Government 'directionless across every tier' says outgoing Doncaster Council chief

Jo Miller, outgoing chief executive of Doncaster Council.
Jo Miller, outgoing chief executive of Doncaster Council.
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One of the country's most senior town hall bosses has accused the Government of being "directionless across every tier of leadership at national level" and failing to unite the country behind a vision for its future.

Jo Miller, who served as Doncaster Council's chief executive until this month and was recently named the third most influential person working in local government in Britain, has urged her fellow local leaders to be more demanding of Ministers amid the ongoing Brexit deadlock.

Richard Wright, Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, Jo Miller, Doncaster Council, Ciara O'Connor, Aer Lingus cabin crew, Peter O'Mara, Aer Lingus, and Steve Gill, Doncaster Airport, at the launch of transatlantic flights to the US from Doncaster Robin Hood Airport.

Richard Wright, Sheffield Chamber of Commerce, Jo Miller, Doncaster Council, Ciara O'Connor, Aer Lingus cabin crew, Peter O'Mara, Aer Lingus, and Steve Gill, Doncaster Airport, at the launch of transatlantic flights to the US from Doncaster Robin Hood Airport.

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The former president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers called on politicians in the region not to give up on the One Yorkshire devolution proposals, saying the region is "too big, too proud and too important" to settle for a less ambitious handover of vital powers from Whitehall.

And in an outspoken attack, she described the Government's plans to cap exit payments for local authority officials as "cheap, tawdry politics" that risked turning public sector work into a second-class profession.

Mrs Miller, who became chief executive in Doncaster while the council was in special measures in 2011, is leaving the authority this month for a new job in New Zealand.

Jo Miller launches the authority's Apprenticeship Prospectus with apprentices past and present.

Jo Miller launches the authority's Apprenticeship Prospectus with apprentices past and present.

She told The Yorkshire Post: "I have worked in the private and public sector, in 30 years in the UK I have never known it so directionless across every tier of leadership at national level. It just doesn't feel like we are coalescing the people around 'what is the plan for this country'.

"The way to achieve success is through creating a collaboration of people, not to stand in opposition to each other.

"Most leadership is local, local government needs to be a little bit more demanding of the centre because most of the leadership has been local these last few years.

"There are some fantastic leaders in Yorkshire, it is a joy to work with the Yorkshire leaders, they pass the ball to each other, they give and take, everybody is aware there is a plurality of politics but it is not what drives things."

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Reflecting on her time as a civil servant, Mrs Miller said she would now tell her children to think twice if they asked her whether to go into local government.

The mother-of-two's salary of £164,000 a year is published on the council's website and is 9.5 times that of its lowest-paid employee, less than the 20-1 ratio proposed by an independent review in 2010.

She criticised the attempts to "denigrate" officials in well-paid public sector roles, specifically what she described as the "festival of outrage" caused by the annual TaxPayers' Alliance annual 'rich list' for council chiefs.

She said: "I realise this isn't going to be very popular saying this, but we need to give people a little bit of respect.

"At the minute there are things happening which might sound like great soundbite politics, around things like capping the payments people receive when they leave public services.

"I am not asking for special favours for public servants but I don't think they should have employment rights which are different to their private sector colleagues.

"I don't think it should be a second-class profession, I don't think it should be a race to the bottom in terms of public service terms and conditions.

"With some of the pension changes that are being made and some of those payments, that's what government are doing, I am going to be honest and call it what it is, I think it is purely there for soundbite politics to play to the masses and it is pretty tawdry.

"It might sound great now but actually we want our brightest and best minds to be doing some of the things we are doing to create successful places and people in the future. And I worry about talent."

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The full Saturday interview

After eight years as one of the most influential figures in local government, Doncaster council chief executive is taking on a new challenge 'down under'. She spoke to Rob Parsons about the challenges and achievements of her time in Yorkshire.

This weekend Jo Miller and her family will board a plane for the 12,000-mile journey taking them to the next stage in their lives on the other side of the world.

After nearly eight years as chief executive of Doncaster Council and one of the country's highest-profile figures representing local government, she will soon take on the top job at Hutt City Council in New Zealand.

