Tackling the Bureaucracy

Changing the culture of the Council required a big restructure of the mechanisms of decision making. The goal was to get the officers and councillors working more closely together, but with the elected Members in control rather than rubber stamping the advice of chief officers. This chapter details the complex restructuring of the committees, sub-committees, working parties and departments to serve them.
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Wanting Elected Members to Lead
The new Left leadership from May 1984 recognised that in order to achieve the radical changes they wanted to see, the whole nature of the Council bureaucracy would have to change. Many of those involved in the City Party’s policy working parties were employed by the Council and knew how the departmental structures worked (or didn’t work). Not all councils at the time were as rigidly hierarchical as Manchester. The system was so inflexible that in some departments no-one apart from the chief officer was allowed to speak to an ‘elected Member’ (councillor). In order to take up a constituent’s complaint, a councillor needed to fill out a ‘memorandum’ on Council day and pass it to the relevant chief officer who would get the required answer and send a reply letter.

In addition to their rigid approach to Members, some chief officers had a similar approach to their staff – they operated a ‘closed door’ approach to the workforce and didn’t consider that staff would have a view on policy or would have anything to contribute.

The Left believed in working closely with officers/workers at all levels of the Council departments and they wanted to make councillors more accessible to them. In addition to policy setting, they wanted a greater role in the whole operation of Council services, making it a Member-led rather than an officer-led local authority. There were difficulties with this new style of operation in some departments with chief officers finding it hard to adjust and some councillors being tempted to get involved in ‘micro-managing’ the departments. But for many more junior officers, this new style of operation was a ‘breath of fresh air’.

Changing the Committee Structure
The new administration was also determined to change the old-fashioned committee structure. At the first meeting of the new Policy Committee in July 1984, steering groups were set up to progress the establishment of the new committees needed for implementing the new policies. Val Stevens was charged with leading on Equal Opportunities, Frances Done on Neighbourhood Services, and Tony McCardell on Police Monitoring (although he had only just been elected to the Council and had no experience of council procedures).

Non-sexist language was introduced and all council officers were instructed to ensure that reports (written and verbal) conformed to this policy. The council minutes for June 1984 refer to chairs rather than chairmen, apart from the Education Committee minutes, although these were changed by the second meeting of the cycle. However, officers (and some councillors) had to be constantly reminded to add “or she” to sentences that assumed everyone was male. There was also an ongoing issue about the term ‘chair’ and the constant references to ‘pieces of furniture’.

At that time, the Council met every four weeks and in between these meetings, each committee and sub-committee met and did a lot of detailed work. This was referred to as the ‘committee cycle’. Every decision, large or small, went through a committee and was recorded. Even decisions on whether to accept a particular tender for the supply of door knobs for council houses and what topics should be included in the continuing education curriculum in Further Education colleges.

The Left councillors taking over the administration were extremely committed and enthusiastic about finally having the chance to put into practice all the policies they had been working on and talking about for so many years. However, they were very naïve about what could be achieved in a short space of time, and some of them lacked experience (or competence). They had their agreed policy programme, but no thought-out strategy for how such a large and bureaucratic machine could be made to implement it.

The other difficulty was that the Left councillors had only a small overall numerical majority over the Labour Right and had to ensure they had a majority on each committee, as well as filling the chair and deputy positions, in order to oversee the implementation of the new policies. So, everyone in the Left grouping had to have more than one chair or deputy responsibility, as well as being on several other committees. Each councillor would normally be on three full committees, as well as on numerous sub-committees and working parties. They were constantly wrestling with time constraints and lack of co-ordination. Also, for those with full-time jobs, the Council financial allowances didn’t compensate them for the loss of earnings while on Council duties. Very few of those with committee chair responsibilities were able to hang on to full-time jobs because of the time demands, and they became full-time councillors having to survive on these small Council allowances.

There was a Council Standing Order ruling that no-one could be the chair of two full committees, and this created a problem for Frances Done as she had been elected as Chair of the Finance Committee, but was also going to chair the Neighbourhood Services Committee. This was resolved by disbanding the Finance Committee and making it into a sub-committee of the Policy Committee, which was then re-named as the Policy and Resources Committee.

