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 servants ever to have held 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 what 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 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 go early. 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 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 beavered away on Mandate for Change, which was something approaching a long-term economic plan for the city. To 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.


asquith said...


Anonymous said...

God weve ended up with him HELP!!!!!!!

Foreigner said...

This town is so bloody corrupt. The councillors are mostly in it for what they can get,and the whole place is in thrall to the university. God help you all

Unknown said...

This man is now my ceo, having read this I now suspect that this overpaid and underworked snake oil salesmen will take the golden handshake well before he has finished messing up further education for the people of Nottingham. Quote- “it’s not about education, it’s about money “, I have zero respect for this man or his methods.

Unknown said...

Turned a working college into an omnishambles, the man is a fool and deserves no respect, nor the golden handshake that he’ll be receiving!
I predict, within the next 18 hard fought months , he’ll be receiving more money than I’ll see in my lifetime and the praise of the board of governors for all his hard work and efforts for seeing the organisation through a turbulent time, jobs for the boys!
I’d like to see if we can sue the board of governors for appointing this blatant charlatan and has caused so much unnecessary tomfoolery to our organisation instead of somebody who actually knows how FE works and , get this, cares about the students’ education ! A crazy concept for that man to grasp but, a golden handshake? He’d grasp that in a heartbeat!

Anonymous said...

Not sure I can add much to what the above comments already state. A man with no integrity and the business morals of a modern day Fagin. How anyone at Nottingham College, who was involved in agreeing this man's appointment, can justify this decision is quite beyond me. His stint on Wife Swap marked him out as a narcissistic sociopath and his tenure in senior council posts, most recently Stoke, mark him out as a money-grabbing cheat. Hopefully, by the time he is inevitably shown the door and given another enormous and thoroughly undeserved gargantuan pay off, the Trustees will have learned their lesson and will appoint someone with the capability to do the job properly.

Anonymous said...

I come from Stoke-on-Trent, this man's previous fiefdom. I could never understand how the people who appointed him could be fooled by such a second-hand car salesman. And now it seems like he has pulled the wool over the eyes of another appointments committee. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

John van de Laarschot - JvdL to his chums - has left the building. He went off on sick leave in April and, though expected to return in a few weeks, has now resigned - whether with a deal, noone but JdvL and the college corporation know. The senior management team appointed after he arrived at the college are all gone. So ends a needlessly distressing time for FE in the city. JlvD will doubtless take much credit for the newly-built college site for the reduced numbers of students, and no doubt point to the lack of radical zeal among FE staff and lower-grade managers. DvLj: one of a kind :)

For more on Laarcchot's sojourn in FE:

The celebration of the 2019 Nottingham FE strike: