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Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen joint chief executive experiment to start

Stephen Vickers is the chief executive of Torfaen Borough Council (Pic: Torfaen County Borough Council)

AN EXPERIMENT that could pave the way for future local government re-organisation in Wales is about to start in Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen.

At a special meeting of Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council on Wednesday, June 12 a proposal that will see Torfaen County Borough Council chief executive Stephen Vickers also take the helm in Ebbw Vale was backed by councillors.

The council has been searching for a permanent chief executive for over two years when former managing director, Michelle Morris left Blaenau Gwent in March 2022 to become the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales.

Former director of social services, Damian McCann stepped up into the role and has been the Blaenau Gwent “interim” chief executive ever since.

But with Mr McCann due to retire at the end of this month, the council needed to move quickly to find a suitable replacement.

Council leader, Labour’s Cllr Steve Thomas explained that this move is the preferred option as “no candidate” emerged for the role following the last bid to find a chief executive which took place from October to December last year.

After this failure, discussions to share Torfaen chief executive Stephen Vickers were then held between the councils and the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA).

Cllr Thomas said: “It’s important to note that this collaboration would not involve both authorities having a part time chief executive but rather a full time shared role.

“Each council will retain its political and financial sovereignty, own leadership team governance structure and a deputy (chief executive) to ensure continuity.

Closer working with Torfaen is supposed to drive “efficiency innovation and influence” explained Cllr Thomas.

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He added that the role would initially be for a “discovery” trial period estimated to be nine months.

After the trial ends and if Blaenau Gwent councillors don’t think the job share is working, they can pull the plug on it.

Mr Vickers would then need to stay in post for a further six months to allow Blaenau Gwent the time needed to recruit a new chief executive.

Opposition independent group deputy leader Cllr Joanna Wilkins said:  “How do we know the discovery phase is working, what are the monitoring arrangements.”

Cllr Thomas told councillors that Mr Vickers would initiate a number of changes from the start which would include putting in place monitoring arrangements.

Cllr Thomas said: “I’m confident we’ll see the fruits of that early on.”

Interim and outgoing chief executive Damian McCann said: “Speaking to Stephen (Vickers) he is keen to get the discovery phase over as quickly as possible, if he can do that before nine months he will.

“For me the discovery phase is all about looking and considering where we can make ourselves more resilient and sustainable.

“We have single points of failure in both councils.

“It just takes one member of staff to go off on long term sickness and then we are all struggling to deliver those roles.

“There are opportunities for him to look at where we can join teams together and work much closer in delivering services.”

Mr McCann added that Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen would be the first local authorities in Wales to share a chief executive.

Mr McCann said:  “I would hope that by working with the Welsh Government and the WLGA we may be able to source some funding.”

Mr McCann explained that this is because the approach being taken by Blaenau Gwent and Torfaen could also benefit other local authorities in Wales. who are all: “facing the same financial challenges.”

Cabinet member for regeneration and economic development Labour’s Cllr John Morgan pointed out that Blaenau Gwent is already working with other councils in organisations such as the Cardiff Capital City Region Deal.

Cllr Morgan said; “We are one of the smallest council’s in that collaboration and this will give us extra strength.

“We will be going in together to that as one council.”

Cllr Morgan stressed that Mr Vickers has the same values and vision “as us” and will give the councils a: “far stronger voice.”

Cllr Julie Holt (Pic: Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council)

Independent Cllr Julie Holt said: “Change is good for organisations and when you initiate it you find everybody is re-energised.”

She added that it’s good to “get the ball rolling” on changes that could provide lessons for other Welsh councils in the future.

“We’re leading by example,” said Cllr Holt.