Prior to 1984, elected Members had only been involved in the appointments of chief officers and deputies, and then it was the whole of the employing committee involved[1]. Because they were determined to change the nature of the workforce, the Left councillors also participated in staff appointment panels – often of quite junior staff. According to Roger Jones (NALGO official at the time), this was unusual for any local authority. However, this became such a burden that in August 1984, it was decided that this involvement (apart from for very senior posts) should cease.

Each employing committee had a staffing sub-committee at which disciplinary and grievance issues would be heard and these meetings also took up a lot of councillors’ time. There were also new sub-committees set up to deal with the Nuclear Free Zone, Anti-Poverty issues and Health.

As if this wasn’t enough, for each of the new policy units (Equal Opportunities, Police Monitoring, Neighbourhood Services and Campaign and Public Information) there was, in addition to the formal committee, a working party that met every four weeks.

These working parties for the new units were set up as a way of cutting through the bureaucracy, and this way of working, enabled officers and councillors to contribute as equals to the policy development process, which proved to be very effective. In the formal committee structures, chief officers presented reports (and sometimes spoke to them) but didn’t engage in any discussion. Councillors made speeches and decisions on the basis of the chief officers’ recommendations and, prior to 1984, the committees almost always endorsed those recommendations.

It meant that there were more and more meetings for councillors to attend, and they began to drown in paperwork (and so did the council officers). In an attempt to alleviate the problem of excessive numbers of meetings, the committee cycle was changed in December 1984 to a five-weekly one, and this created a bit more breathing space between council meetings.

Labour Group Meetings
Prior to each committee meeting, there was (as before) a meeting of the Labour councillors (called the Committee Labour Group) to agree what would be said and done in the committee. Before the change of administration, the chief officer recommendations would have been agreed beforehand with the committee chair, and the committee meeting was often just a ‘rubber-stamping’ exercise. But the Left were committed to making decisions in a more collective way and would frequently overturn the chief officer recommendations – sometimes adopting a very confrontational style in the committee meetings. In some instances there was almost a ‘macho-style’ competition in who could insult chief officers the most.

On the Direct Works Committee, it was agreed that, although Pat Karney had been elected as the Chair, every Labour member would act as Chair for two months, with all decisions coming to the Committee Labour Group for agreement. This worked for most of the first year until Tony McCardell took his turn and made some decisions without bringing them to the Committee Labour Group. This really shocked Pat (who was committed to group decision-making) and so he took back the Chair in the traditional way, so that he could ensure all decisions were made in the Labour Group[2].

The Education Labour Group had a collective of eight people acting as an Executive Group, called the Chairs and Deputies Group as they were the Chairs and Deputies of the Education sub-committees[3]. This group met regularly with the Chief Education Officer and his senior managers and established a co-operative working arrangement, which avoided confrontation and policy clashes in committee meetings. Another reason for doing this was because the elected Chair of the Committee (Val Dunn), had little knowledge or experience in Education (although was a very effective shop steward in the Baker’s Union), and the collective method of working was to make it clear to the officers that she was not to be pushed into making decisions on her own (see chapters 9 and 10).

Because each committee was regarded as the ‘employer’ of the staff in the department (rather than the Council) changes to the committee structure affected the ‘status’ of the chief officer, so there was great resistance to any proposals to abolish or merge committees. An early decision that was made in October 1984 was to merge the Recreation Committee with the Cultural Services Committee in order to have one committee (Leisure Services). However, it was discovered that, because the committee dealing with Art Galleries and Museums had (legally) to have co-opted members on it from the universities and other bodies, there would have to be a separate Art Galleries Committee. The councillors involved had wanted to establish just one Leisure Department, which didn’t happen, so the new Leisure Services Committee dealt with the budgets and staffing of two departments – Cultural Services (which included Libraries and Theatres divisions) and Recreation – and the new Art Galleries Committee dealt with one. But the chairs and deputies of the two committees[4] acted collectively on all major issues in the same way as the Education collective.