It's a move her friends and colleagues have told her is "bold" and "brave", though the one she made eight years ago when stepping into the breach at the South Yorkshire town hall labelled a "basket case" could be considered just as adventurous in its own way.

At that stage the council, with the English Democrats' Peter Davies as its directly elected mayor, was riven with bullying, secretive governance and dysfunctional politics and subject to a damning Audit Commission report that saw it put into special measures.

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Reflecting back on the start of her tenure after a "cracking eight years", the mother-of-two says she was aware of advice not to apply to be chief executive but "my view was that it can't get any worse so I took it on".

Since then she says she is "enormously proud" of the progress made by the authority and its staff, citing a fall in the borough's unemployment rate, an economy that's grown by £1.2bn in eight years and projects such as the Great Yorkshire Way road link and high speed rail college as evidence of its success.

"I'm most proud of Doncaster's sense of belief in itself, it's no longer defined by its challenges but defined by its ambition, which is huge, but mindful that it's on a journey," she says. "That is what staff and partners say to me, we know we can do things now and are just going to do it. Long after I'm not here I know that spirit of Doncaster will go on every day. It's like rocket fuel."

The 51-year-old, a Liverpudlian and staunch Liverpool football fan, has already started learning Maori ahead of her move to a country with a land mass the size of the UK and a population the size of Yorkshire.

Her two boys aged 10 and 16 are enthusiastic about the move, which took shape last year when she visited New Zealand and Australia in her role as president of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives.

And Mrs Miller speaks with excitement about living in what she describes as a young, progressive country that "celebrates its diversity". "It is a country that knows it needs to do some change and is having a conversation with its residents about what kind of country it wants to be," she says.

"The chance to use my skills to be part of that conversation, it is too good to turn down. The lifestyle appeals to me, but I want to use my skills, everything I have learned so far, to help them in their drive to modernise, create sustainable public services and great places."

The Government's austerity drive, which has been hanging over local authorities for nearly a decade, does not exist in the same way in New Zealand and she says her new home is 10 to 15 years behind the UK in terms of levels of inequality that exist between the haves and have-nots.

She fears that the resulting feeling many have of being left behind and often struggling to put a roof over their heads, has combined with rapid globalisation to instil an increasing feeling of 'the other' towards anyone new arriving in the country.

"Whatever happens with Brexit it is not going to bring the country together, and we are not having the conversation about what kind of UK we want to be.

"Being a UK citizen for me isn't about vans coming round saying 'immigrants go home', it isn't about people who have lived and worked here all their life and paid taxes having to prove they have the right to be here, people telling me they are afraid to use their mother tongue while walking down the street.

"There is becoming an invective to our public life, we have lost the ability to disagree with each other in an agreeable manner."

Critical of the "directionless" government mired in Brexit turmoil, she says most of the leadership in the country in recent times has come from local figures.

And able to speak more freely with her departure imminent, Mrs Miller is keen to talk about the benefits of transferring powers to her region from Whitehall in a One Yorkshire devolution deal and the governmental intransigence that has stopped that from happening.

Ministers Jake Berry and James Brokenshire have so far resisted the proposal, which she has helped develop behind the scenes. And though she accepts there may be a need to compromise with smaller devolution deals in the short term, she believes Yorkshire is "too big, too proud and too important" not to have a region-wide mayor at some point.

"In a country that is so divided to have something that brings together Barnsley and Bridlington, Bedale and Bradford, city and coast and town and village and lords and ladies and those in entry level jobs, people who have just got there and people who have been there forever, something that is able to bring people together and bring about civil and democratic renewal, is gold dust and we should embrace it."

The suggestion that Yorkshire is too diverse for such an arrangement is, in her words, "a load of tosh". "If you take fishing villages in the far north of Scotland, they have more in common with fishing villages in Devon than with Glasgow and Edinburgh," she says. "If it works in Scotland why can't it work in Yorkshire.

"Some of the forces around nationalism and identity politics, we can go against them and they can be forces for bad, or we can work with them and use them as forces for good. Yorkshire has been around a lot longer than Jake Berry."