Central government will not intervene in governance problems at Thanet council – for now – despite a request made by authority leader Cllr Ash Ashbee last year.
Last September Cllr Ashbee Ash Ashbee requested central government 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, initially sent to Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities, and Local Government (DHCLG), came amid on-going disciplinary and grievance proceedings at the authority which had, at that point, racked up a legal bill of more than £733,000.
In it Cllr Ashbee said: ”I write to formally to invite your Department to intervene and to provide such support and assistance, if necessary up to and including Special Measures, to rectify the situation and to restore governmental probity and financial stability to what, sadly, I believe at present to be a failing authority.”
However, following Freedom of Information requests made by Thanet Labour leader Rick Everitt to see the correspondence it has now been confirmed that central government will not become involved at this point.
Cllr Ashbee had initially declined to make the letters public, saying they were ‘personal.’
A letter from the department to Cllr Ashbee said: “As local authorities are independent of central government, Ministers have no remit to intervene in their day-to-day affairs, except where specific provision has been made in an Act of Parliament.”
The department said Thanet council should continue to work on the recommendations made following a damning report by external auditors Grant Thornton and seek advice from the Local Government Association.
External Auditors Grant Thornton had branded relationships between the authority’s top officers as in “serious breakdown” and listed a catalogue of failures within the council, including using disciplinary action against staff raising complaints; attempting to discredit criticism in independent reports; draining finances due to disciplinary and tribunal actions and causing significant reputational harm to those involved in prolonged grievance processes.
On November 2 Thanet District Council unanimously agreed to Grant Thornton’s four statutory recommendations – including bringing in the independent Monitoring Officer from a large local authority to carry out a risk assessment of the current employment tribunal claims and proposed actions including a detailed financial analysis of the options available to the council.
The letter from Kemi Badenoch MP, Minister of State for Equalities and Levelling Up Communities, concludes: “Once the appropriate local processes have concluded, should you feel further support is needed, I would be happy to consider what steps may be appropriate based on available evidence at that time.”
Cllr Everitt said: “Nobody disputes that serious issues had arisen between senior officers at Thanet that needed to be resolved in the interests of all residents, staff and councillors, but as the correspondence notes the processes to do with this were already in place.
“The processes to deal with the issues were all in train under Labour and did not change when the Conservatives took over last June. The Labour administration had liaised with the Local Government Association, which monitors councils for the government, throughout its 20 months in office and it had been able to provide government with reassurance, particularly around political stability and service delivery.”
However, Cllr Ashbee’s appeal for help had been backed by various councillors, including Green Party and Thanet Independent members, and the GMB union.
A Thanet council spokesperson said: “The council is making positive progress with activity included in its Action Plan, developed in line with the statutory recommendations from the external auditor to improve governance.
“We appointed an Independent Monitoring Officer in December who is overseeing progress and we welcome their support and advice.”
The monitoring officer, Quentin Baker, says he is focusing on the areas of concern raised within the external Auditors report and working to understand what happened and why. He is also working to support the resolution of the outstanding grievances to ensure these matters are concluded.
To assist with this process, Mr Baker has been speaking to a number of councillors, officers, external partners and external lawyers and reviewing documentation.
Initial observations confirm there had been a serious breakdown in relationships of the senior management team which had resulted in costly and time-consuming internal dispute.
The process is ongoing and further evidence is being gathered, with a view to producing final observations within the next month.
Mr Baker say action plan proposals include: reviewing the council’s constitution to ensure greater clarity between the role and involvement of officers and members, proposing the introduction of coaching and mentoring to the senior team and a corporate management restructure, and creating more mechanisms for council staff to provide ongoing feedback via surveys and a new panel.
Progress will continue to be reported back to the General Purposes Committee and shared with Councillors, staff and the wider public.