Relationships with the Trade Unions
The Left’s relationships with the trade unions sometimes hindered their attempts to tackle the Council bureaucracy. Their initial good intention was that there should be more and better consultations between them and the managers (which is recognised today as good practice), but this raised expectations that often were not able to be met. There were also managerial problems caused by departmental trade union convenors having close relationships with the committee chairs and able to ‘jump over’ the recognised negotiating procedures. The initially close relationship between the Left and the Council trade unions was destined to become strained over the following years because of this.

One of the complaints of the Craft and Manual Trade Unions was that they never found out what was going on until it was too late to do anything about it. So, one of the decisions made at the first Policy Committee in July 1984, was that trade union representatives could attend all Council committee meetings.

Roger Jones thinks that the trade unions took advantage of the inexperience of the new administration and the friendships they had with colleagues on the Left. The new Chair of Personnel (Margaret Roff) although a clever woman, wasn’t used to dealing with strong trade union officials and shop stewards and often gave in to trade union demands.

When there were disputes between workers and managers (and there were many) the trade union shop stewards would present their case at City Party meetings and the subsequent resolutions of support caused problems for chairs of committees and undermined the chief officers trying to manage their departments. The Left’s inclination was to be on the side of the workers rather than the managers, and this further undermined the managers. Eventually (25 February 1987) guidelines had to be drawn up for handling disputes within the Council to avoid the problem of City Party passing resolutions supporting Council workers in dispute.

A further problem for the chief officers in departments, such as Housing and Social Services was that middle-ranking officers who were members of the Labour Party, had direct access to the committee chair, and this ‘by-passing’ of the management hierarchy undermined the authority of the chief officer and proved to be a recipe for poor management.

Another factor in the straining of the relationship between the Labour Group and the trade unions was the commitment in the 1984 manifesto to tackle low pay – particularly amongst council workers – which proved to be more problematical than anticipated. Trade union representatives obviously supported the principle of eliminating low pay, but when proposals eroded the differentials between workers, they were opposed to them.

An exacerbating factor in all the trade union disputes was the predominance of Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP) members within NUPE and NALGO – particularly in the Housing and Social Services departments – who were no friends of the Labour Party and keen to exploit difficulties on the Left.

Prior to the change in administration, all the trade union consultations had been done by the Director of Personnel (Roger Matthews) and his staff – usually via the Joint Consultative Committees (JCCs). In Roger Jones’ view there were good relationships between the Personnel officers and all the trade unions, but the meetings were always formal. There was no informal consultation process and elected Members were only involved if it wasn’t possible to resolve things by negotiation with the officers. The councillors’ Personnel Appeals Committee only dealt with the final stages of the disciplinary procedure and the trade union representation would be by full-time officials.

In 1974, NALGO had successfully negotiated a 35 hour week with flexitime for their members, as the Labour right-wing had agreed with the principle of a shorter working week. This meant that Manchester’s NALGO members’ conditions were better than anyone else’s and the staff were not reliant on overtime. Out of 48 local authorities in the North West, only Manchester and Knowsley were on 35 hour weeks, most of the others were on the nationally agreed 37 hours. The manual workers in Manchester also had very good bonus schemes. So, in theory, there shouldn’t have been the level of discontent amongst the workers that the Left encountered.

But, after the change in administration, elected Members were dealing with everything (including first-stage warnings) and workers were represented by shop stewards. The NALGO secretary (Lynn Evans) was given the opportunity to comment on all committee reports (in writing) and to attend committees and give the trade union point of view on every proposal.

The support for trade unionists in dispute was occasionally taken to extremes, without recognising any ‘conflict of interest’. For example when ‘Democracy Day’ was declared nationally by the trade union movement on 7th March 1985, a half-day ‘strike’ was called by the councillors in support of the ‘not setting a rate’ position. John Nicholson (Chair of the Housing Committee at the time) was on the picket line with the workers, trying to encourage everybody to come out on strike. He addressed a mass meeting of trade unionists in the Central Hall on Oldham Street, saying that the old days had gone and there would be a new relationship between the Council (as employer) and the trade unions, although privately, he recognised that some trade unionists (particularly in NUPE Housing) were obstructive.

