Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Life at the top!

There are many weird and wonderful traditions on Barnet Council some of which have been in place since the Council was set up in 1965 others which have "developed" over the years and most of which add to the efficient running of the Council or the gaiety of Civic life or both.

One tradition that used to exist was that the immediate past Chief Executive's official portrait was hung in the corridor outside the Chief Executive's office. Leo Boland ended this tradition in 2001 when he ordered the removal of Max Caller's portrait from the Town Hall on the grounds (quite rightly) that Officers on the whole should remain anonymous and it is elected  members who should take all the glory.

Max Caller was the Chief Executive of Barnet Council when I was first elected and therefore I have judged
all subsequent Chief Executives of the various public bodies I have served on against him.

Before Mr Caller, Barnet had a Town Clerk, a lawyer who was a semi God like figure to staff and indeed Councillors. The two previous Town Clerks, Mr Williams and 
Mr Bennett, I don't even think their wives addressed them by their Christian names, still have there names painted on certain old statutory notices in parks and allotments with the phrase "by Order of the Town Clerk" etc... etc... and in their day it was by order !

Max Caller was not a solicitor in fact he was an extremely accomplished engineer who made his name in Barnet as an efficient Borough Engineer (a title now sadly replaced by some meaningless Assistant Director post ) and was the first to use the title "Chief Executive" because in those days the title "Town Clerk" needed a legal qualification . However he made up for this by wearing the Town Clerk's wig and gown on every possible civic occasion. Mr Caller whose post Barnet career took him to Hackney and briefly Haringey and earned him a CBE is now running the Local Government Boundary Commission and last time I saw him (inevitably at a funeral) was busy deciding the fate of the Councillors of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea who unwisely have requested a re-drawing of Ward Boundaries .

In the days before e-mail Councillors wrote letters to Officers about constituents issues and no matter how trivial the matter a Councillor always received a reply signed by Mr Caller in his distinctive green ink. Woe betide an Officer who was dealing with a member and did not keep the Chief Executive in the loop! Some considered Max a control freak I thought he just had a huge capacity for hard work, a knowledge of the Council second to none, an understanding of the pressures on Politicians, a first class brain, an ability to serve whomsoever the electorate had given him to work with and a remarkable attention to detail. So, what if he supposedly occasionally lost his temper, he never did with me and indeed was always willing to guide and encourage new Councillors. He did however drive Politicians of all Parties mad (from Lady Thatcher downwards) by his inability to finish an election count before the Western Isles constituency. Sadly this is another Barnet tradition which still exists!

Max was succeeded by the modernising Leo Boland (no wig and gown for him) whose expertise on strategy and policy development meant some of the attention to service delivery  detail shown by Mr Caller and important to most councillors and the public was left to others. Leo was a Chief Executive for the post 2000 Local Government Act, which created the dreadful Cabinet system era whereas, under Mr Caller Councillors of all Parties who phoned the Chief Executive were put through under Mr Boland the Chief Executive would "phone you back when his meeting had finished".

However Leo's wide knowledge of Local Government thinking and ability to interpret "New Labour" Government policy direction lead the Council to fundamentally examine how it was going to do business in the future. The disadvantage is that constant reorganisations seemed to promote the Marxist theory of revolutionary chaos and Councillors often had no idea who was responsible for certain services from one week to the next. Traditional Council  Officers (nicknamed men in cardigans by the Chief Executive) departed in droves with their pay-offs and pensions. Mr Boland was a Chief Executive who could deliver change and hence I was a passionate supporter of his appointment as Boris Johnson's Chief Executive at City Hall in 2009
, an appointment that sadly ended in tears, but that is a story for my forthcoming book.

Following Mr Boland came Nick Walkley. I did not serve on the Appointment panel , I do not think the then Leader trusted me to make the "right" decision and there was some disquiet amongst the ruling Group who perceived the new Chief Executive as far too close to the thinking of the Labour Government, he had spent a year on secondment at the Department of Communities and Local Government and far too susceptible to whatever Local Government fad was in favour that week, whatever did happen to "Total Place". Some less Charitable Conservative Councillors considered him the then Leaders "puppy" no doubt as a result of his habit of nodding his head enthusiastically during the Leaders speeches, but as he also did it during my speeches and indeed during virtually all members speeches I put it down to an in built politeness to elected members. I was however dubious that car owning Barnet could have a Chief Executive who did not drive !

But Mr Walkley proved to have balls and a surprising respect for Civic Life. His insistence that Council Directors should escort Councillors at Remembrance Day wreath laying ceremonies across the Borough and should fork out of their own pockets for tickets to the Mayor's Charity Dinner was a welcome change.

However it was clear that despite his strength of character and the most disgraceful and personalised abuse by the sad , mad and the thoroughly nasty (and supposedly angry) , all was not well in the State of Denmark, (I am fond of my Shakespeare) and the shock amongst Councillors at his sudden departure and for Haringey of all places is palpable. Perhaps they are old fashioned but some Councillors apparently think that for 200,000 a year a certain amount of loyalty to the Borough would not have been out of place. 

Having been appointed by an Administration lead by a radical and reforming Conservative Leader (Mike Freer) there is a theory that Mr Walkley was not as comfortable with a more traditional Conservative Leader determined not to throw out the baby with the bathwater who is more relaxed with Government at all levels doing less and achieving more .

Somehow I do not think Mr Walkley's portrait will be appearing on the wall of the Town Hall soon................

As for the future, does the Borough need a Chief Executive? After Leo Boland left City Hall the post was abolished, where Boris leads, Barnet should follow. On the other hand Max Caller is always open to a new challenge, green ink and all !

We still have his portrait in the attic I believe!


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