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'Baddie' behind county's woes or firm leader with thankless task?

By West Briton  |  Posted: January 10, 2013

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FOR some, the goings-on at County Hall are akin to a panto with Kevin Lavery cast as the baddie, booed and hissed at every opportunity.

The softly spoken Geordie was a controversial appointment in November 2008, mainly due to his £200,000-plus salary.

Even as he prepares to leave Cornwall, an outsider reading comments on blogs and social media sites might believe the 52-year-old was responsible for all the county's ills.

Yet, while he has overseen some high-profile projects which have not proved successful, he has equally provided firm leadership as the council faced some of the deepest cuts yet seen.

Mr Lavery was thrown in at the deep end, managing the creation of the unitary authority which replaced the former County Council and six district councils.

He has since had to steer the council through government funding cuts and bring some key services up to scratch.

Asked whether these successes had been forgotten and underappreciated, he said: "Definitely. I don't think people really have the perspective. They don't realise we've lost £170 million a year, that we've had a more than 30 per cent reduction in our grant and the [council] tax has only increased by 2.9 per cent over the past three years, so that's just 1 per cent a year.

"That's really good value for money if you compare it with travel, oil and other companies; all of them have had double-digit increases, some well in excess of 20 per cent, in that period. We've only taken £11 million out of frontline services.

"The staff have done a fantastic job in the circumstances, and I don't think the public fully appreciates that. Perhaps we're to blame for not getting the message across well enough, but we're not getting shortlisted for prizes for nothing. If it happened once or twice it might be a bit of luck, but to happen on such a regular basis it's not luck."

Mr Lavery admits the decision to leave has not been easy – especially as his family has made a home here – but said he was headhunted for his new post as chief executive of Wellington City Council in New Zealand's capital and offered the opportunity just after a key council vote to remove Conservative leader of the council Alec Robertson in the row over plans to part-privatise some council services.

"I wasn't really looking to leave, I wasn't exploring opportunities at the time, it kind of came out of the blue. If I'm honest, I got an approach from a headhunter the day after Alec Robertson was ousted, so probably they caught me at a time that I was feeling a bit unsettled.

"I think in my head, where I was, probably last summer I decided that I would look to do five years at Cornwall, that I would wait for the elections in May, bed the new administration in and then look for something. But, obviously, with all the turmoil with the leadership and getting an approach, it was just fortuitous at a time.

"Once I looked into it I had a couple of interviews on Skype, etc, and just became more excited, went out to Wellington and thought, 'yes, this is a fantastic opportunity for me and it's worth taking advantage'. It was all about the timing."

Mr Lavery said it was not dissimilar to how he came to be in Cornwall, describing it as "an adventure".

He believes his skill set is no longer suited to the position the council finds itself in and he would not be comfortable working in the environment he sees for the future of the council.

One key criticism has been his salary, which, at more than £200,000, dwarfs the pay of most people in Cornwall.

But he says he's worth it. "At the end of the day I feel I am worth my salary, to be frank about it, I think the obsession with it is probably more a feature of today's blame culture. But a good chief exec is worth paying for because you reap that salary in days not months.

"When I first arrived we had a £12 million black hole and in our first year we balanced the books.

"Your salary as a chief exec is repaid on things like that.

"Frankly, pay good money, get good people and good value for money – it's obvious really. Most people would understand that."

Recently, Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles published a document of 50 things local councils should do to save money – including axe the role of chief executive.

"I think it's complete nonsense," said Mr Lavery. "The difficult things we do, we have had to take £170 million out of our budget, we have had to fix major council service failings, it is obvious in that situation you need managers who can look across the organisation and pull it together, bang heads together, make good decisions and carry on. Frankly, these are not the times to remove that position, because we're not through the difficult times yet.

"I think it's more around popular decisions and having a go at people on high salaries, but the reality is councils need their chief execs. By the way, communities and local government has got a chief executive, a permanent secretary …."

His tenure has included several high-profile projects stalling or being beset with problems – the proposed stadium, problems at the airport and the project which has probably led to his decision to leave, the shared-services joint venture.

Mr Lavery said delivering such projects at a local council would always be difficult as you have to work with a "board" with 123 members, all with their own views and opinions.

But it was shared services he talked most about.

The project had been drawn up over almost 18 months and it was only when the council looked to issue a tender for the contract that councillors raised their concerns and voted to backtrack on the proposals to have services such as IT and libraries provided by a private firm, most likely BT.

"I was uncomfortable with the last-minute nature of the changes being made, because it wasn't exactly a quiet project – it had been open and discussed in your paper for at least a year and I think it would have been better for all concerned if these issues had been raised much earlier than they were."

Asked whether he thought councillors had trouble understanding the nature of the project, he said: "I think there was, certainly, not a great deal of understanding and you could tell from the comments being made that they didn't get it. But perhaps that was our fault.

"We worked very hard, we had several full council sessions very early in the project, we had a special scrutiny committee looking at it for over a year, we had members from each party involved in a working group on it, so we bent over backwards to involve members because we knew that it would be moving into new territory."

He strongly denied he was in favour of all public services being privatised – as some critics have suggested – and said he had an open-minded approach with an aim of getting value for money and good services.

"I am open-minded, they're the people who are struggling to think outside the box by thinking that it can only be provided by the public sector. If that was the case we wouldn't be spending £450 million with local companies in Cornwall – we would be manufacturing our own pencils in a factory and we would be manufacturing our own IT equipment – we don't do that because we couldn't do it, we don't have the expertise, it doesn't provide good value for money and therefore it doesn't make sense to customers or our taxpayers."

Mr Lavery paid tribute to his staff and said the management team at County Hall would be ready to "step up" when he leaves at the end of March.

He feels his successor will have firm foundations to build on and praises councillors for being able to take "tough decisions".

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