable language. We also note that rulings on three other similar charges were 'not tantamount to condoning Cllr Buchanan's behaviour'."

Cllr Buchanan says: "Mr Jones' conduct has been disgraceful. He has made allegations against me all of which have been found to be without foundation except that I once swore under my breath."

Even an attempt to heal relations made matters worse. Cllr Buchanan, who became deputy leader after only two years as a councillor, accepted mentoring in 2007 through the Improvement & Development Agency scheme.

His chosen mentor was Sir Chris Clarke, Somerset's Lib Dem leader from 1993-2001 and later a deputy chair of the Local Government Association.

"He has been bullied. There is a bullying culture in Somerset and staff even now talk to me about these concerns," Sir Chris says. "Staff who do not like changes to their jobs have been called things like 'organisational terrorists'. It is pretty brutal."

Sir Chris admits though that Cllr Buchanan's behaviour may have grated with some. He explains: "If you go back 20 years people who were elected as councillors had usually been through a political apprenticeship.

"Now, that is less common and Paul had not been through that. He came from the private sector and had that style, and perhaps did not tune into the political style, and maybe he was a bit robust."

Mr Jones counters: "There is no bullying culture in Somerset, if there was it would show up in our staff surveys, and it does not."

Relations are poor as he ended Sir Chris' mentoring contract, feeling he had become more like an advocate for Cllr Buchanan. The IDeA endorsed his action, but this added fresh ill-feeling to the Somerset imbroglio.

The most intense vituperation over Southwest One is on the internet where, in addition to Mr Liddell-Grainger's feline observations, Mr Jones has been attacked on blogs, some purportedly written by him or Mr Kershaw. Both the MP and Cllr Buchanan have denied responsibility for these.

Mr Jones has hit a brick wall in his efforts to have these blogs removed. He cannot prove who is responsible, and even if he could Google, which owns the Blogger service, would not remove them without legal proceedings other than in cases of inciting hatred, a Google spokeswoman says.

Liverpool City Council did get the I'm Tony Parrish blog removed in 2006, which attacked senior staff and councillors, but Somerset is unlikely to be the last council to come under such attack as blogs become more common.

Meanwhile, Somerset shows, in an extreme form, what can happen in a council when everyone involved in a dispute has a conflicting interpretation, and is determined to fight their corner.

An abuse of privilege?

Other chief executives have watched Somerset with amazement. Trish Haines, president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers says: "Ian Liddell-Grainger has taken this to the point where you have to think he is abusing parliamentary privilege and attacking a public servant when essentially the chief executive is caught in a political battle between a Conservative MP and the Liberal Democrats.

"He seems to be attacking a political decision and he should do that in a political way, not by attacking Alan Jones."

One southern district chief executive says: "Every so often someone will take a stick to you, but I can't recall ever having seen anything like this in 30 years."