Hurting bad: the council cutting itself to shreds

When Andrea Hill checked into her hotel, she obviously was not thinking how it might look to the taxpayers who paid her salary.

The chief executive of Suffolk county council had gone to Dorset for the Local Government Association conference in Bournemouth last summer. She took an executive sea-view room at the four-star Haven hotel in the ultra-wealthy area of Sandbanks, overlooking Poole harbour, at £205 a night.

Meanwhile, senior councillors from Suffolk, to whom Hill reported, stayed in more modest accommodation near the Bournemouth conference centre that cost £85 a night.

Nor did Hill seem unduly worried about what taxpayers might think when she lavished hundreds of pounds of public money on a set of publicity photographs and £14,188 on a leadership adviser who gave her lessons in how to do her job better.

These expenses were to come back and bite Hill when she tried to push through the council’s policy of aggressive cuts to public services. Stories of her personal excess contributed to the failure of that policy through the country’s first Tory-led cuts revolt.

Last week it was decided that Hill should remain on leave while an investigation into her management style and expenses was conducted. So much for those leadership lessons.

Indeed, the council has become emblematic of everything that can go wrong with local government, from overmighty and overpaid chief executives to elected councillors trying to enact policies — especially ones connected with cuts — that they haven’t thought through properly.

As the government pushes ahead with its plan for more “localism”, many will wonder whether Suffolk’s experience is a huge flashing warning sign.

Hill was hired in 2008 by the then Conservative leader, Jeremy Pembroke, to spearhead plans to turn Suffolk into a “virtual council” that would outsource every service possible and make savings everywhere else — amounting to £44m this year and more in years to come. The council currently employs 28,000 people; by the end of the outsourcing programme it aimed to have as few as 500 core staff.

In many ways the policy had sound roots. Reduced central funding meant budget savings had to be made and “the services councils provide have always changed”, says Guy McGregor, a long-standing Tory councillor and member of Suffolk council’s cabinet.

“In the distant past councils provided electricity and phone services. That’s no longer a function,” he says. “We want to get local communities to take ownership of some of our services to provide them more efficiently.”

The council also thought it was marching to the coalition government’s drumbeat.

Ministers visiting the area, says McGregor, agreed that what Suffolk was trying to do was “in line with the big society”.

The protests soon started, though. Locals, including the authors Baroness Ruth Rendell and Louis de Bernières, took to the streets over the threat to close 29 libraries and others voiced concern about the future of council-run care homes.

Even local Tory MPs were dismayed. One, who didn’t want to be quoted on council matters, says: “If I can put it mildly, this was a county council that was not used to this kind of leadership. The style was confrontational. They seemed to be saying to people, look — take over this service yourselves or we will close it.”

The issue that appears to have caused the greatest upset was school crossings: some 1,400 lollipop ladies were going to lose their jobs. It didn’t take long for people to notice that the entire amount saved would be slightly less than Hill’s salary of £218,000 a year.

A hired gun who didn’t even live in the county, Hill soon came to eclipse Pembroke, the elected leader. For as long as people were behind the policy she promoted, that might not have been a problem. But public protests put pressure on Conservative backbenchers and local Tory MPs, who in turn piled pressure onto Pembroke. He resigned at the beginning of April.

This left the unelected Hill free to exercise power without responsibility — because she can’t be kicked out by electors.

They were infuriated when she declined to take the 10% pay cut that Eric Pickles, the local government minister, demanded of all council chiefs earning more than £200,000 a year. She said she had already forgone salary increases to which she was entitled. One letter writer to a local paper noted that the “cuts seem to be from the bottom up”.

A petition calling for her pay to be cut was withdrawn from the council’s website after just one day because it was not within the authority’s power to alter an employment contract, according to Eric Whitfield, Suffolk’s monitoring officer.

The council then went into freefall, first farcically and then tragically.

At the end of March, Whitfield quit the council, as did Graham Dixon, the director of resource management. The next day Pembroke stood down as leader and three days later David White, Whitfield’s acting replacement, was found dead in an apparent suicide. It is unclear whether his action was the result of pressure of work or for entirely personal reasons, but a whistleblower has reported devastatingly low morale among council workers. This forms part of the investigation into Hill’s regime.

So Suffolk remains without a chief executive, although it does have a new Conservative leader who took over at the end of last month. Mark Bee, who was not previously part of the cabinet, has indicated that he regards his election as a mandate to rethink policy and the management team.

His first move shows he may have more political nous than those who preceded him: he suggested that perhaps the school lollipop ladies should be reprieved.

Additional reporting: Francesca Angelini.

950 words. First published 12 June 2011. © Times Newspapers Ltd.