Cornwall Council Chief Exec Kevin Lavery explains decision to leave for New Zealand
CORNWALL Council chief executive Kevin Lavery announced at Christmas that he would be leaving the authority to take up a new position in New Zealand. As he prepares to leave Richard Whitehouse spoke to him about his decision and the legacy he leaves behind.
FOR some people the goings on at County Hall are akin to a pantomime with Kevin Lavery firmly cast as the baddie who is booed and hissed at every opportunity.
The softly spoken Geordie was a controversial appointment from his first arrival in Cornwall in November 2008 mainly due to his salary which topped £200,000.
And even now, as he prepares to leave Cornwall for pastures new, from reading comments posted on blogs and social media sites an outsider might be led to believe that Mr Lavery, 52, was responsible for all the Duchy's ills.
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Yet while he has overseen some high profile projects which have not proved successful he has equally provided a firm leadership for the council as it faced some of the most difficult financial cuts ever seen in local government.
When he arrived in 2008 Mr Lavery was immediately thrown into the deep end having to manage to creation of a new unitary authority which replaced the former Cornwall County Council and six district councils.
He has since had to steer the council through choppy waters thanks to funding cuts introduced by the Government as well as having to bring some key services up to scratch.
Asked whether these successes had been forgotten and were under appreciated by the public he said: "Definitely, definitely. I don't think people really have the perspective, they don't realise that we have lost £170m a year that we have had over a 30% reduction in our grant and the tax has only increased by 2.9% over the last three years so that's just 1% a year.
"That is really good value for money if you compare it with the amount that travel companies, the oil companies and other companies – all of them have had double digit increases, some well in excess of 20% in that period. We have only taken £11m out of frontline services.
"I think the staff of this organisation have done a fantastic job in the circumstances and I don't think the public fully appreciate that. But perhaps we're to blame for not getting the message across well enough but we're not getting shortlisted for prizes for nothing. If it happened once or twice it might be a bit of luck but to happen on such a regular basis it is not luck."
Mr Lavery has admitted that the decision to leave Cornwall has not been easy – especially as his family have made a home here – but said he had been headhunted for his new post in New Zealand and offered the opportunity just after a key council vote to remove Conservative leader of the council Alec Robertson in the row over plans to form a partnership with a private company to provide council services.
"I wasn't really looking to leave, I wasn't exploring opportunities at the time, it kind of came out of the blue. If I'm honest about it I got an approach from a headhunter the day after Alec Robertson was ousted so probably they caught me at a time that I was feeling a bit unsettled.
"I think in my head, where I was, probably last summer I decided that I would look to do five years at Cornwall, that I would wait for the elections in May, bed the new administration and then look for something at that point.
"But, obviously, with all the turmoil with the leadership and getting an approach it was just fortuitous at a time.
"Once I looked into it I had a couple of interviews on Skype etc and just became more excited, went out to Wellington and thought yes, this is a fantastic opportunity for me and it's worth taking advantage. It was all about the timing."
And Mr Lavery said that it was not dissimilar to how he came to be in Cornwall, describing it as "an adventure".
He said that he believes that his skillset is no longer suited to the position that the council finds itself in and said that he wouldn't be comfortable working in the environment he sees for the future of the council.
One key criticism of Mr Lavery has been his salary which at more than £200,000 dwarfs the pay of most people in Cornwall.
And he said he's worth it: "At the end of the day I feel I am worth my salary, to be frank about it, I think the obsession with it is probably more a feature of today's blame culture. But a good chief exec is worth paying for because you reap that salary in days not months.
"When I first arrived we had a £12m black hole and in our first year we balanced the books.
"Your salary as a chief exec is repaid on things like that. Frankly, pay good money, get good people and good value for money – it's obvious really. Most people would understand that."
Recently local government secretary Eric Pickles published a document of 50 things local councils should do to save money – one of them is to axe the role of chief executive.
"I think it's complete nonsense," said Mr Lavery when asked for his thoughts on Pickles' suggestion."The difficult things we do, we have had to take £170m out of our budget, we have had to fix major council service failings, it is obvious in that situation you need managers who can look across the organisation and pull it together, bang heads together, make good decisions and carry on. Frankly, these are not the times to remove that position because we're not through the difficult times yet.
"I think it's more around popular decisions and having a go at people on high salaries, but the reality is councils need their chief execs. By the way communities and local government has got a chief executive, a permanent secretary…"
His tenure at County Hall has not been all plain sailing with several high profile projects having stalled or been setback with problems – the stadium, problems at the airport and the project which has probably led to his decision to leave, the shared services joint venture.
Mr Lavery said that delivering such projects at a local council would always be difficult as you have to work with a "board" with 123 members, all with their own views and opinions.
But it is the shared services plan which is the one which he talks most about. The project had been drawn up over almost 18 months and it was only when the council looked to issue a tender for the contract that councillors raised their concerns and voted to backtrack on the proposals to have services such as IT and libraries provided by a private firm.
Mr Lavery said: "I was uncomfortable with the last minute nature of the changes being made because it wasn't exactly a quiet project – it had been open and discussed in your paper for at least a year and I think it would have been better for all concerned if these issues had been raised much earlier than they were."
Asked whether he thought councillors had trouble understanding the nature of the project he said: "I think there was, certainly, not a great deal of understanding and you could tell from the sort of comments being made that they didn't get it. But perhaps that was our fault.
"We worked very hard we had several full council sessions very early in the project, we had a special scrutiny committee looking at it for over a year, we had members from each party involved in a working group on it so we bent over backwards to involve members because we knew that it would be moving into new territory."
He strongly denied that he was a strong supporter of privatisation and said that he had an open minded approach with an aim of getting value for money and good services.
"I am open minded, they're the people who are struggling to think outside the box by thinking that it can only be provided by the public sector, if that was the case we wouldn't be spending £450m with local companies in Cornwall – we would be manufacturing our own pencils in a factory and we would be manufacturing our own IT equipment – we don't do that because we couldn't do it, we don't have the expertise, it doesn't provide good value for money and therefore it doesn't make sense to customers or our taxpayers."
Mr Lavery paid tribute to his staff and said that the management team at County Hall would be ready to "step up" when he leaves at the end of March and said he felt that his successor would have firm foundations to build on for the future. He also praised councillors for being able to take "tough decisions".
Asked if he had enjoyed his time in Cornwall he said: "Yes I have, I wasn't thinking of leaving. I look back with pride in terms of what we have done, it's a fantastic place to live in and my family have really enjoyed it too, so I wouldn't change it for the world."