Local Elections: Labour under threat amid financial chaos

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Indy Politics
ONE POLITICIAN will wake up on 6 May and might begin to wonder what on earth he or she has done. That person will be in charge of Lambeth, arguably the worst-run local authority in Britain.

The ground will be thick with reports and inquiries into corruption, incompetence and maladministration. The town hall coffers will be empty, the borough is in debt and is owed millions in rent and council tax arrears.

Every move will be watched by legions of MPs who are also residents, and the slightest trouble will be subject to detailed scrutiny by the press. And all of that is before getting to grips with a pounds 365.4m budget and a staff of 11,000 in one of the most deprived London boroughs.

For the first time in 12 years, there is a chance that someone other than a Labour Party member will be the leader of Lambeth. The Liberal Democrats, who picked up six seats in by-elections in the past two years, are optimistic of taking control. They have replaced the Tories as the main focus of opposition, although the Conservatives have double the number of seats as the parties go into the election. The two main parties both held power before 1982 and John Major was chairman of housing between 1968 and 1971. But whoever enters the leader's office will preside over an officer elite which has been subject to four organisational reviews in three years.

A former senior officer said that each successive scandal produced demands for a fresh cull of officials in order that the bloodletting could demonstrate a political willingness to 'clean up' Lambeth. The latest sacking was of the director of information, who was responsible for the borough's computer systems.

Other managers have just left, fed-up with interference from councillors and a never- ending game of trying to second-guess the next political leadership. There have been four leaders, all from the Labour Party, in the past five years.

Reg Race, an external consultant called into look at Lambeth's structures, said that there was a culture which 'tolerated incompetence and failure, and encouraged officers to believe that they were not accountable for their actions'.

Herman Ouseley, who resigned as chief executive a year ago to become chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, was exhausted by his three years in Lambeth.

Before he left, he issued a damning report of unauthorised spending of pounds 10m and poor supervision of building contracts. It was followed by an even more serious public interest report by the District Auditor, which highlighted illegal spending of pounds 20m, as well as a web of potential fraud and corruption.

The overall impression was of an administrative machine which had all but collapsed and even when it could gather enough collective energy to send out a bill on time it was likely to be for the wrong amount. 'There was no commitment by any side of the political spectrum to sort out the problems of Lambeth,' one former officer said. 'I would never go back, it nearly cost me my health.' The ruling Labour group's policy- making often seemed to be founded on a desire to confront opponents across the Thames in Westminster, or to show the latest trend in political correctness. The target of service delivery was way down the list. Lambeth's ability to embarrass the Labour Party since the rate-capping rebellion of 'Red' Ted Knight in 1985 has led to the suspension and later expulsion of nine councillors, and interference in local affairs by the party's hierarchy unknown elsewhere.

The bitter divisions within the Labour Party created an impossible atmosphere for professional officers, leading to a spiral of decline which will be difficult to reverse, according to Tony Travers, of the Greater London Group of the London School of Economics.

'Many chief officers with talent will not apply for jobs there. Without the political will the best officers in the world would not make any difference,' he said.

John Harrison, Lambeth's deputy leader, maintains that since the District Auditor's report last year the political will has been in place to change the structure. Henry Gilby, a new chief executive, has been appointed and has produced more than 100 procedural changes. Lambeth's accounts have been filed on time for the first time in seven years.

(Photograph omitted)