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Local Government Interview

Cup of ambition

Kerry Lorimer Local Government Correspondent

Westminster could be calling for Inverclyde’s new leader

If Iain McKenzie isn’t yet a household name,

it may just be a matter of time. Te leader of Inverclyde Council has secured the Labour nomination for the by-election triggered by the death of former MP David Cairns. McKenzie’s rise to prominence is all the

more meteoric considering he has only held the council leadership since February, stepping up to the role following the unexpected decision of Stephen McCabe to stand down for family reasons. Nevertheless, he is no political upstart. An

elected member since 2003, McKenzie has witnessed at first hand Inverclyde’s hard-won reincarnation from local government basket case to a lean, modern, customer-focused organisation. His memories of the darker days are only too clear. “Te attention of the country was on Inverclyde as a poorly performing sector of local government,” he says. “We didn’t have our troubles to seek with bad publicity.” At the centre of the storm was a damning

Best Value audit which identified “extensive and fundamental weaknesses” in the council’s political and managerial leadership. “It focused on what we already knew but were reluctant to face up to – that we were not performing as well as we possibly could and were letting the people of Inverclyde down,” he says. By the time his group came to power in 2007, the council was on a firmer footing. John Mundell had been appointed as chief executive, replacing longstanding chief Robert Cleary, accompanied by a clear-out of senior managerial ranks. But hard work was still needed to turn Inverclyde into the place members wanted it to be – somewhere people would choose to live, work and raise their family. One of the biggest problems facing the council was, and still is, the chronic decline in its population. “We know that’s still an ongoing challenge

for us, which is why we have set our stall out in regard to massive renewal of the schools estate, good quality leisure facilities, and an

36 Holyrood 13 June 2011 Iain McKenzie

improvement in housing,” says McKenzie. “If we give families a good quality of life, we hope we will stabilise our population and it will become an attraction for others to bring their families there. If needs be, you can commute to a job, but hopefully in the future, there may be a great deal more employment on [your] doorstep as well.” Inverclyde, like many other areas of

Scotland, suffered badly from the erosion of its manufacturing base, and the council is seeking help from both the Scottish and Westminster governments to turn round a less than stellar record on job creation. Te decision to axe the Future Jobs Fund earlier this year dismayed McKenzie. “Over [the] last year or so, we saw 400 plus of our locals into employment [under the scheme] which is a great success story – we’re probably the most successful in Scotland in that respect,” he says. Now, there is ambiguity over what, if anything, will replace the fund. “We need to pin it down because…we’d be reluctant to give up something that was that successful for something we don’t know how it’ll operate,” he says. In the meantime, the council is determined

to raise the aspirations of its young people. An ambitious schools renewal programme, funded through PPP, has seen the creation of two new secondary schools and a clutch of new primaries and nurseries, with further new builds and refurbishments in the pipeline. “If we are to give the kids of Inverclyde the best possible start in life, we have to provide the facilities,” says McKenzie. “We have to plan to move our communities up the employment food chain.” Tat begins as early as primary school, where pupils are encouraged to aim high and gain the skills demanded in a jobs market beyond Inverclyde, though the council hopes young people will still choose to live locally. Inverclyde, in common with every other

“The attention of the

country was on Inverclyde as a poorly performing

sector of local government. We didn’t have our troubles to seek with bad publicity”

local authority, is grappling with how to make savings in its baseline budget while protecting the quality of essential services for residents. Unfortunately, it hit the headlines for the wrong reasons after a radical modernisation plan, centred on a new state of the art customer contact centre, ended up costing more in consultants’ fees than it delivered in efficiency savings. Four senior members of staff involved in the so-called Future Operating Model were suspended pending an internal inquiry into the affair which is expected to conclude in the next few weeks. “We took advice from consultants, the

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