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History of the chiefless councils
Local Government Chronicle – 9 February 2012

By Mark Smulian

North Tyneside 1992-2002: It did not work over time

For 10 years, North Tyneside MBC did without a chief executive, the longest example known of this management approach.

It was a model that was crucially dependent on the mix of personalities present among both the officer and political leadership, and as those personalities changed it became less effective.

North Tyneside abolished the chief executive post in 1992, moving to a model where service heads sat on a board chaired by then leader Brian Flood (Lab).

He recalls: "There were five or six executive directors and it worked because we had a good council that was up for making changes during a very political time when we were fighting Thatcher and Major.

"We were under attack from all kinds of directions and I don't think the chief executive made much difference to that."

The executive directors worked day-to-day with senior councillors who formed "a sort of cabinet, where the councillors banged heads together when they had to," Mr Flood says.

"If you do not have a good council you would need a chief executive. We had a good lot of officers too; it wouldn't have worked without that."

Mr Flood does not recall that he became excessively involved with staff management, and says officers were able to deal with these.

John Foster, who retired last year as chief executive of Islington LBC, was an executive director at North Tyneside until 1998.

He recalls: "The model worked, but it was of its time and in circumstances where you had that very strong and able political leadership.

"It did not work over time as the personalities changed and the dynamic between them became different."

Mr Foster says Mr Flood was a local government moderniser "10 years before Blairism".

Evidence that North Tyneside provided to a parliamentary select committee in 2001 explained how the council worked with a series of service clusters, unusual then but now a common approach.

It explained: "There is no chief executive. Day-to-day service management is organised on the basis of a number of functions based on service clusters such as children's services [and] care in the community, which bring together a range of services in ways which make sense to residents."

Indeed in 1998, under Mr Flood's successor - and wife - Rita Stringfellow (Lab), North Tyneside moved to a cabinet and scrutiny system two years before the Local Government Act 2000 made this model obligatory.

Mr Foster says Mr Flood was able to keep the strategic corporate leadership on course without a chief executive because "he and his colleagues knew what they wanted to craft for North Tyneside and he was supported by a very able political team including [future cabinet minister] Stephen Byers and they had a very clear vision of what they wanted".

Mr Foster is though scathing about the current round of councils that are dispensing with chief executives.

"I think what is going on now is happening for misguided political reasons," he says.

"At a moment when people are concerned about cuts you have political leaders thinking they can take on the role of chief executive, but it's being done by the wrong people at the wrong time and over the wrong issue.

"I don't think the councils now doing this have got the political leadership needed."

North Tyneside's experiment of running without a chief executive ended in 2002 when Ms Stringfellow restored the post as the council moved to an elected mayoralty, which Labour unexpectedly lost to Conservative Chris Morgan.

Mr Flood explains: "With an elected mayor you do need a chief executive. If you have a lot of people in senior positions they support each other, but if someone is elected and they come in to the town hall and told they are in charge of everything, they are not even going to know where they get their tea unless there is a chief executive there."

Bristol City Council 1999-2002: a council with no leadership

Bristol City Council's short-lived experiment with doing without a chief executive was brought to an end by, among other factors, a 'weak' rating in the first round of Audit Commission comprehensive performance assessments in 2002.

By then the council had run without a chief for almost three years and the post was restored with all-party agreement.

Chief executive Lucy de Groot, right, had been made redundant in January 2000 and her post replaced by both a cabinet secretary and a head of paid service.

LGC reported at the time: "Ms de Groot is regarded as strong and entrepreneurial, with good leadership skills. But council leader George Micklewright (Lab) said her qualities had nothing to do with her departure."

People close to the process now say though that there were tensions between the two. Neither responded to requests for comment.

A proposal accepted by the council in December 1999 opted for the head of paid service role to lie with the director of central support services, who would manage all chief officers including the cabinet secretary.

Mr Micklewright told LGC at the time: "It is absolutely an issue of structure. The tension involved in having one [chief executive] position which has both the primary responsibility of supporting the executive while at the same time being the impartial person responsible for making sure everything functions effectively and equitably is very difficult."

Diane Bunyan (Lab), left, who voted in favour of the deletion of the chief executive role in 1999, restored the post in 2002 after she became leader.

She says now: "When the post was deleted it was part of a general reorganisation when we moved to a cabinet model. The argument was that more powers should rest with the executive members than with officers, so we had a cabinet secretary who served the cabinet."

Ms Bunyan now thinks such a model might have worked in other places with different people, but was a failure in Bristol.

"It left the council with no leadership and I felt when I became leader that I had no clear way of getting action across the council," she says.

"Changing culture and direction became impossible because there wasn't the structure.

"I wanted to bring different parts of the council together. For example we had a major redevelopment of the shopping centre and I wanted it to be not just a planning issue but to bring in housing and social cohesion, and that was very difficult to do. It also made it difficult to drive through changes in performance management."

Ms Bunyan says there were several grounds for the commission's 'weak' assessment of the council, but the absence of a chief executive did not help to address them,

Nor does she recommend the 'chiefless' model to other councils. "When I look at places like Wiltshire now, where they seem to want to have a sort of 'first among equals' officer, I'm really not sure that will work," she says.

"I do a lot of consultancy work internationally, and I have never seen that model work successfully."

Nick Gurney, who became chief executive when the post was restored, moving from the same role at Portsmouth City Council, says: "I believe that a local authority needs a chief executive.

"It is not the same otherwise, because you need someone who can appraise and if necessary discipline chief officers and you need some background and training for that, which it is unlikely a council leader would have."

Mr Gurney says the tendency of councils towards having departmental silos can cripple an organisation if those boundaries become too strong.

"Dispensing with the role of chief executive is a mistake. I found silo-ism [in Bristol] was rife," he recalls.