Outgoing county council leader reflects on achievements as well as regrets

Louise Goldsmith at the official opening of the Tangmere solar farm back in 2015
Louise Goldsmith at the official opening of the Tangmere solar farm back in 2015

The failure of the A27 improvement scheme at Chichester was high on the list of regrets for the outgoing leader of West Sussex County Council.

Louise Goldsmith, who was replaced by Paul Marshall on Friday, said the decision by Highways England not to consult on the preferred choices of both the district and county councils as well as MP Gillian Keegan had ‘left a real, indelible mark’.

She added: “One thing I hope is Highways England will never do that again to any place because people still feel deeply, deeply aggrieved over that.

“If you say you’re going to do something do something.

“The way the consultation was just so dramatically pulled, then it was brought back with things taken out, is a classic example of people having expectations and then taking the expectations away.”

With the Arundel scheme going through consultation and Arun District Council choosing its preferred route, Mrs Goldsmith said investment in the Chichester section was needed.

She added: “You just can’t have a development across Arundel, you have to have it in Chichester as well.”

Poor performing children’s services

Mrs Goldsmith’s decision to step down came after a Department for Education report into the county’s struggling children’s services was leaked. The report suggested the services could be taken out of the authority’s hands and run by a trust.

That ‘inadequate’ rating from Ofsted was one of many reasons some felt it was time for Mrs Goldsmith to go.

Others were the recent inspection of the fire and rescue service, which rated West Sussex ‘requires improvement’ and raised ‘significant concerns’ about public safety; the continuing delays to plans for a college for older children at Woodlands Meed special school; the need for improvements within adults services; the instability and high turnover of staff, often at very senior levels; and the seemingly never-ending budget cuts.

When it comes to the latter, even her most staunch critics should admit she was often on a hiding to nothing.

Government funding cuts

Mrs Goldsmith took over the top job in May 2010 just in time to be hit in the face with the government’s austerity programme.

Since then the council’s funding has been cut by £145m. This has led to more than £239m being cut from the budget, with another £75.5m to be found over the next four years.

Mrs Goldsmith said: “It’s been relentless. You keep going through a reiterative process. The last three years have been incredibly difficult.

“There have been things where your whole instinct is saying ‘I don’t want to do this’ but your whole head is saying ‘you don’t have an option’, because if you do not get your balanced budget you’re in serious problems.

“In the end, if you haven’t got the money, you can’t do anything.”

Cuts to adult services, affecting some of the most vulnerable people in the community, left a particularly bad taste for many and earned Mrs Goldsmith and her cabinet no friends.

It’s an area she knows has ‘got to be resolved’, adding: “That means additional funding.”

‘Caring, thoughtful and diligent’

While some have relished her decision to step down, there was support from a perhaps unlikely corner.

Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School, Horsham, and driving force behind the WorthLess? campaign for fairer school funding, urged people ‘not to be too twitchy with their own trigger finger’ before they shot down her tenure as leader.

Mr White said: “Over years and years, headteachers have lamented the poverty of service in the strategic leadership of schools/education and the woeful lack of quality in local children’s services and social care.

“Endemic problems have not been tackled. An absence of effective long-term planning and sustainable leadership have been at the root of major issues that have finally been brought to public attention

“Louise Goldsmith must, of course, bear ultimate responsibility for this, particularly where the appointments of chief executive after chief executive have been concerned.

“Further, the council has often not looked hard enough to find viable solutions to the major issues at hand and hard working and dedicated public servants have been left swimming against the tide.

“Families too, especially children have deserved much better.

 “But those of us who have worked with Louise Goldsmith at the sharp end have also seen a different side to things.

“She was always caring, thoughtful and diligent in her approach and interactions. Her desire to see genuine improvements in our public services was absolute in my view.

“From experience, I have also seen Mrs Goldsmith’s integrity and strength. None more so than by her steadfast support of the Worth Less? funding campaign.

“This certainly did not always make her flavour of the month with some local MPs and most definitely did not bring her hearts and flowers up at Conservative HQ.”

Chief executive absent

On the subject of chief executive Nathan Elvery, Mrs Goldsmith remained tight-lipped over his whereabouts.

While plenty of hearsay has be thrown around, the council has continually refused to answer questions about him since announcing he was ‘away from duties’ at the end of September.

‘Green shoots’ in children’s services

When it came to children’s services, the appointment of Mr Marshall as cabinet member – along with John Readman as director of children’s services – was identified by the Department for Education’s commissioner John Coughlan as one of the high points of the improvement process.

So would those improvements continue after he took on the mantle of leader and all the extra work that would involve?

Mrs Goldsmith said: “There’s no doubt about Paul’s commitment to the children – and I would endorse what the commission has said.

“I appointed Paul because I thought he would be very steady and solid with the children, which is what it needed, and the same with John Readman. They do make a very good pair.

“We’ve seen some green shoots there which is excellent.

“I haven’t talked to him personally yet about his plans but I believe that he will continue to keep that focus, although he wouldn’t be able to do such a big job and leader. So I expect he will make an appointment but he will keep a very close eye on that particular service because it needs that.”

She said she was looking forward to seeing where Mr Marshall would take West Sussex over the next couple of years. Her only advice was: “Make sure you’ve got time to listen to everybody, time to talk to everyone, and give it your best shot.”

As for the leaked draft report, Mrs Goldsmith said she had responded to Mr Coughlan about his findings, with the final version expected by the end of the month.

She stressed that, despite the report’s findings, progress had been made, including reducing the ridiculously high case-loads endured by the county’s social workers.

Mrs Goldsmith added: “I personally see there are green shoots. The mere fact that John Coughlan hadn’t picked that up or mentioned it in his report is something perhaps we’ll comment about when it’s published.”

‘I can be a lot more outspoken now’

Looking to her own future, she now faces life as a backbencher at County Hall representing her Chichester West ward – and she has no intention of sitting back and keeping quiet.

She plans to be more active in the area of climate change, adding: “Perhaps without being leader I can be a lot more outspoken.”

She continued: “It’s been a real privilege to have been leader. I’ve really given it my best shot. There are things you always think ‘perhaps I should have done better’ and there are things that I’ll always be pleased with.”

Among those high moments, Mrs Goldsmith included the environmental work already carried out, and the efforts made to improve the county’s business links and bring in investment via the district and borough councils.

As for the good folk of Chichester West, she said: “I have to thank my community because, when you become leader, it’s very difficult and you don’t necessarily always have time for your division. 

“Everybody has been fantastically understanding and that’s been a real big blessing.

“I’ve been fortunate to represent the most fantastic division and I’ve been in a really fortunate position to head up the county council – but nothing goes on forever and there are new challenges ahead and I’m looking forward to them.

“I’m not going to be a quiet backbencher. If I feel that there is something, I will do what every councillor should. They should keep asking the question until they get the answer.

“They should double-check on the questions and they should keep going for their community if there are injustices.

“I think I’ve done that and I will continue to do that. That’s not going to change. That’s me.”