Rising to the Lambeth challenge

Roger Trapp meets the woman who is taking on the `worst job in local go vernment'

Heather Rabbatts is under no illusions about what she is undertaking. After all, the advertisement for the post she takes up at the end of March was one of the most notorious in recruitment history: "Arguably the worst job in local government."

Since the job in question is chief executive of Lambeth council, many would wonder what the argument is about.Since last May's elections the south London borough's council has become hung between the Liberal Democrats and Labour, so it is no longer a bastion of the "loony left". But it is still seen as the epitome of the rotten borough. When 39-year-old Ms Rabbatts takes over, on a four-year contract worth £115,000 a year, she will have to deal with no fewer than 25 corruption inquiries. The most serious of these, being conducted by Elizabeth Appleby QC, is due to report at about the time she assumes the reins.

Lambeth, she says, is "the key challenge in local government". When she was first approached about the job two years ago, she declined because she felt there was insufficient commitment to change within the borough. "This time, the critical factor was that the majority of councillors want it to change. There's a consensus to get things right, particularly the finances. I want to build on that consensus."

When she took her present position as chief executive of Merton council in 1993, she made a point of touring the whole building to introduce herself to the staff. It sounds simple, but apparently caused some surprise. "There were people who had been there for 20 years and never met the chief executive," she says. "That has been the standard of local government: communicating by triple memo."

While she does not suggest that she will be able to know all of Lambeth's 11,000 employees personally, she insists that she will be operating an open-door policy and offering relatively junior people the opportunity to work on projects designed to sort out particular problems. Because the public no longer accepts senior council officers who are remote, in the way of the old town clerks, there have had to be substantial changes, she says. The officer corps has begun to be transformed from "bureaucratic proceduralists and administrators" to people who have strategic and analytical skills and can be creative. A favourite phrase of hers is that "you never have a second chance to make a first impression", and she talks constantly about customer service.

But unlike so many people now entering the public sector, she does not come from a business background. Prior to starting at a lowly position in the Local Government Information Unit a decade ago, she was a barrister.

Since, as she acknowledges, barristers are famously free spirits not given to being organised, this is hardly a classic beginning for somebody about to be entrusted with an annual budget of more than £300m. But she appears to be a fast learner. Within two years she was running the women's department at Hammersmith & Fulham; two years later she was the borough's personnel director, and two years after that, deputy chief executive. Which led to her current spell at Merton. She has also served as an advise r to the Local Government Management Board and the Audit Commission.

That's not bad going for somebody who says she got into local government by accident, when looking for a different line of work from the Bar following the birth of her son in 1982. But press further and you find a deeper commitment.

Advising among others the Greater London Council and the Greenham Common protesters, she came to realise that the Bar "is intervening at a point of crisis in people's lives", and started to wonder if there were ways in which, through public policy, you could deal with that. She is conscious that in these days of Tony Blair's new Labour Party, no future government is going to write a blank cheque. So public sector management is largely about husbandry: rationing limited resources to give proper services to council tax payers as well as "pathways out of disadvantage" for the less privileged.

Although Merton has a different image to Lambeth, she insists that it and other London boroughs are similar in having the well-off and the less so living almost side by side. It is a question of meeting the various demands of these different sections of the community - and, with the experience of other boroughs behind her, she believes that is possible. For the better off, it is a matter of having the streets cleaned and leisure facilities operating; for others, it is having housing repaired. Her role, she adds, will be to place catalysts in key places to make sure that that happens.

"I believe organisations can be turned round," she says, pointing to the example of Brent, another London borough that several years ago was in the same straits as Lambeth but has transformed itself. But she also acknowledges that the similarities with business go only so far. "Local government is very complicated. It is a bit more difficult than turning round BA."

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