THE region’s flagship council was shocked last night after political friction led to the sudden departure of its chief executive.
Barry Rowland’s departure from Newcastle City Council follows months of behind-the-scenes tension with political leaders that culminated in an independent review.
Mr Rowland and Coun Nick Forbes, leader of the council, were forced to deny claims that there was a “battle for the civic centre” after the report found friction between the Labour administration and the council’s most senior officers.
A statement released yesterday said Mr Rowland’s decision to leave the council after more than 30 years – the last three as chief executive – was by “mutual agreement”.
But The Journal understands the father-of-four, who is originally from County Durham, has not been seen at his office in the Civic Centre for the past three weeks. It is believed he is in line for a six-figure pay-off, including his pension.
Unions and political opponents last night expressed concerns about Mr Rowland’s departure, and the GMB said it would be asking for urgent meetings with council leaders to discuss their “future political direction”.
David Faulkner, Lib Dem leader of the opposition, described Mr Rowland as a “very committed and effective public servant, with a passion for Newcastle and its people” while criticising the council’s Labour leadership.
He said: “It is obviously important that any council chief executive has the confidence of the political leadership – it was an issue that also had to be faced by our administration four years ago.
“However, I believe that Barry Rowland’s departure says more about the political leadership and style of the city council than it does about the style or ability of its management team. The Labour council is proving big on talk and self-promotion but weak on performance. I fear that the departure of the chief executive risks a loss of confidence in the council among partners and decision-makers in the city and in Government, and a loss of momentum at a very critical time.”
Mr Rowland joined the council as a management trainee in 1979 before being appointed to chief executive exactly 30 years later. In five years he helped the council make savings of £222m.
In a statement released yesterday, he said: “I have enjoyed my time and leave a strong council which is now one of the best in the country. A council that provides excellent services, with excellent staff, which serves its community well.
“The council has forged strong and productive relationships with its partners, public, private and third sector.
“Despite the recession in recent years, the city has grown in confidence and has demonstrated that it can now punch its weight.
“I have no doubt the city will continue to build on firm foundations, with an active council and institutions that demonstrate a civic commitment co-operating in partnership as part of Team Newcastle.
“I leave with mixed feelings, sad that I won’t be part of the city’s life in the same way in the future, but excited by the prospect of pursuing new opportunities and fresh challenges.”
A Peer Challenge report carried out earlier this year found that political aspirations of the new Labour leader had not been followed up by council officers.
But last night Coun Forbes praised Mr Rowland for leaving the “legacy of a high performing council and a confident city with a thriving community”.
Colin Smith, the GMB’s senior organiser for the Northern region, said: “We are quite shocked at the news and we are concerned at the apparent direction the council now may take.
“Barry Rowland has been employed at the council for many years, and the GMB has a strong working relationship built on trust.
“The GMB will be seeking an urgent meeting with the leader to seek reassurance about the future direction of the council.”
The post of chief executive is expected to be advertised next month. In the meantime, the council’s executive director of adult and cultural services, Ewen Weir, has been appointed acting chief executive.