Outgoing Cornwall Council chief explains his move to New Zealand and his legacy
The man who presided over the biggest shake-up of Cornwall’s local government in a generation has quit his post after just four years in order to run a city council half-way across the world. Living Cornwall Editor Simon Parker spoke to him about his legacy, his reasons for leaving and what makes him tick.
They say that when the going gets tough the tough get going – and on the surface that appears to be exactly what Cornwall Council chief executive Kevin Lavery has chosen to do. Rather than accept a compromise solution when his ambitions for the part-privatisation of services was thrown out, he opted to cut and run… all the way to New Zealand.
That, at least is how his departure has been presented by most commentators. The truth, inevitably, is far more complex.
Kevin Lavery is undoubtedly tough, a man who gets things done. Even his critics would have to concede that he is passionate, hard-working, extremely effective and a pleasant guy to work alongside.
FREE Home staging included with your 1% Commission!View details
1% Commission FREE Home staging advice http://www.kerbappealz.co.uk
Terms: Home staging advice given on instruction to sell your property
Contact: 01736 332076
Valid until: Saturday, December 14 2013
After joining what was still the old Cornwall "County" Council in November 2008, Mr Lavery was in the hot seat when unitary status began five months later. It was a bumpy ride, to say the least. More importantly, he arrived in Cornwall as the global financial downturn was just kicking in, the credit crunch was really beginning to bite and tough Coalition Government cuts to local authority budgets were just around the corner.
With only a few weeks to go before he takes up a new post as chief executive of Wellington City Council in New Zealand, Mr Lavery yesterday sat down for a coffee in County Hall's refurbished open-plan offices and spoke candidly about his term of tenure.
A straight-talking Tynesider who admits to a liking for getting his own way, he believes he has left Cornwall in a better financial position than when he moved into the top job four and a half years ago.
"Clearly I arrived in Cornwall at a very difficult time," he said. "The headline feeling was that Cornwall faced multiple problems on multiple fronts. To start with there was a £12 million black hole in the budget. I already knew from the inspector's report that a number of the major services were in trouble – children's services, adult care, housing and finance. What I hadn't realised was the depth of the problem relating to the change to unitary status. To put it bluntly, it felt like World War Three had broken out between the districts and the county. Relationships were at an all-time low and consequently we weren't at all ready for unitary status."
However, with the sort of can-do spirit that has characterised his time as CEO, he was determined to help make the transition as smooth as possible.
"Looking back, it wasn't a great starting point," he said. "There was only five months to go and all we could do was hold on, focus on going live, prepare the organisation as best we could and try to get over the line without messing things up. In the end, we did achieve that because there were no significant problems when the time came."
A great advocate of Cornwall's single tier administration, Mr Lavery points to a number of successes which he says are directly attributable to the change.
"Since April 2009, we have steadily improved services and we have sorted out all of the failing services," he said. "And that's not just me saying that, it is confirmed by the inspectors who have visited us.
"One simple but specific example which has shown that the unitary system is working for the benefit of everyone is the change to a single refuse collection contract for the whole of Cornwall. We previously had six contracts and we are now saving £3.2 million a year by going to one contract. Recycling levels are also up as a result and performance levels are way above the old arrangement."
The son of a shipyard worker and one of five children, Kevin Lavery grew up in Newcastle's working class Irish community and was the first member of his family to go to university. After studying Town & Country Planning at Manchester, he completed a PhD before taking his first job with the Association of District Councils. He continued in local government, moving to Westminster City Council as assistant chief executive, before being appointed chief executive back in his native Newcastle.
"I had five brilliant years in Newcastle and really enjoyed it," he said. "We did some fantastic work in regenerating the quayside and the Georgian town centre, which is beautiful. It really proved to me what can be achieved in local government."
However, he was soon seduced by high salaries on offer in the private sector. For several years he worked for Price Waterhouse, Serco and Agilisys until something of a personal epiphany caused him to reconsider his career path.
