BELLE MONT, our Sutton reporter, on how history appears to be repeating itself over the appointment of a chief exec for a Liberal Democrat council
Ruth Dombey, the Liberal Democrat council leader in Sutton, yesterday helpfully confirmed Inside Sutton’s report from earlier this week that she is to appoint Helen Bailey to the £150,000 per year position as council chief executive.
Dombey’s council has forked out around £100,000 on corporate headhunters to find a replacement for Niall “Ballistic” Bolger.
Yet the end result seems to have been a foregone conclusion. Because Bailey has a bit of a track record when it comes to LibDem local authorities.
Bailey used to work as an aide to Charles Kennedy, the former leader of the Liberal Democrat party.
More than a decade ago, through no fault of her own, Bailey was caught up in a cronyism row at then LibDem-controlled Islington when she was handed the top job there.
In Sutton, some are suggesting that the LibDems have indulged in cronyism again, to rescue 57-year-old Bailey from the clutches of Universal Credit.
It means that we now have a situation where a former LibDem aide who was the centre of a cronyism row when handed the top job at a LibDem-run council is at the centre of a cronyism row after being handed the top job at a LibDem-run council.
The Islington controversy occurred in 2002, and resulted in what was then the longest ever investigation by the Standards Board for England local authority watchdog. It took more than three years and nearly £700,000 in costs before the Board handed down its findings in a 159-page report.
This followed allegations of bias against Steve Hitchins, the LibDem leader of Islington council, over Bailey’s recruitment.
The principal complainant was the then Islington councillor Mary Creagh, who is now the Labour MP for Wakefield.
The adjudication tribunal eventually ruled that there had been no breaches of the local government code over Bailey’s appointment, by Hitchins or four other LibDem councillors. Bailey was deemed blameless in the whole affair, while the tribunal criticised the “sloppiness” of the recruitment process and it was reported at the time that the chairman of the board, Sir Anthony Holland, said one of the reasons it had lasted so long was that Hitchins had withheld evidence that emerged later in the case.
The tribunal heard that Hitchins and Bailey were close friends, and that the pair had talked over the phone before Bailey was interviewed for the job. The tribunal also heard that Islington, like Sutton’s LibDems 17 years later, had hired recruitment consultants for the process. Back then, the headhunters had advised Islington that Bailey was not qualified for the post of chief executive.
But the tribunal said it could find no evidence of conspiracy or collusion between the Liberal Democrat councillors over Bailey’s selection. Further allegations against Hitchins, of bullying, were dismissed with the explanation that he had a “strong” management style.
It is not known whether any of this part of Bailey’s employment history managed to emerge during the recent Sutton CEO recruitment interviews.
Certainly, Bailey’s CV, as sketched out online on LinkedIn, does not mention at all that she used to be an aide to Charles Kennedy, one of the country’s highest profile MPs during his career in the Commons.
Nor does it include that she was a senior official for the LibDems. Indeed, it fails to mention any links to the Liberal Democrats at all.
Unlike in Islington, however, it seems that opposition councillors in Sutton will not be raising objections to Bailey’s appointment.
Yesterday, Tim Crowley, the leader of the Conservatives on Sutton Council, described Bailey as “the right person to help us take Sutton forward”.
What’s more likely to come into focus will be the huge fees paid to the recruitment consultants, who reportedly assembled a pretty miserable collection of candidates for the post. Or what Sutton Council yesterday described as “a robust selection process”.
One council figure has suggested that some of the candidates offered by the headhunters were deliberately weak, no-hopers, perhaps a ploy to ensure that the favoured applicant had a clear run.
“Bailey was far and away the best candidate,” another council insider confided.
“Some of the others were worse than Bolger,” they said, coining a new term of abuse which has special resonance in Sutton.
The interview panel in Sutton comprised five LibDems and two Tory councillors. The decision to appoint Bailey is understood not to have been unanimous, even among the LibDem councillors.
Dombey, who was not on the panel, has in the meantime gone out of her way to exclude the three Beddington independent councillors from the recruitment process, even to the point of denying them the opportunity to meet Bailey, “the preferred candidate”, before yesterday’s announcement that she had been handed the job
If Bailey was not experienced enough to handle a council CEO’s job in 2002, what she has done in her career subsequent to that has probably equipped her well, including a four-year stint as the chief operating officer of MOPAC, the Mayor of London’s Police and Crime office.
Much of that was spent having to cope with Boris Johnson appointee as deputy mayor, Stephen Greenhalgh. “What a joker he was,” a City Hall source told Inside Sutton. “Managing to survive working under Greenhalgh is somewhat of an achievement.”
Since leaving that job in 2016, Bailey has had a succession of relatively short-term appointments, spending a year with a private sector management consultants, and as interim chief exec at a local authority in the west country, a term which ended last month. The top job in Sutton appears to have come along at just the right time for her.
Bailey’s appointment is to be recommended at the next full council meeting, on February 25. Dombey said, “Sutton is already a great place to live, work and raise a family and I know that with Helen’s management of the council we will now achieve even more. Helen’s application shone through a very strong field of candidates. The strength of all those shortlisted is testament to the fact we continue to attract the brightest and best to the borough.
“Helen’s experience, breadth of knowledge and insight into the public sector will serve Sutton well over the coming years. We have ambitious plans for the future and with Helen’s help we’ll now make them a reality.”
In the routine load-of-old-bollocks quotes that council press offices take such pride in churning out for occasions such as this, they would have us believe that a “delighted and honoured” Bailey really said, “Over the years I have observed and admired the achievements of Sutton, and it is a particular privilege to take up the reins when the borough is on the brink of some exciting developments. I continue to be impressed by everyone I have met and by the dedication of colleagues, councillors and partners.
“I am very much looking forward to getting to know the whole borough better.”
*This article was updated on Feb 22, to amend the spelling of “Hitchins”, and to clarify that it was the chair of the Standards Board who was reported at the time that the erstwhile LibDem council leader had withheld evidence.
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