A memo leaked to the Local Government Chronicle says government advisers have suggested sending in commissioners to intervene at Thanet council.
The memo by staff at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities suggests using best value powers – allowing central government to intervene if a local authority is not making arrangements that are economic, efficient, and effective.
Only four councils since 2010 have previously been subject to this kind of intervention -Northamptonshire, Tower Hamlets, Rotherham and Doncaster – but now government is looking at use of the powers at Thanet and Northumberland and extend action at Liverpool.
The memo to Secretary of State Michael Gove says the the councils are “coming to crunch point soon”.
The LGC also reports that DLUHC’s memo says it is “preparing advice on the wider issues raised by the council’s external governance review, including on the potential use of best value powers.”
Top officers exit
The news comes as the last remaining officer of Thanet council’s senior management team has been suspended, meaning an unprecedented ‘clear out’ of the entire senior management team.
Gavin Waite, who is Director of Operational Services, is understood to have been suspended from his post on Monday (June 13).
The suspension follows the announcement on June 9 of chief executive Madeline Homer’s exit from Thanet council with an understood £327,000 severance payment.
The council’s Section 151 Officer and Director of Finance Chris Blundell has been appointed as Acting Deputy Chief Executive and took over Madeline Homer’s duties as Head of Paid Service with immediate effect.
His appointment is a short term arrangement to ensure the council meets its obligations to provide the statutory role of Head of Paid Service until an interim Chief Executive and Head of Paid Service is identified. An appointment is expected to be made at the next Full Council meeting on Thursday 14 July.
Report on authority failings
Madeline Homer’s exit came on the heels of an independent report into failings at the authority, which included ‘serious breakdown’ in relationships of the top management team and the use of disciplinary action against staff trying to raise complaints.
Last year external auditors Grant Thornton issued a report branding relationships between the authority’s top officers as in “serious breakdown” and listing a catalogue of failures within the council, including 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.
Thanet District Council unanimously agreed to Grant Thornton’s four statutory recommendations – including bringing in an independent Monitoring Officer.
A summary version of the report by Independent Monitoring Officer, Quentin Baker, was published last month and highlighted concerns such as the personal relationship between then-chief exec Madeline Homer and Gavin Waite; the hostile relationship between the top four senior officers and the pay out of more than £1.5m for redundancy or employment tribunal deals between 2015-2021..
On two occasions disciplinary proceedings were launched against members of the top management team -one of which resulted in a serious disciplinary sanction against Monitoring Officer Tim Howes, leading to his dismissal in April of this year and the other ending with a public apology and £280k severance deal for deputy chief Tim Willis who left the council last October.
A leaked document showed Mr Willis had lodged a grievance against Madeline Homer with accusations of systematic bullying, intimidation and victimisation.
Council leader request to government
Last September the situation at the council prompted TDC leader Ash Ashbee to ask for 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, 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. At that time the request was denied but the leaked memo suggests intervention is now being considered.