Renew and refresh: Interview with Dick Walsh

Written by on 7 November 2013 in Interviews

The new leader of Argyll and Bute Council on the challenges ahead

After a year of damaging political wrangling and changes in administration, the new leader of Argyll and Bute Council hopes the local authority has turned a corner

Dick Walsh is no stranger to the leader’s office – this is the third time the veteran councillor has taken on the job and he’s confident he can do it justice.

“I am comfortable sitting in the role,” he tells Holyrood, “I know what it is all about and I am well aware of the challenges it presents for an individual. I am fairly relaxed and comfortable in the role I know I have to play, for the remaining life of this council at least.”

Walsh’s confidence might be exactly what the troubled local authority needs right now. For the past year, the council has been beset with serious problems, leaving both politicians and officers in a state of flux. The SNP led in Argyll and Bute following the local elections last year. However, in February this year, then leader Roddy McCuish resigned, before newly appointed SNP councillor James Robb also stepped down from the leader position after just three months in the role. McCuish again took up the reins briefly at the end of summer, before Walsh, an independent councillor, was appointed leader of an independent/Liberal Democrat/Conservative coalition, in September.

A recent Accounts Commission report reiterated the problems at Argyll and Bute, stating it was “seriously concerned about the substantial risks to Argyll and Bute Council caused by instability in its political leadership”.

The Accounts Commission said the quality of leadership of the council had been inadequate and the role the full council played was unsustainable and progress in securing effective scrutiny had also been inadequate.

The findings are in response to a report last month from the Controller of Audit which outlined a culture of instability and mistrust at the council. However, the commission said it was encouraged the council had recognised the need for change and was taking steps to make this happen, including bringing in external experts from the Improvement Service and COSLA for help and advice.

Chairman of the Accounts Commission, John Baillie, said: “Argyll and Bute Council now stands at a crossroads. There has been instability and lack of consistent political leadership for a long period.

“There is now some evidence that lessons have been learned and measures are being taken to develop new political management arrangements, training and development support for councillors and bringing in external support. All of this is encouraging. However, we urge the elected members and the corporate management team to work together to provide stronger and more effective leadership for the council, to ensure urgent progress is made. We have asked for a further report on progress made over the next six months.”

Speaking of these problems, Walsh said: “We’re sorry for the position which has prevailed in the past year or so but it’s behind us now, we need to satisfy the auditors but we’re determined to do that too. We’ve got a strong, stable administration in the council, we’ve got experienced people in control and we’re going to move forward.”

He added: “Given the profile I hold in my own local community, I have had people at the door asking what was going on and looking for clarity, and if you attended a meeting it was always the topic of conversation. We are looking at that as behind us. We’ve got the Audit Scotland report to address and we are addressing and embracing all the points within that.

“The first priority is to ensure we’ve got stability within the council and that we’re going to provide stable local government going forward. [The past year has] certainly impacted on the reputation of the council and indeed its councillors. We’re not happy about that. There’s a level of disappointment there but what we now need to do is to provide reassurance to our communities and we’re determined to do that. We’re going to roll up the sleeves and start working hard at this.

“The recent Audit Scotland report and the Accounts Commission’s findings have been a wake-up call for all of us. We take very seriously the comments made by the commission and we are very aware of what needs to be done. The people of Argyll and Bute can be assured that we are getting on with the job. Since becoming council leader, considerable progress has already been made. We now have a strong, sound and stable administration in place and, working together, members are very focused on tackling head-on the issues raised in the report, with the support of the council’s experienced, knowledgeable and committed senior management team.”

Looking ahead for the council, Walsh said one of its main priorities is developing and progressing the council’s single outcome agreement with its partners. He added: “From where I sit, you cannot fail to recognise the challenges out there. Our service approach is dictated in many respects by legislation in the first hand because it is central government that provides legislation by which we must respond and secondly, by finance because both of those invariably dictate the level and nature of policy you develop. Recognising all of that, we’ve now got a single outcome agreement and strong partnership arrangements in Argyll and Bute and we need to actively address the needs of the area.

“One of the main problems we face in Argyll and Bute is depopulation. When you see the census results, Argyll and Bute is one of the biggest areas of decline in terms of population. Related to that is economic development because that is an important issue for us.

“Finances will also be a challenge for us as we go ahead because the depopulation in many respects ties in with the financial settlements of local authorities – it is a double whammy, if you like.

“However, we are very fortunate in the quality of the team we have here in Argyll and Bute. I’m clear, as we develop policy, that our clear role is to support the officers and that policy has to be relevant to the needs of the people out there. I know there’s a lot of jargon around this but we strongly emphasise the importance of partnership between politicians and the officers who are expected to implement the services. Local government can’t do what needs to be done on its own, it is partnership which is key in all of this.

“We’re determined in our resolve that we do provide sound and stable local government in Argyll and Bute because it’s so important to the people out there and that’s something we’d like to make clear to them.”

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