"We had a serious family illness and it made me reflect on life and what is important," he said. "About that time I was back in Newcastle with my two sons for a visit and I saw some of the things that had been achieved while I was working there. You get a particular satisfaction in the public sector from seeing things happen which really change people's lives for the better. So my wife and I talked about trying to find a local authority where I could do the sort of work I did in Newcastle."
Because Catherine Lavery was born in the Hartland area of Devon, the couple decided they would ideally like to live and work either in the North East or South West.
"As it happened, Cornwall was the first to come up and I was fortunate enough to be offered the job," he said. "It has been a hard but very rewarding four and a bit years. I have enjoyed every minute of it and I'm sad to be leaving but I personally think that, considering where we started, we have made great progress. Despite the cuts, we're ahead of where I would have predicted the council would be at this stage. We've fixed the failing services, we have very sound finances, we have a range of brilliant initiatives being rolled out – the cherry on the cake being funding for the dualling of the A30 – and Cornwall has a very good management team in place who will continue the good work when I go. We also have a lot of very good politicians in the organisation who are passionate about the things that are being done for Cornwall.
"I am very proud to have worked in Cornwall, to have lived in Cornwall and to have actually helped to bring about some of these improvements."
There has been much speculation in recent weeks about the timing of what appeared to be Mr Lavery's sudden resignation. Some commentators accused him of throwing a tantrum when he failed to win support for plans to invite BT to run some council services in a full privatisation package. The outgoing chief executive was yesterday keen to put the record straight.
"It is true that I like to get my own way," he said. "And I do remain very clear that the strategic partnership was the best deal for staff, for the public and for the taxpayers because it would have produced quality jobs on a large scale and delivered big savings. In the end we reached a compromise and frankly I'm happy with that because we couldn't go on debating it, we had to make a decision.
"But that wasn't the reason for taking up the job in Wellington. The truth is that last summer I began to think it was unlikely I would stay in this post much beyond the council elections next May. We had had three years of clear direction under Alec Robertson and I knew he probably wouldn't be leader post-May and that there might also be a change of administration at that time. After three-and-a-half years of major change it also became clear that councillors wanted a period of pause – but it seemed to me that they were still unsure about the priorities. And that's not the way I like to work. If you look at what I've done well in Cornwall it is where there has been real clarity – my hallmark is the need to get on with things quickly.
"So last summer I was already thinking that the next phase would probably not be 'me' and was I thinking about looking for a new opportunity when I received a call from a head-hunter who wanted to know if I might be interested in the Wellington job. It was actually the day after Alec Robertson was ousted. I had received similar approaches on several occasions before and always said 'no' but this time I was in the mood to think about it. Then one thing led to another, I was invited to visit to Wellington, saw what a fabulous city it is, and accepted the offer." Mr Lavery said the most difficult part of his time in Cornwall had been implementing the "horrendous and unfair" budget cuts imposed by central Government.
"At the end of the day national politicians have to decide how they are going to spend Whitehall money," he said.
"But having said that, I think it is really disappointing that local government and the police have borne the brunt of public service cuts." However, despite the continuing economic problems facing the region, he said he was confident Cornwall had a rich future.
"Cornwall is a fantastic place, with great potential," he said. "But it does lack confidence in its potential, which perhaps is rooted in the tough times of the past. The strengths Cornwall has in terms of its economy, renewable energy, tourism, food and culture are all really important. But it will only work if people have the courage and ambition and confidence to go forward. Cornwall has already begun to recover its confidence in some areas, such as its culture, which is world-class.
"In my personal opinion, the solution to Cornwall's challenges doesn't lie with Whitehall or government grants, but with the people, the landscape and the environment because Cornwall has far greater resources than most other regions – it just has to grasp them."
Smiling broadly as we close the interview, Mr Lavery summed up his time in Cornwall by equating it with his life-long support of Newcastle United.
"It has always been enjoyable but also a generally challenging experience," he said. "Occasionally you get the odd reward, but no trophies."
And his advice to his successor – whoever that may be?
"Be brave and don't hang around – just get on with it."