Courier 24 March 2006 Page 9
by Mary Harris
The Audit Commission's comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) seemed a "very long time ago", said the chief executive of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council, but the full force of its shock waves was felt this week.
Some 18 jobs, including directors and senior managers, are to be axed in an overhaul which could tot up to £1.6million in payouts and pensions.
At a meeting of the full council the restructure was agreed behind closed doors. The decision to ban the press and public from the debate was defended by council leader Cllr Melvyn Howell, who said it was in order to "treat staff properly".
The CPA in 2004 contained searing criticism of the council, describing it as lacking vision, reluctant to take difficult decisions, remote and complacent.
It rated it as weak and placed it 218th out of the 237 councils country-wide, warning that improvement would come only if the authority changed its approach and made better use of its resources.
Before the launch of the restructure consultation Cllr Howell told the Kent and Sussex Courier that the changes would make the authority "fit for purpose" so it could deliver its newly-defined priorities which "reflect what the community is saying".
The jobs to be axed included high-profile positions of director of operational services, finance director and deputy chief executive, and head of marketing and tourism.
Many of the officers have served the council for upwards of 10 years and, according to Lib Dem group leader Cllr David Mills, the loss of "extremely able people will adversely affeet the council's ability to operate effectively in the future".
The changes will pave the way for three new directorates headed up by highly-skilled directors with strong backgrounds.
Cllr Mills added: "We accept there is a case for some change.
"It is clearly necessary to ensure that the council is run as efficiently as possible while continuing to. provide all the statutorily-required services."
However, he said:. "Although there haye been some changes to the cabinet, those principally responsible for the council's weak classification remain in post. The council's problems are unlikely to be resolved while this is so."
He believed the restructuring appeared to be in some ways "putting two fingers up to the criticisms" of the CPA. "In particular, one of the more serious criticisms of the council was the inadequacy of the training provided especially to councillors. This is no time drastically to reduce the training function."
He added: - "Staff have felt, undervalued and that their goodwill has been abused. Unison has suggested [in a letter to all councillors] that "the quality and timeliness of communications has been poor" and it easy to see how such a judgement was reached.
Chief executive Sheila Wheeler told the Kent and Sussex Courier on Wednesday [22.03.2006] that major change was painful and would continue to be so for the authority for some time.
She acknowledged "completely" that the impact on officers and their families was "very significant". "We have tried to support and work with those affected by providing career transition support and counselling packages," she said.
"The consultation was carried out over a month according to a published timetable and process.
"As was made clear at the outset, I made myself available throughout for discussions with individuals and groups of staff," she said.
What must not be forgotten however, Ms Wheeler said, was the CPA's "very strident wake-up call" to the council.
"In seeking to ensure both that this authority moves forward as speedily as possible as well as minimising the burden of that change on the taxpayer, some very difficult decisions have had to be taken.
"This has meant redirecting resources, people and funding to our priority areas as articulated by our councillors, central government and our Community Plan partners," she said.
The structure of the council had to recognise and respond to those criteria and this had resulted in the loss of some posts and the creation of new roles where "we have identified we lack capacity to deliver for the future", said the former government trouble-shooter.
"Inevitably morale has been affected, but Tunbridge Wells Borough Council has a highly qualified and talented workforce with a commitment to making things better.
"This is a good story and a tremendous foundation on which to build for the future," said Ms Wheeler.
By the end of yesterday (Thursday, 23.03.2006) all the redundancy interviews were completed, with redundancy notices due to be given today (Friday, 24.03.2006).
The directors posts are already being advertised with heads of services due to follow. The three new director posts are advertised on the Local Government Chronicle website, with a salary package each of up to £88,000.
With a closing deadline of April 19, the council seeks directors of change and business support, services to the community, and planning and development under the headline: "Change. Improve. Transform."
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The Telephone House Neighbours Association, Tunbridge Wells
The aims are to heighten peoples' awareness and concern for the high-density development on Telephone House site, Church Road / York Road, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, TN1.