2019 will be remembered in West Sussex for a long time. Although the situation had been getting progressively more difficult at WSCC over the last two to three years, the speed with which things unravelled for the former chief executive Nathan Elvery was still a surprise.
‘Away from duties’
To recap: the chief executive, Nathan Elvery, was said to be ‘away from duties’ though the Local Government Chronicle reported he had been suspended. He has now left WSCC by ‘mutual consent’. The leader of the council, Louise Goldsmith, has resigned. The director of HR, Heather Daley, resigned her position but was absent from work for her notice period.
This will mean three changes absolutely critical for staff and UNISON. Cllr Paul Marshall has been elected leader of WSCC. UNISON has its first meeting with Paul at the end of January. And current East Sussex CC chief executive Becky Shaw has been asked to jointly manage both councils. We look forward very much to meeting Becky and working in close partnership with her. The director of HR position will need to be recruited to – another key appointment.
Problems at WSCC do go back a long way. The previous leader followed all the ideological innovations of the coalition government – with disastrous consequences. Council services were mutualised, outsourced, and cut. Council tax was frozen, which undermined the tax base. The council under her leadership championed academisation and the little-lamented ‘Big Society’. Trade union facility time was cut.
But it was in the last two to three years that the slide was really felt by staff to have accelerated. UNISON was publicly taken to task by the former chief exec because we objected to the expansion of the ‘culture board’ and staff groups without involvement of UNISON or robust terms of reference. ‘Lanyardgate’ followed and was an object lesson in how not to communicate with staff, as a library assistant was upbraided on a public forum for challenging a decision to purchase lanyards.
Controversies came thick and fast: on parking, on increments, on performance-related pay for managers, on retention payments, on executive turnover, on the staff appeals panel, on the chief executive’s £47,500 relocation payment for a property he did not relocate to. A staff survey highlighted an organisational culture where staff were fearful to speak up. The trade unions were marginalised and excluded from some of the key decisions we would expect involvement in. Then 2019 saw dire statutory inspection reports of both children’s services and fire & rescue. Services desperately needed improvement and felt to staff like they were at breaking point.
If this was not enough, bullying was a major problem. It was mostly identified at senior levels within the organisation by UNISON and in the commissioner’s report. UNISON has dealt with seven grievances for very senior staff. These are only the cases we have supported. Some very senior staff do not join unions, and we are aware of several other cases of alleged bullying where UNISON was not involved. UNISON did support our members. We did advise cabinet members and the executive leadership what was going on, but action was not taken. So we told the public and the press by speaking out at two public select committee meetings. The first of these was on 10 July 2019 [since publication of Branch Lines this web content has now expired due to time restrictions.]
The children’s commissioner’s report following the Ofsted inspection was delayed, but was finally published just before Christmas. This also confirmed what staff and UNISON knew.
The previous few years have been incredibly difficult for staff. They have also been difficult for your trade union. What went on at West Sussex was not normal. Nor was it acceptable. We now have, all of us, a huge and urgent opportunity to put things right.
A better future for staff
UNISON is looking forward to a better future for staff, and normalised industrial relations as part of that. UNISON wishes to acknowledge the large contribution Lee Harris made to steadying the ship whilst the previous chief executive was ‘away from duties.’ Lee stepped up as acting chief executive and into a very challenging situation, probably none worse in local government. Important decisions were taken in regard to increments and the single ‘formal action policy’, which are explained further in January’s edition of Branch Lines. The groundwork was also done for what we anticipate will be significant positive progress on local pay, and for meaningful work to be carried out with UNISON involvement to address organisational culture including the bullying problem.
UNISON looks forward to working with Becky Shaw on these matters, and continuing the positive relations with Lee Harris and others, in the new year ahead of us.
UNISON members can take heart that, through thick and thin, we will always be there to support you at work even in the toughest of circumstances.