Fringe Box



Insight: The Council Should Not Be Marking Its Own Homework

Published on: 22 Apr, 2024
Updated on: 9 May, 2024

Bernard Quoroll

Part 3 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 and Part 2 Lead from the Front on Values

I should begin this part by saying that GBC does do some things quite well, particularly in delivering routine services and in some specific areas like recreation and countryside management where it more than matches its peers.  I am sure others could extend the list.

My concerns began many years ago and simply from personal experience of GBC’s performance as a planning authority in the place where I have lived for 27 years, a place under siege from inappropriate development.

It was a long time ago, but the legacy left by a planning authority that did not know basic technical
rules, did not answer letters, met straightforward questions with rudeness and treated opposition as
somehow delinquent, still stings.

I hope those days have passed but it is a salutary lesson for any service provider that the good things it does pass from memory quickly; mistakes have a long tail.

Pedro Wrobel the new joint CEO for Guildford & Waverley

Despite that experience, I volunteered to be one of GBC’s Independent Persons, hoping to share some
hard-won insights about behaviour in a political environment. I soon discovered that GBC was happy
just to go through mechanical procedures within a system designed to insulate the council from learning.

After five years of trying to encourage that learning, I decided to stop wasting my time. When I did so, no one showed the slightest curiosity about why I was withdrawing, even after five years of conscientious voluntary effort. This at a time when GBC was also burning through Monitoring Officers at a rate of more than one a year.

It seemed to me that some of them could not wait to get away.

When I described in detail why the whole system was unfit for purpose in The Dragon, nobody bothered even to try to disagree with me. In short, my proposition was, and is, that GBC’s complaints system is fundamentally unfit for purpose.

No amount of tinkering with the Constitution can change that. Why? Because the council should not be marking its own homework.

Worse, because it insulates the council from thinking about how to be a better council.

Not all of this is the council’s fault. Changes in structure, promoted by central government and
acquiesced to by local councils have reduced transparency, damaged accountability, and from an
organisational point of view, diminished the supply of leaders whose training is more than just generalist management.

Removal of an already feeble resource base has driven councils to adopt questionable short-
term fixes to find sources of funding. Councillors, who take ultimate responsibility, are busy civic-minded people with many calls on their time.

These things all conspire to distract councils from the day job. But it is an explanation not an excuse.

A good start would be urgently to re-examine how the council organises itself to undertake major projects. It seems to me to be one area where the council is at particular risk on past performance.

There are many aspects to this – understanding opportunities and risks on a whole council basis; understanding what skills are not available in-house and selecting and managing specialist advisors to be an integral part of GBC teams; project managing using recognised techniques for monitoring and control and much more.

As an outsider, I would be the first to say that I do not know in any detail how GBC manages projects now but there are enough signs to suggest to a new chief executive that this could be an area of vulnerability.

Some of those projects should also be led directly by or within the chief executive’s department to ensure that what every department knows, is considered as a project progresses. Some previous CEOs have seemed to me to be more like bystanders in this respect.

Another would be to look again at how the council is structured. There was no great upswing of support for cabinet government before it was introduced at the turn of the century. It was a central government invention in mimicry of a national model.

Some aspects were intended to increase efficiency by reducing double handling of decision-making. Others placed decision-making power in the hands of individuals rather than committees. Overall, it reduces the involvement and accountability of individual councillors, conflates the roles of elected people and paid officers, and substantially reduces transparency.

There were benefits but it must be asked, at what democratic cost? Perhaps an approach which extracts the best of both systems might have benefits. Not turning back the clock but rather calibrating it.

GBC tried reviewing their structure in 2015 but failed to introduce significant improvements. I still remember sitting in the public gallery when it was pointed out that the reason for initiating a review was a concern about the lack of interest by the public in council affairs.

Some puzzlement was expressed about how few of the public had responded to the consultation exercise, but no one wanted to explore why that might be so. I rest my case.

The only good news after all that is that the public are growingly aware of the existential nature of the crisis which faces local government which still allows some scope for forgiveness when things go wrong.

But I fear that things will get worse before they get better. Against that background, a council with many opportunities like Guildford could be better placed than most to achieve its potential, if it gets its act together.

I sincerely hope you are successful. Especially as you need to make your water twice, once in Guildford and once in Waverley!

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Responses to Insight: The Council Should Not Be Marking Its Own Homework

  1. Angela Richardson Reply

    April 22, 2024 at 12:37 pm

    I have valued reading Bernard Quoroll’s contributions, not only this three-part insightful open letter/ opinion piece, but many other opinion pieces he has had published in The Guildford Dragon.

    He manages to make reflections and offer constructive advice whilst maintaining political neutrality. Not an easy thing to do.

    Angela Richardson is the Conservative MP for Guildford.

  2. J Davies Reply

    April 22, 2024 at 5:29 pm

    From my experience I do not believe the performance of GBC planning authority has changed much. I live in a small private road in Effingham with a development of new houses taking place on our boundary. We are being treated with contempt.

    Enforcement of conditions attached to the development was weak, verging on non-existent. Some were ignored or changed to suit the developer without any reference to the neighbours.

    There is clearly a need for the enforcement of conditions attached to approved developments to be carried out by an independent body – not GBC, as suggested in the article.

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