Entire county council ‘was under threat of being taken over’

Work to improve West Sussex County Council was ‘absolutely not something that will be done in a darkened room’, the new chief executive officer has said.

Becky Shaw, joint chief executive at East and West Sussex County Councils
Becky Shaw, joint chief executive at East and West Sussex County Councils

Becky Shaw, who took on the lead role in East and West Sussex this month, was speaking at her first cabinet meeting on Tuesday (January 14) where the recent report into children’s services was being discussed.

As well as recommending the services be taken from the council and run by a trust, the report, from commissioner John Coughlan, painted a depressing picture of the council as a whole.

Sign up to our daily SussexWorld Today newsletter

It described a ‘significant bullying problem’ from the top down, which was ‘especially destructive’, with poor communication doing nothing to help.

Communication was something Ms Shaw was keen to bring to the table as she worked to bring the council up to scratch.

She said: “There is significant work to be done. It’s absolutely not something that will be done in a darkened room and suddenly produced.

“It needs to be something that’s properly owned by all parts of this organisation.”

Ms Shaw said the next couple of months would be spent talking to people about the problems raised in the report to ‘make sure we have a good understanding of what’s needed’.

She added: “I think it’s really important that the approach we take is to build on the assets that we’ve got whilst recognising that there are some fundamental issues that also need to be addressed.

“I think its bearing both of those things in mind that will be the key to this.”

While the county council is set to lose direct control over children’s services the situation could have been much worse.

Jeremy Hunt, cabinet member for finance, said: “There was a threat it wasn’t only children’s services that could have been taken over - there was a threat that the whole council could be taken over.”

Labour group leader Michael Jones asked what steps had been taken to deal with the bullying highlighted by Mr Coughlan and called for a review of the council’s whistle-blowing policy ‘seeing as it clearly hadn’t uncovered the extent of what was going on’.

Bob Lanzer, cabinet member for economy & corporate resources, agreed with Mr Jones’ view that more work should be done with the trade unions, saying it would be beneficial.

When it came to fighting bullying, Mr Lanzer called on his fellow councillors to lead by example.

He said: “Bullying can be overt, it can be covert, it can take so many different forms.

“The way we behave at the highest level – by which I mean in full council debate, in cabinet and in scrutiny – can influence the behaviour of others.

“What we do can cascade in behavioural terms through an organisation. We have to be mindful of that.”

While nowhere near as bad as the braying walrus sounds that regularly overshadow the goings-on in Parliament, meetings at County Hall are often peppered with muttered comments and sarcastic put-downs when opposition councillors stand to speak.

Mr Lanzer said: “We can go for the acerbic put-down, we can be too defensive or we can listen to what people have to say.

“I think we need to come across as individuals as not being too difficult to disagree with. It should be possible to disagree with us and feel safe in doing so.

“That includes our reaction to opposition members who after all represent a substantial amount of the population but who are under-represented on this council by virtue of the electoral system, in my opinion.”

It was advice that leader Paul Marshall also applied to working with officers.

He said councillors needed to be ‘less adversarial and more inquisitorial’, adding: “Be advocates for them, recognise that they are the experts in their field. By all means hold them to account but recognise they’re the experts.

“They’re not there for any political reason other than to furnish this council with the intelligence and the evidence base and the knowledge to help the political institution make decisions.

“So when we talk about bullying, we politically have a part to play. This is an improvement journey that all of us have to go on.”

Mr Marshall said there would be ‘a period of inquiry’ while the council worked out how to address the ‘challenges’ it faced, telling the meeting they should have a ‘good understanding’ of where they stood by March or April.

He added: “We have over 70 members here and I know every member, regardless of political background, has a genuine concern and a desire to help this council move its challenges forward and I give my commitment to the opposition leaders that they will be engaged in that.”