But it wasn’t only the SWP that caused problems in the Housing department. Tony Dale (a NUPE activist in Housing at the time) thinks that some of the industrial relations problems that occurred in Housing were due to raised expectations that didn’t materialise. However, John Taylor (Principal Officer in Housing at the time) believes the problems preceded the change of administration and were caused by confrontational management styles (see below). Roger Jones also believes that the department was out of control before 1984 and even after two years of the new administration, it was still in crisis. More than half the staff changed unions between NALGO and NUPE, at least once, and sometimes twice. During disputes, they would also move from one Union to the other. At NALGO meetings, Housing was always on the agenda.

Whilst there was improved trade union consultation in Housing under the new administration, and shop stewards had easy access to the Committee Chair (John Nicholson from 1984 to 1986 and then Sam Darby), there weren’t significant changes in the relationship between managers and workers in the department.

Chopping Chief Officers
Alongside the problems of dealing with the bureaucratic committee structure and trying to develop different relationships with the trade unions, was the difficulty in working with the chief officers. The Council was run in a very old-fashioned way and needed to change, but the new administration’s relationships with these men (as they all were) were not tackled well.

Party members who were employed by the Council, and those from the trade union wing of the Party, had very strong views on which chief officers were a hindrance to implementing the Manifesto and would have to go. Some of the Party members involved in policy working parties and the City Party were quite senior council officers themselves and knew from first hand experience how reactionary some of the chief officers were.

The prevailing view was that the chief officers had to be committed to the new Left agenda, although, as professional officers, they may have been the best people to actually implement the new policies, rather than people who had the correct views, but no experience of managing change. However, there was a preponderance of chief officers who were old-fashioned and who ran their departments like fiefdoms. They really decided what was going to happen, regardless of the will of the politicians, and, if the new policies were to be implemented, then many of these would have to go.

The Town Clerk, Jim Hetherington, had decided in July 1984 to retire, after 43 years of local government service, but there is no doubt that the change in political control was the spur to his decision. He was awarded a CBE for services to local government, and his successor was Roger Taylor, who was much more amenable to the new agenda (appointed by Graham Stringer and Frances Dunn). According to Lis Phelan (Deputy Branch Secretary of NALGO at the time), Roger Taylor was very different from Jim Hetherington, being very urbane and philosophically in tune with the new administration, although he could never show it, as local government officers (like civil servants) had to be seen to be non-political.

There followed what could only be described as a cull of Chief Officers. Those who survived were either personally committed to the new policies being pursued (as Gordon Hainsworth in Education) or recognised the mandate from the electorate and were broadly sympathetic (as Brian Parnell – City Planning Officer).

The Director of Social Services (Cliff Hilditch) had been due to retire in 1984 and went without being pushed and his deputy (Irene Walton), a former social worker, was appointed from an open selection process[5]. On the Left there was generally a lot of hostility towards social workers as agents of social control. It was a popular working class idea that social workers interfered with your life and did things like taking people’s children away from them. There was no understanding of the complexity of the care regulations. Graham Stringer shared this dislike of social workers.

Those chief officers who were close to retirement were persuaded to go sooner rather than later. The City Engineer (Geoffrey Reid) retired in October 1984 and the Director of Cleansing (Thomas Blundell) retired in June 1985. The City Engineer’s replacement – Sinclair McLeod said to councillors – “Tell me what you want doing and I’ll do it” – a typical (but welcome) engineer’s attitude.

The Director of Environmental Health (Eric Foskett) was pushed into retiring. He was from a different era. Graham Stringer’s view of environmental health officers was similar to his view of social workers – he couldn’t see the purpose of them. He made it obvious that he didn’t think Foskett or his department were much use and after some major things went wrong in the department (including a badly handled pay claim that cost the city a lot in back pay), it wasn’t difficult to justify pushing him out. Despite this (and Graham’s views) Foskett was not pushed to go as heavily as others were.

The first one to be actually ‘sacked’ was the Director of Works (Richard Munday). He was very old-fashioned and insisted on being called ‘Mr’ Munday. The left-wing councillors believed he had an appalling attitude towards council tenants and towards the workforce. He managed the variations in workload by sacking operatives and re-employing them when more work was available, rather than planning the work in a better way so that continuity of employment was possible. There was also a lot of waste in the Direct Works Department and apparently a number of ‘improper’ things going on that he had no control over. So, he was very unpopular with the trade unions and no-one had any sympathy for him when he was sacked.

