Part 1 – Decade on from Anglesey’s day of shame which saw commissioners sent in to run troubled authority
In this first of a two part series Gareth Wyn Williams looks back at the Welsh Government’s decision to step in and take over the control of Anglesey Council in March 2011 and how the authority’s continual “disgrace in the media” led to what become known as Anglesey’s day of shame.
10 years ago Anglesey become the first local authority in UK history to have its executive powers stripped away from county councillors and handed to government-appointed commissioners.
The council had been dogged by political infighting since its formation in 1996 and faced years of allegations regarding corruption and petty politicking.
On March 16, 2011 the Welsh Government finally lost patience when councillors launched a bid to overthrow the then council leader Clive McGregor.
That prompted Cardiff Bay to parachute commissioners in to run the council. They cited a breakdown in relations between senior officers and councillors after a damning audit report highlighted serious concerns over the running of the council and the “corrosive” effect of infighting.
It took another two years, including new elections and a slashing in the number of councillors, before executive powers were finally restored with members promising to restore Anglesey’s good name.
Anglesey Council was initially placed under special measures by the Assembly Government in 2009 after a damning Auditor General for Wales report revealed weaknesses in the way the council was run, later described as “very serious governance problems”.
Jeremy Colman’s report also noted “serious persistent problems” in the council which affected its working, including “weak self-regulation, inappropriate behaviour and conflict”.
But in an urgent statement to the Senedd on March 16, 2011, the clearly exasperated Local Government Minister confirmed he had appointed commissioners to run the authority after previously urging councillors to “focus on the real needs of the island” and stop “petty bickering”.
A year earlier he had warned that council debate “too often concentrated on personal and parochial conflicts and rivalries,” describing it as “a betrayal of Anglesey’s citizens and communities, who deserve action and leadership, not petty bickering”.
The commissioners included Alex Aldridge, former leader of Flintshire County Council and the Welsh Local Government Association, former Gwent Police Chief Superintendent Mick Giannasi and Byron Davies, former chief executive of Cardiff County Council.
They were to assume all of the functions of the council’s executive, with the councillors’ only real function being to scrutinise their decisions.
Then-minister Carl Sargeant, said: “I am not prepared to waste more public money on a council that does not want to help itself. I am bringing the intervention to an end.
“I am giving the council a much more stringent direction that comes into effect immediately. This will bring stability to the council’s politics, ensure consistency in strategic decision-making and protect front-line services.
“Most importantly, it will ensure that the needs of the people of Anglesey come first not the needs of a small number of councillors who have chosen to put personality politics above public service.”
The initial Welsh Government intervention came in 2009 following a breakdown in relations between senior officers and councillors.
Imposing a temporary managing director and recovery board to oversee the council’s running, it was only after its failure that day-to-day powers were stripped from councillors and the five strong board of commissioners put in place.
Throughout its reformation following local government reorganisation in 1996, the authority’s leadership turned on a string of ever shifting alliances and usually led by varying independent groups.
But in the midst of a corporate management inspection – detailing an “erosion of trust” between executive members and ruling councillors – April 2009 saw Chief Executive Derrick Jones leave his £120,000 a year position “by mutual consent,” followed just weeks later by leader Phil Fowlie on health grounds.
The new leader, former police superintendent Clive McGregor, pledged to “steer a steady course through choppy waters,” adding; “I don’t want Anglesey to continue to be disgraced in the media.”
But following the publication of the damning Wales Audit Office letter, noting that the authority had a history of “not being properly run,” September 2009 saw the Welsh Government step in and appoint a new interim managing director with a track record of turning around troubled local authorities.
The introduction of a recovery board and the appointment of David Bowles to the post failed to quell controversy. It was later revealed that he was Wales’ most expensive public sector worker at the time, receiving £270,000 a year – almost double the salary of the Prime Minister.
He was credited though for “steering the council through a period of great uncertainty”.
In June 2010, a “last throw of the dice” effort saw Cllr McGregor and three other members leave the ruling “Original Independents” group to form “Llais i Fôn“ (“Voice for Anglesey”) as a “rainbow alliance” with Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Menai Group.
“I believe that forming a new alliance, made up of those committed to working together and moving this council forward, is our only real chance of sustainable political recovery,” Cllr McGregor said at the time.
But in January 2011 he announced his intention to quit within months after reports of an attempted coup from opposition members and some within his own coalition.
After a further emergency inspection found that only direct government control could rescue the council, resulting in the commissioners being sent in, Mr McGregor told the BBC: “This authority hasn’t just fallen into disrepute, it has been in disrepute for a long, long period of time going back 20 years or more.”
The possibility of holding a referendum on an elected mayoralty for the island was strongly mooted.
The journalist’s view
Following events closely at the time was Elgarn Hearn, then the Chief Reporter at the Holyhead and Anglesey Mail.
Elgan, who reported on events involving the authority for over a decade, feels that the writing was on the wall for the authority when Derrick Jones was ousted from office almost two years before the commissioners were sent in.
“A sacking or mutual consent, whatever you want to call it, actions like that garner national attention and result in Cardiff Bay sitting up and taking notice,” he said.
“With everything that had gone on previously, from that point on I think it was pretty clear that some action would be taken, there was a certain inevitability about it.
“From the very start there had always been strong personalities on the council but after that there was no turning back.
“The worst thing that happened in many ways was when Cllr WJ Williams retired as leader, he had an ability to keep things stable despite so many strong characters being on board.
“After Derrick Jones’ departure you end up with an incredibly tumultuous two years, stemming from a clash between officers and councillors and a never ending jockeying for power.”
He added:”From the authority being set up there was always a certain volatility, while you really need stability, but it wasn’t possible for so long as it was all about internal wrangling.
“That’s not to say there weren’t savvy and able politicians, but there were too many working against each other.
“The commissioners coming in did put a stop to that in many ways and led to a new wave of councillors, but there was a real danger at one point that the whole authority would have failed.
“It’s often said that a forced merger was on the table but I was never convinced that Gwynedd even wanted Anglesey at the time, it was simply too much of a problem as much as they would have probably welcomed the Shell Oil money and Wylfa Newydd development as it was.
“Whether the authority benefited in the long run, I suppose the parachuting of the commissioners did prove that Anglesey Council was on the radar and that what was going on was being monitored from the outside.
“In that aspect it was probably a good thing, and while you don’t have as many mavericks nowadays, it eventually led to a generational shift with very few of those councillors still left in the chamber now.”
In part two we will look back at the two-year period when the Welsh Government effectively controlled local government and what led to the authority eventually being ‘let free’.
By Gareth Williams – Local Democracy Reporter
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