Thursday, 19 November 2015

John van de Laarschot: A Political Obituary

A week ago one of the most controversial figures ever to have graced Stoke-on-Trent politics left the stage. I'm referring to John van de Laarschot, the now ex-chief executive of the six towns' beloved City Council. For a council officer supposed to remain in the shadows, he was certainly one of the best known unelected city servant ever to have graced his office. It almost got to the point where he was a household name. Rare are the occasions the chief executive of the local authority makes front page news of the local rag. In this one respect, Stoke was unique.

JvdL, as he was often referred to down the council, was appointed in October 2009 by the then governing coalition of City Independents and Tories. However, as the bulk of his time with the city was under the 2011-15 Labour administration, he was most closely identified with our party. His appointment came at a time of acute instability at the council. A year before his appointment, Stoke-on-Trent had decided to scrap the mayoralty by referendum (contemporary piece here). And this was after a long period of bloody and dysfunctional infighting in the council chamber. Equally as chaotic were the musical chairs in the upper echelons of the civic centre as senior officers came and went. On top of this then, as now, the city's economy was in one might be euphemistically described as a challenging position. Stoke needed a hero on a white charger, and JvdL was sold as that man.

This is the first curiosity around JvdL. Having previously served as chief executive of Torridge District Council - an authority hardly known for a resurgent economy - somehow convinced leading councillors he was a superstar chief executive. The three feathers in his cap that no doubt helped was improving the finances of the North Devonshire borough; experience as a senior manager at PepsiCo, and a stint on Wife Swap. What can I say? Some folks are easily impressed. JvdL started on £194k/year, which rose to £230k after increments were applied. And there were various golden handcuff clauses and guaranteed payouts if he was let g. Fair play to his canny negotiating skills - shame on the coalition's abysmal fools who nodded this idiocy through.

By the time Labour came to office JvdL it was too late to dismiss him under employment law. And besides, things appeared to be changing. Anticipating a Labour victory, under his direction officers had been beavering away on Mandate for Change, which was something approaching a long-term economic plan for the city. Too some fanfare the council announced the red carpet was getting rolled out for business. Local employers were wined and dined, potential inward investors charmed and smarmed. The city centre-first strategy (rightly) affirmed. Overall, there was an impression of movement, of things starting to happen. Having attended a number of City Council soirees back in the day, JvdL certainly looked the part. He presented himself and the city he ran confidently and not without an element of aplomb. He was a showman with the kind of business charisma managers and investors would have found compelling.

Nevertheless, he was constantly dogged by his humongous salary; a sum that went down like a yard of sick in a city not known for its overgenerous wage earnings. There was that and a question of what he actually did. I remember one councillor telling me about going to him with some numbers to which he replied "I don't do detail". His subordinates were likewise mystified. There were lots of meetings. And meetings with consultants he'd previously had associations with, but little idea what he did on a day-to-day basis. What is it you can do to justify such a massive wad? His leadership was also lacking in certain parts of the council. The so-called sexy stuff in local government is always around infrastructure and regeneration. Adult and children's social care, not so much. The feeling down the civic was that JvdL was very much a regen manager - the rest was left to his mixed bag of lieutenants who, like most councils, ranged from the scarily competent to the terrifyingly clueless.

Now John has gone, is the council better for his tenure? In some respects it's a more professional outfit. A leaner one, certainly, thanks to the ceaseless barrage of cuts. But still dysfunctional in many respects. The jobsworth culture, the uncaring culture, the working-in-silos culture - features common in all large organisations, public and private - wasn't really addressed. As for the regen strategy associated with his time, well, we'll never know if it's set to bear fruit seeing as the City Idiots and their Tory helpers have junked it. I don't think JvdL was worth the cash, but because of their stupidity and petty-mindedness, we'll never know for sure.

1 comment:

asquith said...