He had initially offered to change his ways, but it was felt that he had too much ‘baggage’ and it fell to Pat Karney (Chair) and Basil Curley (Deputy) to tell him he was to be sacked. When he had gone, the deputy (Don Crossley) acted up, and although he had previously had a reputation of being brutal towards the trade unions, he apparently did a U-turn and, according to Basil Curley, he ‘ran with the Left’s agenda’.

The Director of Housing (Graham Goodhead) was the second chief officer that had to go. He wasn’t unsympathetic to the new policies and was keen to give politicians what they wanted. He was very quick to brief his senior officers on the need to watch their language and be sure to use the new term ‘Chair’ rather than ‘Chairman’. However, he was a weak manager and had allowed bullying, confrontational managers to flourish in the department. As mentioned earlier, from 1979 to 1984 there were a series of industrial disputes of one sort or another, which he had failed to deal with, although it is doubtful whether anyone would have been able to manage those, given the militancy of NUPE activists at the time (and not all of the militants were SWP members)[6]. It was also believed that he had kept the previous administration ‘sweet’ by agreeing to their requests for sheltered housing schemes in their ward (they could be churned out very easily and were electorally very popular) rather than keeping to a strategic, planned, or fair process of development.

The Housing Department was much more vulnerable to political influence than any other department, because councillors’ case work was always dominated by council house tenants’ problems and they were thus more aware of weaknesses within that department than any other.

John Nicholson initially thought Goodhead was ‘manageable’, but decided at some point that he had to go. Malcolm Clarke (Deputy Chief Officer at the time) thinks that John Nicholson told him he had to go without even speaking to anyone else on the Housing Committee. He believes that Goodhead didn’t make a fight of it, because he would have thought that if he no longer had the confidence of the Chair, there would be no point in continuing. Malcolm was made Acting Chief Officer until the new appointment could be made.

However, Goodhead’s replacement (Bob Young) turned out to be a disaster, in management terms. He had worked in Manchester’s Environmental Health department some years before and had applied for the job of HMO (Houses in Multiple Occupancy) Co-ordinator. He was interviewed by Graham Stringer, Keith Bradley and John Nicholson (and Malcolm Clarke, as acting Director). The interviewees had an exercise to do and Bob said – “the only way you’re going to solve this problem is to get some of these landlords to cool their heels in Strangeways (prison), which you could do, but (turning to Graham) I’m not sure you’ve got the stomach for that.” A bit later Graham said – “Ten minutes ago I asked if you were a serious candidate for this job and you didn’t answer. I’ll ask you again, are you a serious candidate?” Bob said – “No! I’m sorry to have wasted your time, but I’m even sorrier that you’ve wasted mine”. With that he gathered up his papers and walked out[7].

So, when Bob Young turned up on the shortlist for Director of Housing, Malcolm Clarke ‘opened a book’ (betting jargon) on the appointment, thinking that there was no way he was going to be appointed after that earlier performance. Bill Pitt (a senior housing officer at the time) bet on Bob being appointed and, Malcolm says, “he cleaned me out” (won all the money).

It is interesting that no-one on the appointment panel actually appeared to be in favour of appointing Bob. There was a shortage of good candidates applying for the post (hardly surprising given Manchester’s reputation for getting rid of chief officers) and John Nicholson certainly didn’t want to appoint him. But, whereas Graham Stringer and Frances Dunn didn’t want him either, they didn’t feel it was possible to go on much longer without a director (and by default, leave John Nicholson in charge), so they reluctantly decided to appoint him. John Nicholson went to tell the housing management team, clearly very upset, saying “I’m really, really sorry, but they’ve appointed Bob Young”.

