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Big interview: James Page Lewes District Council Leader
THE ARGUS (TA): Under your leadership the council has spent a lot of time and money launching Programme Nexus, a controversial new approach to how the authority is run.
What exactly is it?
JAMES PAGE (JP): When I started as leader there were something like 96 projects running across the council with different governance structures, so the prime purpose of Nexus is to instil a One District, One Council ethos.
All of the cabinet are able to attend Nexus meetings to examine all the projects we are working on and make sure they deliver benefits or efficiencies for our residents.
If there are issues, we can decide between us what to do.
(TA): But an article in Private Eye last year claimed you had installed a “cabinet of yes-men where backbench councillors have very little say” and former opposition leader Coun James McLeary said your rule is “secretive”. Are you and chief executive Jenny Rowlands running an authoritarian regime?
(JP): Certainly not. We have never had Nexus meetings with justmeand the chief executive – there have always been some cabinet members there.
I was democratically elected as leader to take decisions.
Notwithstanding that I want things to be open and transparent so things which need to go to cabinet, go to cabinet.
The whole point is to have an environment where the corporate management team can discuss what they need to discuss.
Now all projects go through a proper process and are properly scrutinised and a lot of the decisions have been approved by the council already.
The articles in Private Eye just come from politicians raising a political campaign and one councillor in particular keeps banging on about it.
James McLeary lost his leadership of the opposition because he didn’t want to work collaboratively and didn’t have the interests of the community at heart.
(TA): These crucial Nexus meetings take place behind closed doors. Not very open and democratic are they?
(JP): Find me a council that doesn’t have individual meetings behind closed doors.
Nexus meetings are very open and transparent, as it happens, and we have six people in the cabinet, including opposition councillors.
The gist of the meetings is minuted and the actions are published for all to see, so any cabinet member or councillor can see what was discussed.
Just look at other councils with a call over cabinet system.
That’s far less inclusive than Nexus.
(TA): But you alone decided to sell off the recreation ground in Newhaven to Kuwaiti developers for their plans to build the ‘world’s largest water park’. Did you break any rules?
(JP): Traditionally that is how decisions like that are taken because of the timescales involved. A decision had to be made quickly, so I made it.
I consulted with the chair of scrutiny and it was all done through the proper processes with cross-party support.
(TA): Despite the big talk from you and the developers, the grand water park plan was sunk earlier this year. The whole saga was an embarrassing shambles for the council, wasn’t it?
(JP): The water park was an opportunity which needed to be explored. If it had been successful – and if the people of Newhaven had wanted it – then it would have been a good thing.
People can come forward with big ideas for the district every day, as far as I’m concerned.
If they want to spend a lot of money on a scheme, however hare-brained, as long as we cover our costs than that’s OK.
So we were one of the first councils in the country to use part of the Localism Act to make sure we charged for our time on a fully loaded basis when we worked with the developers.
At the end of the day we came out with about £40,000 and we got the land back for a pound, which we sold for £84,000.
(TA): You’re very much a private sector businessman applying his principles to a public sector organisation.
Should a local authority always be run like a business?
(JP): Well, before I joined the council I hadn’t gotmuch interest in politics really. I certainly had preconceptions about the public sector but a lot of those have changed.
You can’t run a council completely as a business, but any efficient and successful business needs to have customer service at its heart. What’s wrong with that as an aspiration for Lewes District Council?
All I want is for my customers to have all their questions answered in a customerfocused, streamlined way.
(TA): But you’re a risk-taker, aren’t you? For instance, you’re now looking for three new high-paid directors despite sweeping cuts from central government.
(JP): There’s no risk because we haven’t hired anybody. All we’ve done is to ask a specialist to give us an idea and we are looking at the marketplace.
We are looking to recruit three directors to replace two people who are leaving and we’ll see what comes forward.
Then we will engage people if it’s appropriate.
(TA): And when the directors are hired, an overlap of responsibilities will cost taxpayers £370,000 over the next two years. How can you justify that?
(JP): When you have a director who has been here 20 years you wouldn’t want them to leave on a Friday and the new person to start on a Monday. We need a proper transition period.
(TA): Last year you wrote to Jason Kitcat, leader of Brighton and Hove City Council, to suggest the two authorities share a chief executive. Do you still believe it would have been the right thing to do?
(JP): I’m in favour of shared working wherever possible. For instance, we are already working with Eastbourne on infrastructure change and we have senior officers from Brighton helping with our waste and recycling.
When the chief executive vacancy arose, I thought a good way to save money could be to share chief executives. Unfortunately Jason Kitcat didn’t feel the same.
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