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ANALYSIS: Donna Manson: A powerful leader in ‘the most difficult of circumstances’

Who will pick up the mantle from departing chief executive Donna Manson? Image: Sandy McCook / DC Thomson
Who will pick up the mantle from departing chief executive Donna Manson? Image: Sandy McCook / DC Thomson

Highland Council CEO Donna Manson is resigning after four years in the top job.

Safe to say, it was a rollercoaster of a tenure.

Yesterday, council convener Bill Lobban paid tribute, saying: “Donna has done a tremendous job for Highland Council in the most difficult and challenging of circumstances.”

From budget headaches and bullying allegations internally, to the global matters of a pandemic and cost of living crisis, Ms Manson certainly had her hands full.

Her response was characterised by strong and decisive leadership. But her strategy and approach was not without its critics.

Here, we unpack a turbulent four years and ask the important question: what next for Highland Council?

‘The council can’t keep going like this’

Ms Manson took the reins in September 2018, with the council deep in a financial black hole.

Its reserves were at a historic low, and it faced a yawning budget gap of £66.7 million over three years.

At the time, Ms Manson was bullish about the figures. With 29 years’ public sector experience in Edinburgh, she expressed confidence that she could close the gap without making redundancies.

But within a few months, a 2.4% reduction in grant funding from the Scottish Government added to the pressure.

The SNP opposition called for radical action to address the budget gap in 2019. Image: Sandy McCook / DC Thomson

The council was forced to dip into its already-depleted reserves, prompting sharp criticism from opposition councillors. Ian Cockburn, freshly appointed co-leader of the SNP opposition warned: “The council can’t keep going like this.”

Audit Scotland agreed, and by January 2020 it had issued a warning to Highland Council. Its figures showed the local authority languishing near the bottom of the national league table in virtually every measure.

Its reserves at the time sat at 1.4%, well below the recommended 2% minimum.

Audit Scotland said the council’s performance was a cause for concern, but did praise the ‘clear strategic vision’ emerging from its new CEO.

Radical management cuts, followed by gold-plated education boss

This clear strategic vision initially centred on increased public consultation and a complete overhaul of the council’s senior management structure.

This set hares running across the political spectrum. Opposition members said it was their job to consult the public, not Ms Manson’s. It was the opening volley of a long-running row over Ms Manson’s assertive leadership style.

Characteristic of that was her radical shake-up of executive level positions at the council. Several senior executives retired or quit, as Ms Manson proposed a whole new approach. Put simply: more chiefs, on less pay.

The huge remits of previous directors attracted equally huge salaries. Highland Council deleted two director posts, saving more than a quarter of a million pounds.

In their place, they hired eight new executive chief officers (Ecos) with combined service and geographical remits. These bosses earned £91,000 each.

Education executive Paul Senior’s appointment attracted a furious reaction.

Sounds good on paper, but the execution proved trickier. Highland Council tried – unsuccessfully – to find a new education boss.

With Covid in full swing, London consultant Paul Senior was appointed under emergency powers on an eye-watering £250,000 wage. That’s more than the Prime Minister. The fallout was swift, and Mr Senior quit after three months in the role.

Later, the council fell into a deep row over whether to recruit for a new deputy chief executive. Opposition members had lost faith that the new leadership structure could deliver.

Education redesign prompted anxiety

Ms Manson’s executive restructure was bold. Bolder still, was her decision to grab a political hot potato in the form of education budgets.

Over the years, successive council administrations had raided the roads and community piggy banks in order to balance the books. These services had endured cuts amounting to as much as 40%.

Highland Council is still feeling the hangover now, with roads often dominating the political debate.

In the meantime, councillors sought to protect education budgets. However, in October 2019 the council embarked on a far reaching and controversial redesign.

Ms Manson led Highland Council’s controversial redesign of education. Image: Sandy McCook / DC Thomson

The jargon focused on ‘transformational change’, but for parents and teachers, it just looked like £1.7 million in cuts.

Most emotive of all was a plan to overhaul funding for additional support needs. This prompted public protests and heavy lobbying from across the Highlands.

However, the painful cuts did appear to deliver results.

Budget leaders said they expected to turn a £2.3 million overspend into a £7.6 million underspend. The council’s reserves were also forecast to bounce back up to £15.5 million.

A Covid-shaped spanner in the works

Then, some literal firefighting. First, in February 2020 a devastating fire destroyed Park Primary School in Inverness.

The council began an emergency response, looking for the money to replace the school. Yet within a few short weeks, the coronavirus pandemic had arrived in Highland.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The pandemic had far-reaching consequences for the council. Pictured here are flowers left at Home Farm in Portree after 10 residents died during a Covid outbreak.

By May 2020, battle-worn senior councillors were admitting they now faced a budget shortfall up to £100 million.

Many took that figure with a pinch of salt. Regardless, the pandemic had brought unprecedented humanitarian and financial turmoil.

An outbreak of Covid at Home Farm in Skye tragically resulted in the deaths of 10 residents, including the father of then-councillor John Gordon.

There were concerns over PPE. Escalating poverty and domestic violence. And a completely new way of working that will forever change the shape of public services.

Ms Manson vowed to do whatever was needed to see Highland Council through the storm. Yet some councillors felt this came at a cost. Conservative councillor Andrew Jarvie publicly called out an alleged culture of bullying at the council.

Ms Manson expressed her deep disappointment at Mr Jarvie’s approach, pointing out that he made the accusations without producing any evidence.

What next?

Highland Council recently saw some green shoots of recovery. As recently as July 2022, it announced a £9 million underspend and a healthy 3% reserves.

However, new leader Raymond Bremner urged caution: “We shouldn’t see any headlines saying we’ve got between £19 million and £150 million to spend.”

Indeed, the war in Ukraine and subsequent cost of living crisis are a new blow.

At the last count, the revenue budget faces a £40 million overspend and the escalating cost of materials and labour has rendered the capital plan unaffordable.

Highland Council’s new leader Raymond Bremner thanked Donna Manson for her contribution. Image: Jason Hedges / DC Thomson

It’s back to the drawing board for Highland Council, which will have to find new savings and smarter ways of working.

Ms Manson will depart in February for a new job in Devon County Council. By then, senior councillors will be deep in budget talks.

Previous recruitment drives have highlighted just how hard it is to attract high-calibre executives to the Highlands.

The council has many talented leaders in its midst already, so the answer may lie in internal promotion. However, Highland Council did not respond to requests for comment.

Newcomers may well be daunted by the scale of the challenge.

On the other hand, there is a more optimistic take.

Highland Council is embracing new ways of working, making it more modern and potentially more agile. It has many fresh politicians at the helm, with a comfortable majority to push for change. And it has a considerable opportunity to lead the way in renewable energy and green tourism.

It’s all there for the taking – but it needs a capable pair of hands.