On Bob’s first day, Malcolm (as deputy) told him about a big meeting for all the relevant departments and the Police, called by councillor Keith Bradley (Chair of the Environmental Health committee) to discuss Travellers (the new term for Gypsies). Malcolm said to Bob – “Do you want to go or shall I?” Bob decided they would both go. Immediately after arriving, Bob started arguing with the Environmental Health Officers and the Police and then said, “This meeting’s a waste of time”, folded up his papers and said, “I’m going, my deputy can choose for himself what he does”. Malcolm had only a few seconds to decide, but thought he had no choice but to follow him out. If he’d stayed, he would have had no credibility, so he followed Bob out and found him laughing, saying, “Didn’t I tell them?” Malcolm tried to get him to see that Cllr Bradley wouldn’t be very impressed when he found out, which he wasn’t.

That was the way Bob started (and continued). There are said to be a million Bob Young stories between his first and his last day. Some housing officers (and councillors) thought it was a disastrous appointment, but he lasted for four years until he was sacked in March 1989 (see chapter 13).

In May 1985, a new Director of Works was appointed – an unusual appointment as he was a young (35 year old) American lawyer (Paul Lowenberg)[8] who was politically left-wing, very dynamic and articulate, but was another one who turned out to be an inexperienced manager. The Manchester Evening News (23/5/85) carried a picture of him and an article headlined ‘Row over £28,000 post’. The ‘row’ was caused by Ken Collis (former right-wing Chair of Housing) who described it as a ‘political appointment’. The fuss was made because (apart from being left-wing) Paul came from Hackney Council (where he was Deputy Head of Building) and the new Director of Housing (Bob Young), appointed just one month previously, was also from Hackney.

There are different views today on the wisdom of removing so many chief officers at the same time. There is no doubt that many of them needed to go, but maybe some could have been spared and may have been effective in managing the required changes. Mistakes were made with some of the new appointments and Manchester gained a bad reputation which lasted for many years.

Attempts to change the bureaucracy of the committee structure initially resulted in more meetings with working parties and sub-committees, and more complex procedures. But, the informal member/officer working parties were a great success and were very effective in cutting through red tape, although they couldn’t circumvent the legal structures and all their decisions had to be formally put through committee meetings.

Although it could be argued that the bureaucracy wasn’t completely changed, the biggest success was that the new administration did succeed in making Manchester a ‘Member-led’ authority and thereby was able to push through the new radical policies.

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Editor’s Comments

The editing of this chapter has involved layout and typographical corrections with a few minor deletions of asides that seemed unnecessary. This was a chapter that I put on the site early on and at the time I didn’t feel it needed sub-headings, but I have come back to it after all of the chapters have been done (1 May 2016) and decided to add sub-headings to format it in keeping with the other chapters

This account feels paradoxical. On the one hand the idea was to challenge the bureaucracy, but it feels to me that a greater degree of it was introduced if you equate bureaucracy with complexity and delay. There was also the idea of being more collaborative with the officers and workers, and the electorate, involving them in the processes and having more dialogue directly with councillors. But at the same time this was designed to make the Council more Member led than Chief Officer led, so my interpretation is that it was really about getting rid of the old guard and managing a process of change.


[1] Up to 1980, all senior posts were interviewed by the whole employing committee.

[2] When Pat Karney took family leave of absence in October 1985, he stood down as Chair, and his deputy – Basil Curley was elected in his place, with Ken Barnes as the new deputy.

[3] The Chairs and Deputies group was – Val Dunn (Chair), Tony Burns (Deputy Chair), Nick Harris (Chair of Education Policy Sub), Pete Keenlyside (Chair of Schools Sub), Ronni Myers (deputy), Winnie Smith (deputy), Richard Leese (Chair of FE Sub) and Gordon Conquest (deputy). Although Gordon Conquest was on the Right, he had been the previous chair of the committee and was included as a gesture of goodwill).

[4] The four chairs and deputies were Tom Egan (Chair Leisure), Marilyn Taylor (Deputy), Mike Harrison (Chair of Art Galleries) and Brian Harrison (Deputy).

[5] Irene Walton was later pushed into resigning (1987) – see chapter 11 – which led to five to ten years of instability within the department.

[6] Some of those militant NUPE activists are now to be found in very senior positions in the council!

[7] Patrick Cornwell eventually got the HMO co-ordinator job.

[8] Paul Lowenburg later became the Chief Executive of Edinburgh Council, but left there when the Tories took control.

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