Stricken borough greets Big Sister seizes power

Lambeth/ palace revolution
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The Independent Online
A PALACE revolution in Britain's worst local authority has given a woman official unprecedented personal power to fire her close colleagues and hire replacements.

Heather Rabbatts, 39, chief executive of the troubled London Borough of Lambeth since April, has persuaded desperate elected representatives to suspend the council rule book which required her to seek their permission to spend money and recruit staff.

The decision, taken last week, gives Ms Rabbatts six months' authority of a kind hitherto unknown among town hall officials.

Her task is to "turn around" a council which successive reports have identified as the most inefficient in the country.

According to the Audit Commission, more than a third of Lambeth tenants are over 13 weeks in arrears in paying their rents - a figure exceeded only by those in another London borough, Brent - while Lambeth has collected less than two-thirds of Council Tax owing, the worst figure in England.

A squad of highly paid consultants is set to take over Lambeth town hall in Brixton as the top ranks of officialdom are cleared out.

The director of finance, Gary Moss is already suspended for alleged inefficiency along with the director of legal services, Paul Lally.

Lambeth has no director of housing and director of education Bebb Burchell left recently. Ms Rabbatts will personally select their successors.

Ms Rabbatts denied she had been given carte blanche. She said: "I will be talking things through with key councillors but what is being recognised is a managerial gap.

"We need to secure additional expertise quickly to deal with such critical areas as housing.

"Lack of managerial support requires us to take radical steps.

"Certainly I feel I am getting freedom to manage."

She envisaged not "hordes of people" being recruited but a "few select and high-calibre people coming in."

Single, with a private life she keeps closely guarded, Heather Rabbatts is one of only about 16 female council chief executives in the country.

She has made a rapid rise from her beginnings at the Trade Union - and Labour Party - oriented Local Government Information Unit to English local government's highest-paid job (pounds 115,000 per annum) and also its most powerful.

"No chief executive in history has had such power," according to Judith Hunt, chief executive of the Local Government Management Board.

Liberal Democrat leader Mike Tuffrey, a 35-year-old advertising agency executive, says Ms Rabbatts' powers have nothing to do with ideology; what he calls "normal politics" will resume in Lambeth once its management is sorted out.

In a by-election last week in the Prince's Ward of Vauxhall, the Liberal Democrats retained the contested seat.

Neither the Liberal Democrats nor Labour, which ruled Lambeth until the 1994 elections, has an overall majority. For the moment they are both backing Ms Rabbatts and have also signed up to a radical programme under which every one of Lambeth's 13,000 employees will be tested for "competency" and sacked if they fail.

A pilot in one department has apparently found that more than 70 per cent of those tested failed.

Further dismissals will probably follow the eventual publication of a much-delayed report from Elizabeth Appleby QC, appointed by Lambeth to investigate a series of frauds involving the finance and housing departments, which may have cost the council some pounds 20m.

The possible cost of the reconstruction envisaged by Ms Rabbatts was shown last week with the disclosure that a Lambeth head teacher, George Varnava, is being paid four and a half terms' worth of salary - at least pounds 60,000 - while away from his Norwood school on trade union business. Ms Rabbatts said the council had no choice but to honour the contract with Mr. Varnava, agreed before her arrival. "Obviously you can never escape history but I am trying to draw a line under some of these issues and move forward."

Lambeth hopes to meet the cost of new staff from savings made from vacancies.

The council's mismanagement is attributed to Labour, which held power from the late 1960s - when Prime Minister John Major was a councillor - until last year.

The Labour left in Lambeth comprised an odd mixture of Trotskyites and sexual radicals, and it hamstrung council management through its close ties with town hall unions.

In the mid-Eighties, council leader Ted Knight was surcharged and disqualified for confronting the Thatcher government and failing to set a legal rate.

The current Labour leader, Jim Dickson, 31, a housing research officer, now bewails the "sterility" of Labour's period in power. He cites the support offered by Vauxhall Labour party, once a hotbed of militancy, for right-of-centre MP Kate Hoey, and talks tough about necessary reductions in the workforce, including compulsory competitive tendering. He says Labour in Lambeth is "breathing a collective sigh of relief that hard decisions are now being taken," and that Mrs Rabbatts has his party's full backing.

Ms Rabbatts is the third Lambeth chief executive since Christmas and the second black one. Ironically, it was to a black predecessor, Herman Ouseley, now chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, that Ms Rabbatts was reported by Lambeth Tories for not going through equal opportunities procedures in choosing staff for her private office. The complaint was rejected.

Ms Rabbatts herself came to Lambeth from the chief executive's job in the borough of Merton after previously winning praise for holding the fort as chief legal officer in Hammersmith and Fulham, when that borough got out of its depth over financial "swaps" involving foreign banks.

She said recently: "Many people had said to me that Lambeth is corrupt - my feeling was that no organisation is totally corrupt. What there are, are some major managerial deficiencies."

According to Mike Tuffrey: "An awful lot is riding on her but I am confident she can deliver enough of the goods quickly enough to start a virtuous circle, attracting good new replacement directors."