Thanet council leader calls in central government to deal with governance at the authority

Council leader Ash Ashbee

Thanet council leader Ash Ashbee has called in central government to step in to deal with the culture at the council by “request(ing) the assistance of DHCLG to, in the public interest, regularise the governance of TDC”.

The letter, sent to Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government (DHCLG) comes amid on-going disciplinary and grievance proceedings at the authority which have racked up a legal bill of more than £733,000.

Of costs incurred to June, £114,000 relates to overall process management, £111,000 to internal processes under the council’s control and £22,000 for external employment tribunals.

Future anticipated/potential costs are split between £78,000 to conclude Thanet council internal processes and £408,000 for external employment tribunals.

A review into Thanet District Council’s finances has also revealed “significant challenges” due to a further erosion of reserves.

In a report due to be discussed by cabinet members on Thursday, “multiple financial risks” facing the local authority are highlighted as well as the need to take steps to improve financial management.

Cllr Ashbee said: ” Since I took over the Leadership of Thanet District Council on 3rd June 2021 it has become apparent to me that the governance of this local authority is not acceptable in its present form.

“Following a meeting with the then Secretary of State for Local Government in Margate at the beginning of the month, I have now written to the new Secretary of State Michael Gove to formally invite MHCLG to provide the intervention necessary to rectify the situation.

“I have done so in what I believe to be in the public interest and in the interest of the residents and businesses of Thanet.”

In March Thanet councillors on the Governance and Audit Committee called for action ‘sooner rather than later’ to review the culture at the authority.

Then-committee chairman Mike Garner said the review, which was pencilled in for 10 days in the 2021-22 financial year, needs to be “prioritised.”

The Thanet Green Party member added: “My suggestion is that it is one of the first things that is done.”

But the review could not take place until the conclusion of the investigations into staff grievances and disciplinary processes being dealt with by the Investigations & Disciplinary Sub-Committee (IDSC). It was said that this would cause an overlap and mean certain issues could not be discussed openly.

There have also been complaints and counter complaints involving all four of the top management team – CEO Madeline Homer, Gavin Waite, Tim Willis and monitoring officer Tim Howes, who has been suspended from his post since last December.

Mr Willis had also been subject to a suspension in 2019 but was subsequently cleared of all allegations.

There is at least one staff grievance that has been dragging on since 2019 and is still to reach a conclusion.

The situation has prompted Cllr Ashbee to call for the government intervention.

However, council chief executive Madeline Homer said staff are ‘shocked’ at the news.

She said: “ Staff are shocked and surprised at this action by the Leader, which appears to have been taken without cross party consultation and support, and certainly without discussion with the senior management team.

“The council is nearing the conclusion of various grievance and disciplinary matters, with the full knowledge and support of both the external auditor and the Leader, who is herself a member of the relevant grievance and disciplinary committees.

“However, the council will provide all the information that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government  (MHCLG) requires in order to act in the best interests of Thanet, its residents and businesses.”

Thanet Labour Party leader Rick Everitt said his party is calling for Cllr Ashbee to resign and says she “is running away from her responsibilities as leader and seeking political cover from the Conservative government when she should be taking charge herself.”

Cllr Everitt said he has previously asked the external auditor to report on the governance and culture of the organisation, which she is due to do soon, and says he is concerned that this is an attempt to replace proper process with a political fix.

He added: “I am worried that her action will cost the council taxpayers even more money if it cuts across individuals’ employment rights and that it will affect the chances of the Ramsgate levelling-up bid succeeding, because it will undermine confidence in Thanet at central government level.

“”Cllr Ashbee hasn’t even had the courtesy to discuss her actions with me, which is very disappointing because the working relationship between the two main parties has been good since 2019 and that includes between the two of us. I am sorry that she has now chosen to act in this partisan way and it seems to me she is being influenced by senior Conservatives and others with a limited understanding of the issues rather than making her own judgements.

“Calling in the ministry is a straightforward admission that she can’t do her job. That being the case, she should resign and make way for someone who can.”

North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale

However the leader’s actions have been backed by North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale, who said: “Cllr Ashbee has acted entirely within her remit as an elected representative and Leader of Thanet District Council.  She has my full support in the action she has taken.”

Thanet Green Party councillors have also expressed support for Cllr Ashbee’s decision.

Cllr Garner said: “It has been clear for a very long time that action needed to be taken on this serious issue.

“Indeed, we were elected in May 2019 on a platform that included addressing it and we’ve been calling for openness and transparency.

“Recently we have seen legal costs associated with the ongoing IDSC continue to rise past the £750k mark and will later this week hear about other  significant financial risks which could see our reserves reduce to an unacceptably low level.

“We hope that this intervention will finally enable us to resolve the longstanding governance and culture issues at the council and to work for the benefit of all the residents of Thanet.”

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, (formerly the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government) ,spokesperson said: “We are aware of the concerns raised about Thanet Council’s governance and will remain in close contact with the council.”

GMB Trade Union backing

Frank Macklin, Regional Organiser for the GMB Trade Union said “The GMB Trade Union welcomes the news that the Leader of Thanet Council has written to the Government to set out her concerns that are shared by the GMB Trade Union.

“This is a truly brave move that will see Councillor Ashbee’s character and reputation attacked by others who could and should have acted sooner, I have written to Councillor Everitt to enquire what was the outcome of his own governance report that both he and Ms Homer, the Chief Executive of Thanet District Council, instigated with the Local Government Association over a year ago. I have asked if the report was ever completed and if it was, what was the outcome and recommendations.”

Mr Macklin says concerns about bullying were raised two years ago and one member who has made an allegation is now expected to see his role made redundant in a ‘restructure.’

He added: “Our GMB members outstanding complaints against (top officers) still remain unheard for over a year now and with Thanet District Council ignoring the recommendations of not one but two independent individuals recommending that all the outstanding complaints should be investigated as a matter of urgency. One of those independent individuals is a well respected QC So if Councillor Ashbee’s letter of concern means that Thanet District Council is finally investigated for poor management and governance, the GMB will offer our full support to this process.”

Mr Macklin said Cllr Everitt should work with the council leader rather than calling for her to resign, adding: “The GMB Trade Union will support Councillor Ashbee and any other body that supports the Government stepping in to sort out the many serious issues that we believe are  stopping Thanet District Council providing a safe working environment for its employees and providing a service that the local tax paying public can be proud of.”