Fringe Box



Insight: Lead from the Front on Values

Published on: 18 Apr, 2024
Updated on: 9 May, 2024

Bernard Quoroll

Part 2 of open letter from former local authority CEO Bernard Quoroll to the new joint CEO for Guildford and Waverley, Pedro Wrobel.

See also Part 1: Guildford Needs You to Succeed

In Part 1 of my letter I described the Council as being overconfident about its own abilities and lacking in basic humility. It seemed to me that hubris drowns out an ability to listen, reflect, and learn from misjudgements.

GBC is not good at looking back. Nor even simply saying sorry.

Good at ticking boxes, Guildford does not live up to its own values, especially in relation to transparency. The ongoing saga of the Surrey University ransom strip is only the latest example.

Leading from the front on values is a key role for chief executives, but most previous ones have seemed anonymous; more like caretakers than leaders.

Its elected leaders have in turn seemed distracted by confrontational politics, rather than the pressing need of the communities they serve.

Pedro Wrobel

GBC’s front-line staff and of course, the public at large deserve better leadership.

But doing things better is not an overnight task. Beware bold statements about fixing things because GBC’s needs are deeply rooted, and change will take time.

Leading with political and managerial integrity is a task no chief executive can do alone. It can only be achieved within a sustainably different style of partnership between elected people and paid officers – one in which members are not inadvertently treated like children and officers welcome and encourage constructive challenge and ideas not made at home.

It takes more than just managerial skills.

No journey of improvement can begin unless GBC senior politicians and managers understand where they are now. Self-awareness does not come from superficial staff surveys or sending out questionnaires to the public, or even from peer studies. It begins with genuine curiosity about why GBC lacks respect as an organisation.

Sadly, GBC shows few signs of the self-awareness needed for such a journey or of much ability to reflect at a deeper level than it has achieved so far.

When did GBC last invite its citizens to an open, state-of-the-borough public meeting? When did it identify directors and service heads to go out and get first-hand knowledge of its communities, alongside the local member?

Citizens will not come to you. Your job is to go out and find them.

How often does the council take an opportunity to reflect quietly on its performance, away from the busy round of decision-making? When has the council ever taken time out to consider what community leadership might mean?

Training sessions, and stuffing heads with the rules and regulations just after an election don’t cut it. Learning the Nolan Principles and how to complain about a councillor do not even come close.

What does come closer is trying systemically to answer those constant nagging questions, “How did we do just then?”, “Could we have done it better?”, “How would I feel if that was just done to me?”

I will not attempt to record all of GBC’s mismanaged projects and lost opportunities as I see them. Others will see them differently and there is room for disagreement.

The most obvious ones for me though are the whole botched Local Plan process, (which lacks key policies), the lack of a Town Centre and Riverside Vision, lost partnership opportunities around G Live, Debenhams, North Street, Solum, the failed (and costly) Christmas Market, both Guildford Footbridges (but especially the necessity for, design, and cost of the Walnut Bridge vanity project), weak partnerships with key players in the borough.

I am running out of space. But I will just mention one potential car crash in the form of GBC’s agreement to fund Thames Water’s sewerage works at Slyfield. It is a transaction fraught with financial risk and likely to lead to tears.

I hope I am wrong about that.

I am also fearful that in its rush to reduce its burden of debt, the council will engage in a fire-sale of assets, without adequate forethought to maximising value.

Finally on this topic, I will mention that getting up to speed on planning determination performance is only a small part of an improvement journey. Real progress can only be measured in the care with which evaluations are undertaken, the respect given to neighbour representations and the added value which comes from a creative and proactive approach which sees every application as an opportunity to improve the built environment.

What kind of local authority spends millions of pounds on County Council responsibilities with no obvious quid quo pro for borough council taxpayers? (It has felt at times more like a feudal relationship than one between two public bodies of equal legal standing).

How did a wealthy council mismanage its finances so fundamentally that it now teeters on bankruptcy?

Posting a non-existent sum to reserves, so large that it must have looked like an elephant galloping across the page; restructuring so ineptly as to deprive itself of central financial oversight; failing to spot massive overruns on housing expenditure over an extended period.

This is basic stuff – the sort of thing that you might hope not to see in a banana republic.

I do not want GBC to draw a line under it and move on. I want GBC to learn from it by forensically describing what went wrong and publicly describing what is being done to put it right.

That is likely to mean or include restructuring to ensure staff with the right skills are in post; reviewing and rewriting financial controls to prevent a recurrence; training, or retraining staff at oversight and budgetary management levels to make sure that performance is consistent. It should include a refresher on the black arts of business planning and resource management, all within a hierarchy of directorate and corporate plans.

Most of all it should demonstrate that GBC has a visible coordinated plan to achieve a vision for the future of the town and villages, all of which are characteristically different.

Please check back next week for the final part of Bernard Quoroll’s open letter in which he will look at what the council does well, his experience as an “Independent Person” at GBC, the impact of changes forced on the council,  the council’s structure and public awareness.

Share This Post

Responses to Insight: Lead from the Front on Values

  1. Jim Allen Reply

    April 18, 2024 at 8:26 am

    On behalf of the numerous contributors to this platform who have endured, over years, a disheartening lack of response epitomised by this “report” from someone with extensive experience and who has real insight as a former GBC appointed “independent person”, we regret to inform you that our concerns have not been adequately addressed.

  2. Ben Paton Reply

    April 18, 2024 at 8:54 am

    Guildford Borough Council, the Post Office, the Home Office. All led by lawyers who don’t know the difference between being legal and being truthful just and honest.

    A plague on all their houses but especially the lawyers.

  3. Pete Bennett Reply

    April 18, 2024 at 1:00 pm

    While it is difficult to disagree with anything that Bernard says, I believe that he fails to address the elephant in the room.

    The council is secretive, never apologises, doesn’t make an effort to actively listen, fails to adequately plan and fails to deliver. Few people would argue with that, but that is because the politicians who are supposed to provide direction and oversight are too busy trying to score political points or prevent points being scored against them to do their jobs properly.

    Poll specialists have decided that apologising makes a politician look week. Doing nothing is better than doing something that could go wrong. Say nothing in case it could be used against you.

    We all hope that Pedro Wrobel can make a real impact in his new role, but there is a limit to what he can achieve. It is the confrontational nature of national politics that is spilling over and killing effective local democracy.

    The real difference between rosette colour at local level is virtually nil, but this broken system has very good councillors across the political spectrum twiddling their thumbs because they wear the wrong colour.

    Pete Bennett is the chair of the Residents for Guildford and Villages

Leave a Comment

Please see our comments policy. All comments are moderated and may take time to appear.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *