Chapter 08: The Taking of City Hall

Submitted by R Totale on April 30, 2020

Between the council elections of May 1988 and the by-election for Edward Johnson's Odsal seat in September, when Pickles finally took power, Bradford council was hung. Labour retained control with Liberal support.

Following the May elections Labour and Liberal leaders had hammered out an agreement. The Liberals had objected to one minor point in Labour's plans; their decision to abolish the Lord Mayor's casting vote. The Liberals insisted it should remain, but that the Lord Mayor should not use it "politically". That minor issue was eventually to prove fatal for the new Lib-Lab pact.

In June, following the first of the Odsal by-elections, the Tories became the largest group on a still hung council. Phil Beeley formally offered to hand over control to Pickles, but Pickles declined the offer. He had no wish to preside over a hung council and was content to wait until September, when he was confident of winning Johnson's old seat.

Never the less, Pickles held private talks with the Liberals and reached agreement on a number of points. Firstly a "freeze" would be imposed on capital spending and officers instructed to draw up options for a £5 million budget cut. Secondly, "politically undesirable" bodies such as the Race Relations Advisory Group should be scrapped. Pickles had been particularly irritated by the Race Relations Group's discussions on South Africa. Every time Apartheid was discussed by council committees on which he'd served, he'd been forced to declare an interest - his wife's employment at Barclays' bank and withdraw. Pickles reckoned the Race Relations Group spent too much time discussing Apartheid, "rather silly little things considering our export potential there" he said.

These steps provided Pickles with the opportunity to work closely with officers in drawing up his cuts package prior to taking control. The Liberals were convinced that cuts in spending were necessary, but confident they could block any draconian proposals that might adversely affect services. However, they would soon be outflanked by the canny Tory leader when he finally took control 3 months later.

At 1 p.m. on Sunday, September 18th 1988 - 3 days after Elaine Byrom had taken Johnson's old seat for the Tories - Eric Pickles and his senior colleagues gathered at City Hall. They were now in a position to implement their plans, if only with the casting vote of the Lord Mayor. For 6 hours they fleshed out their plans for the new look Bradford council.

As well as details for their cuts package, they had drawn up plans for restructuring the authority.

These included plans to;

- Cut the number of committees and limit the number of councillors sitting on each.
- Place the most senior officers on fixed term employment contracts, with "bonus" related pay for "efficiency". If they didn't perform to the ruling group's satisfaction, they would be out of a job.
- Scrap the centralised Personnel department.
- Give council officers responsibility for the day to day running of departments, under guidelines from the ruling group, without interference from other councillors.

They also put together plans for selling off public and support services. Their "Strategy for competition" included schemes to separate the functions of service departments between "contractors" - the actual providers of the service and "clients" - the council bureaucracy. This was also a necessary prerequisite to costing the services before they could be privatised.

By 7 p.m. they had honed their package ready for approval by the full Tory group.

On Monday evening the Tory group rubber-stamped the new plans.

Once in control Eric Pickles was determined to push through his new plans as quickly as possible. Although his long-term strategy took the shape of a "5 year plan", he knew he had to push through his major restructuring of the council within 18 months, before the 1990 elections.

However, in order to achieve his objectives he needed the loyal and committed support of the council's officers.

Pickles mistrusted a number of the council's senior officers. In January 1989, following a leak of the Tories' secret plans to increase council rents for the second time in 6 months, Pickles told Core group member David Heseltine;

"Since being a member of Bradford council, I have been used to seeing confidential letters leaked to the press. However, I have a strong sense of betrayal about the rent increase leak.

"While we will do our best to ascertain the person in question, I am not optimistic that we will ever know. A sad consequence of this is that we will continue to be wary of officers and reluctant to take them into our full confidence."

For some senior officers the writing was on the wall - they feared the Conservative coup. But other, more ambitious officers saw it as an opportunity.

There is no doubt that many middle-ranking officers were dissatisfied with the "top heavy" bureaucracy that served to stifle their own efforts. The tradition of local government accountability meant that every decision deemed "important" had to be referred upwards for approval. For many officers the resultant delays proved frustrating.

But there was another factor at play in the growing division of officers into the "pro" and "anti" Pickles camps; many of those officers who were to become loyal to Pickles' plans had been involved in rows with the previous Labour administration. Of the most senior officers, the director of Social Services John Crook proved a firm supporter of the Pickles strategy. When the Social Services department and Housing department were finally merged by Pickles, Crook was made chief of the new Social Services and Strategic Housing department.

The Chief Executive Derek Holmes, on the other hand, was viewed with distrust by Pickles. Plans were already secretly being prepared to get rid of him. When Pickles became leader in September 1988, Holmes took a holiday. John Crook was appointed Acting Chief Executive and immediately began setting out the new Tory plans for rejigging the authority's management structure.

But it was amongst the authority's senior middle ranking officers that the new climate heralded by Pickles' Tory administration had the most profound effect.

As soon as he was in power Pickles began a series of informal interviews with these officers. Contrary to later accusations, Pickles was not interested in the officers' political affiliations, but in their attitude to his ideas. He spelt out clearly that responsibility was to be passed "down the line" and that they would be given more opportunity to develop and promote new ideas, so long as those ideas reflected the thrust of his own plans. Officers, he explained, were to be freed from unnecessary interference by councillors.

A number of those middle-ranking officers responded enthusiastically and began meeting together in secret, to share and plan new initiatives. Undoubtedly, their overriding motivation was personal ambition.

The activities of this group soon became known around City Hall and they were nicknamed "The Colonels". One of their favourite meeting places was the Acropolis cafe opposite City Hall.

The Colonels included Dave Morton, Graham Mahoney, Iain Copping, Philip Aspinall and Kevin Atkins, all of the Chief Executives office, along with Dave Wilkinson and Junior Rashid from the Personnel office. Rashid, although playing a minor role in The Colonels activities, was perhaps the most surprising of the group - he had formally been a leading light in the radical Asian Youth Movement.

Some of The Colonels were later to become disillusioned and drop out. But others went on to become rising stars in the Pickles empire.

A minor star was Dave Wilkinson, assistant director of Personnel. He submerged himself into the works that had influenced Pickles, such as the Audit Commission reports. By late September he had produced a hefty and detailed document "Improving management arrangements in Bradford - getting Personnel and Finance into shape".

He was also helping to churn out "Notes" for councillor Pickles, setting out a time-scale for re-organising the authority's management structure.

These notes included the passage;

"We recommend that you instruct the Chief Executive to delegate his authority for the key changes to the Director of Finance and David Morton and David Wilkinson."

The notes also proposed that the Chief Executive Derek Holmes be replaced within 6 months.

Dave Morton, Policy co-ordinator in the Chief Executives office, was of course one of The Colonels and party to the plans. Philip Robinson, the Director of Finance named in the document, was not and was furious when he discovered that he had been linked to this group of "conspirators".

When the document was leaked to the Yorkshire Evening Post, Eric Pickles was quick to deny any knowledge of the plans, particularly the plot to get rid of Holmes. However, within 6 months Holmes had been "retired" and replaced by Richard Penn, former Chief Executive of Knowsley council.

Whilst Pickles' "loyal" officers got to work on the detailed implementation of his plans, Pickles himself began making a series of public announcements through the pages of the local T & A, spelling out his intentions.

The pronouncements sent shock waves through the city. Even one of The Colonels, Dave Morton, panicked and sent Pickles an urgent memo. It read;

"Various statements have already been made in the press about the group's aims. This probably strikes fear into some parts of the authority.

"Experience shows that it is not the best way to achieve change. An organisation full of fear and uncertainty does not perform at it's best.

"The aim would be to get the message across as the exciting start of the rebirth of the authority and not as the Bradford equivalent of the French Revolution.

"If the statement is seen as dangerous and frightening, or involving only a few people, then the implementation will probably not happen efficiently."

Pickles was unperturbed. Days later he made the announcement that had so worried Morton; the Tory group would slash the workforce by a third.

Later deputy leader Richard Wightman despatched a group of The Colonels on a fact-finding trip around the country. Dave Morton, Philip Aspinall and Graham Mahoney visited several places, including the Institute of National and Local Government in Birmingham. They met senior officers at York City council and Cambridgeshire county council where they discussed "local authority performance monitoring and appraisal".

Later Tim Mobbs would be appointed to the newly created post of Assistant Director for Strategic Planning, serving under the new Chief Executive Richard Penn. Mobbs was an employee of the Institute of National and Local Government who had been working at Cambridgeshire county council.

Some of The Colonels went on to play key roles in the implementation of Pickles' plans. Dave Wilkinson and Junior Rashid set up and ran a series of seminars held at the council's Glenmoor Centre in Ilkley. The 2-day seminars, entitled "Managing for Excellence", were run primarily for senior council officers and department managers as an introduction to "managerial excellence, leadership, organisational change and customer service". They would introduce officers to Pickles' new "efficiency culture". The most successful of The Colonels was Philip Aspinall,

senior Policy officer in the Chief Executive's office. He was put in charge of the council's "Strategy for Competition", which involved restructuring the authority so that mass privatisation of it's services could take place.

This included the formation of a new company "Bradford Contract Services" (later renamed Bradford Commercial Services) to take over control of the "contractor" side of those public services likely to be privatised. Another company "Bradford Professional Services" was to do the same for technical services.

But for the vast majority of the council's employees, the "Bradford Revolution" sent morale plummeting. They feared for their jobs and the quality of the services they were providing. This was particularly acute in Education, which had borne the brunt of the cuts and faced a number of major upheavals.

Director of Education Richard Knight - a man who Pickles had distrusted since the days of the Honeyford affair later summed up the atmosphere when Pickles took over:

"The political mood was one in which you did not question decisions made. At the time you jolly well did as you were told".