London boroughs fall out over chief executive merger

The merging of the chief executive between London boroughs of Camden and Islington was always going to be a bold move, but was it a step too far?
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Moira Gibb
Moira Gibb, chief executive of Camden council, was in line to run neigbour Islington's senior management team. Photo: Katherine Rose/Observer

The unprecendented scale of cuts in local government budgets was intended to usher in an age of new realism about the way public services are delivered.

But the cancellation last Thursday of the proposed merger of the senior management teams in the neighbouring London boroughs of Camden and Islington is a sign that even the coldest financial winds cannot always make different cultures come together.

It was only four months ago that the proposed merger [http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2010/sep/15/islington-camden-councils-management-merger] of the two councils' management teams looked like one of the boldest moves in local government.

While there is a growing number of councils sharing chief executives and buying services together, the sheer scale of the Camden/Islington move, with a joint budget of £500m, took the idea to a new level, and was followed by a similarly large move by three more London councils, with the decision of Hammersmith & Fulham, Westminster, and Kensington & Chelsea councils to share services.

Camden and Islington are still working on sharing some services. Moira Gibb, the chief executive of Camden council, says the discussions between directors are going well.

And so far, the three-borough "supercouncil" is still going ahead. But everyone agrees that in the face of huge spending cuts of 27% to local authority grants in England over the next four years, it is time for a major rethink of how local public services are delivered.

Camden and Islington each need to save £50m in the next four years. They won't save that from simply joint procurement of some services' as is clear from the announcement of their first shared service, a contract to supply school dinners, which Camden says will save it £270,000.

Any changes in management structure and governance are going to be challenging. The idea in north London was that Moira Gibb, the present chief executive of Camden, who also chairs the Social Work Reform Board, would take over the top management job, running both boroughs through a joint management team, following the retirement of existing chief executive of Islington, John Foster, next year.

There are reports of a personality clash between those heading up the two councils.

That may have put paid to a joint chief executive - but also to a joint senior management team that had the potential for considerable savings. Camden's senior management team comprises six people, plus Gibb, while Islington has five directors, plus Foster. Islington also shares a member of its management board with the local primary care trust.

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