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Opinion: The Majority of People in GBC Have Had Enough of Failure

Published on: 14 May, 2024
Updated on: 16 May, 2024

Cllr Joss Bigmore

By Joss Bigmore

leader of the Residents for Guildford & Villages (R4GV) group at GBC

As the editor has commented, the damning Solace report should not come as a surprise to any reader of The Dragon.

See also: The Dragon Says – The Solace Report States the Obvious – Real Change is Needed Urgently

Guildford Borough Council has lurched from scandal to scandal for over 10 years: Monica Juneja; the Local Plan process; the accounting errors; and the issues in the Housing Service today are well-known examples.

We have also experienced countless other issues that haven’t gained wider attention, not helped by a seemingly annual change in monitoring officer [the statutory officer responsible for the legal governance of a local authority].

The organisation has serious cultural flaws that have either been ignored or ineffectually challenged and that has led to a local authority that has consistently underdelivered for its residents.

Cllrs Joss Bigmore and Julia McShane pictured at their handover of  GBC leadership in October 2022.

As R4GV leader, and leader of GBC for two years, I take my share of culpability. Our group tried hard, yet ultimately we failed to significantly change a culture that was resistant to challenge and seemingly devoid of the real accountability that the residents and businesses of Guildford deserve.

You only need to look at John Rigg’s public evisceration of the governance he inherited in the major projects department that resulted in millions of wasted tax payer’s money.

The campaigns that Maddy Redpath has driven highlighting the state of much of our social housing stock and the service (or lack of) our tenants experience, or the fact that Deborah Seabrook started a sub-committee of the Corporate Governance committee to specifically look at issues of Culture and Governance.

R4GV were not the only people aware of the issues nor the only ones that made attempts to change the status quo. Many of the officers, and other councillors (of all political affiliations) have attempted to make positive changes. Sadly, those attempts ultimately achieved little more than the equivalent of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

So why did those attempts fail? Simply this – too many councillors and officers didn’t even see there was a problem.

Universal acceptance that there is an issue, is a necessary precondition for improvement. You can have all the action plans in the world, but unless there is an acceptance that we need to change we can achieve nothing.

Pockets of officers, emboldened by support (or at least weak and ineffectual challenge) from councillors meant that issues were labelled “one-offs” or ignored because the GBC “knew better”.

Councillors that brought challenge were silenced through accusations of bullying or “you don’t understand this is how Local Authorities do things” type of arguments.

Could R4GV have pushed harder? In hindsight, obviously yes, but at the time when we were 16 councillors, in a chamber of 48 and 600 officers, many of whom didn’t want to acknowledge the issues, it was so hard to make real progress.

I am naturally an optimist, and I hope this report, as uncomfortable as it is to read, should be cathartic and drive positive change. There will be many who will be understandably sceptical that it will be another thing that is found under a rug in a few years, but I believe that the majority of people in GBC have had enough of failing our residents.

In a General Election year, there is going to be an awful amount of politicking over this report. I will briefly address the three arguments that seem to be prevalent:

1. “It was all fine when the Conservatives left office in 2019.”

This is so untrue as to be laughable. The Local Plan process was under the Conservative administration. There was a £20 million deficit in the Medium Term Financial Plan in 2019, with the inflight “Future Guildford” Corporate Transformation in place to save £6 million a year. The Housing stock had suffered from such a lack of investment over the years that it required a £50 million investment to get it back to the most basic of standards, and they left behind a bloated capital programme consisting of projects with unrealistic budgets, many of which should have been the responsibility of the county council.

2. “The collaboration with Waverley is the cause of all the issues.”

GBC officers going into WBC and vice-versa has accelerated the case for change in both authorities.

We are already stronger together, and the economies of scale of collaboration will benefit residents.

Having said which, I am shocked at the lack of progress since 2023. Political pressure on the Lib Dems in Waverley, and a lack of leadership in GBC has left both local authorities in limbo with all
momentum lost. This situation is untenable, it needs leadership and drive, else we are better off unwinding it.

3. “Cllr McShane should resign.”

To say Julia McShane is the cause of all the issues is farcical. But whether she has the skill and strength to lead the organisation through these changes is a question for her and her group.

She is well-meaning and a thoroughly decent person, but I am on the record voting for “no confidence” in her as a leader.

Her track record of listening to and acting on complaints and challenging officer’s behaviour is poor, despite sometimes overwhelming evidence, and that needs to change. However, ultimately it is all parties that need to take responsibility for the past failings of the council and we should be united in helping deliver this Action Plan. We might argue about priorities, but we should all agree that efficient delivery is a universal good and work together to achieve it.

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Responses to Opinion: The Majority of People in GBC Have Had Enough of Failure

  1. RWL Davies Reply

    May 14, 2024 at 1:41 pm

    An accurate summary of the ineptitude and incompetence that’s taken Guildford and its hinterland to where it is today.

    Can things “only get better”?

  2. John Ferns Reply

    May 15, 2024 at 12:59 pm

    “As R4GV leader, and leader of GBC for two years, I take my share of culpability…”

    Is this a first?

    It makes a refreshing change to read this; it cannot have been easy working in coalition with the Lib Dems, who have resembled a flock of comatose sheep ever since they jumped onto the North Street bandwagon.


  3. Jane Thomas Reply

    May 18, 2024 at 4:50 pm

    All the big consultancies like KPMG, Deloitte, PWC, Accenture know that you can’t implement anything unless you have the ‘change management’ team running alongside. If you don’t get buy in from those at the coal face forget it – you’re doomed to failure.

    So instead of blaming those that wouldn’t change perhaps what was needed was their buy-in at the beginning. The strategy to do this is not simply telling them things need to change. Changing mindset is a complex task especially if it’s over a considerable period of time.

  4. Matthew White Reply

    May 20, 2024 at 10:09 am

    I think it fair to say that I fall in the dissatisfied camp. But what is the solution and what do you need from residents to make the necessary changes?

    • Pete Bennett Reply

      May 22, 2024 at 9:03 am

      Join a political party? Our last two prime ministers have been chosen by 0.5 per cent of the population. This is even worse at a local level. You would be surprised at how much influence someone keen to make a difference can make within a local political party.

      Like Matthew White, I was dissatisfied but disengaged until the beginning of 2023. Now I have found myself chair of R4GV. If you care about Guildford, then get involved.

      Even if you don’t want to be a councillor, you get to see the reality behind the curtain and get to talk to the people who do have influence.

  5. Jim Allen Reply

    May 20, 2024 at 12:06 pm

    I’ve always found that “the management” would rather listen to paid outside consultants than ask those doing the job for their honest unfetter views. Perhaps the junior staff should be promoted rather than bring in outsiders.

    • John Perkins Reply

      May 21, 2024 at 9:44 am

      I think it’s called mule-covering.

      If a junior staff member is asked for something, management remains responsible, whereas, if a consultant is employed, culpability can be deflected there.

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