The straw that broke the camel’s back?

Several well placed sources have confirmed that Dr Carolyn Wilkins, highly paid chief executive of Oldham Metropolitan District Council, is presently on gardening leave*. The Council’s website records that her present salary is £185,169, compared to the median salary of £24,491.

No wrongdoing on the part of Dr Wilkins is expressed, or implied, beyond what has already been reported elsewhere on this website, or on Neil Wilby’s Twitter feed. Where she has been the subject of fair, if sometimes stinging, criticism.

Not least in a piece, published just over a week ago, that may well have been the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back (read here). It highlighted a poor organisational culture, top down, coupled with weak, flawed decision making and sub-optimal communications. The buck stopping with the chief executive. The Monitoring Officer, a statutory position, is Paul Entwistle, also Borough Solicitor and reporting, of course, to Dr Wilkins.

The Council’s Constitution was also exposed as having inherent flaws and shortcomings, as was at least one key section of the Council’s website.

The Council’s preparedness to break the law, with seeming impunity, and obstruct journalists making legitimate public interest enquiries, has also been a source of repeated concern. As has a propensity to ‘cover-up’ suspected, or alleged, wrongdoing. This request made under the Freedom of Information Act illustrates the point (read here). It also shines light on the apparent ineffectiveness, indeed almost complete lack of interest, of the lead chief executive of Greater Manchester Police and Crime Panel. Another post held by Carolyn Wilkins.

Another FOIA request is set to cause even more damage as it now known that at least two false answers were, seemingly, given by Oldham Council to a request made by a local politician, Simon Hodgson, in 2019 (read here). Inexperience, or lack of the necessary qualifications, may have been in play but the entire finalisation has a contrived, and troubling, look and feel to a seasoned information rights practitioner. The applicant stood as a candidate for Proud of Oldham and Saddleworth Party (or ‘the POOS’ as they are widely known) in the Saddleworth South ward at the recent local elections. The Party’s only discernible policies appear to be denunciation of the local Labour Party and attacking the running of the Council at every opportunity.

But the most significant criticism of Dr Wilkins, from this quarter at least, relates to a problem that has brought a blight to the town almost matching the horror of the SARS-CoV-2 virus epidemic sweeping through Oldham in the winter months and early Spring. The other disease was, and still is, transmitted from neighbouring Tameside by a self-styled political activist named Raja Miah. Coincidentally, one of the founders and driving forces behind the aforementioned POOS.

Much has been written elsewhere on this website on the same topic, as Miah’s constant stream of lies, tailored narrative and own brand of divisive, hate-filled bile has showered on the town and across the region.

Only the loss of the seat of the Leader of Oldham Council, Sean Fielding, at the recent local elections, belatedly awoke the national press from their slumber and a brighter light shone on these disgraceful activities. The local press finally picked up the torch after the car of the present Council Leader, Cllr Arooj Shah, was firebombed on Tuesday last week in what has been characterised, by at least one local MP and Party leader, as ‘a politically motivated attack’. 

It is the very strong contention from this quarter, and has been for some time, that Oldham Council’s senior paid officers, led of course by its chief executive, should have taken High Court action to restrain Raja Miah. The damage done to the town, by him and the relatively small caucus of far-right activists infesting most of Oldham’s social media forums, is almost incalculable and the evidence to support legal action is utterly overwhelming. The Council has both the locus and the funding that others have lacked – and an entirely proper motive for doing so.

As if to make out that point, Miah was arrested last Friday morning in a dawn raid by Greater Manchester Police on suspicion of racially aggravated public order and malicious communications offences. He robustly denies any wrongdoing, has not been charged with any offence and is presently on conditional police bail.

Cronyism is another issue causing deep resentment both within and outside of Oldham Metropolitan Borough Council. In 2015, Dr Wilkins recruited her friend and former deputy from Rossendale Borough Council, Helen Lockwood, despite her being central to a £multi-million ‘Empty Homes’ scandal in which she was centrally involved and micro-managed. Her successor at Rossendale has confirmed that the matter is not settled and a police investigation is still ongoing. Mrs Lockwood denies wrongdoing.

More infamously, there is the extraordinary saga of Rebekah Sutcliffe, another friend of Dr Wilkins. After bringing the entire police service into disrepute over a national scandal that was known as ‘Boobgate’ (or ‘Titgate’), she had a gross misconduct finding against her and was no longer welcome as a serving officer in Greater Manchester Police, whose chief constable pressed hard for her dismissal at a disciplinary hearing. A local newspaper reported that ‘officers of all ranks in GMP were furious that she had kept her job’.

‘Boobgate’ was not the only high profile misdemeanour during her police service, as she turned up drunk at a security barrier guarding a political party conference in Manchester city centre and tried to blag her way in using her warrant card. Miss Sutcliffe also arrived at police HQ, as duty counter-terrorism Gold Commander no less, over the prescribed alcohol limit, on at least one occasion. This startling revelation was heard during that same disciplinary hearing.

But the out-turn from such findings is that Miss Sutcliffe was initially placed at Oldham Council on ‘secondment’ in what can be best, and most charitably, described as a ‘non-job’ to which GMP contributed at least part of her salary and benefits, as they sought to alleviate the burden on policing budgets.

This arrangement was superceded by the creation of a new Director role within the council, at a salary of £122,000, and, remarkably, the most suitable candidate was Rebekah Sutcliffe. Her salary at the time of leaving GMP was reported to be £109,000 per annum. ‘Failing upwards’ as many other discredited police officers from that force appear to do, had seamlessly netted her an increase of £13,000 per annum, in one of the poorest and most deprived towns in the United Kingdom. 

More than one OMBC insider says she inspires little confidence outside the higher echelon, inner circle, crony cabal; is politically naïve; and approaches almost every task and situation as though she is still working for GMP. But, most crucially, she delivers little that is discernible by way of value for money or empathy with the town’s citizens.

Oldham Council press office are not being drawn on the topic of the purported gardening leave of Dr Wilkins. Their spokesperson, when pressed over whom was running the troubled local authority, in her absence and during the current crises, repeated: “The Council’s position is that they decline to comment”.

The town’s council tax payers may well have legitimate concerns if it is either Helen Lockwood or Rebekah Sutcliffe.

It is not known if Dr Wilkins’ role as Accountable Officer at NHS Oldham Clinical Commissioning Group will be affected. The NHS press office has been approached for comment.

Carolyn Wilkins has not broadcast from her Twitter feed, which gives the appearance of being an official Oldham MBC account, since July 10th, 2021, but retweeted two posts from July 22nd and 23rd respectively.

Following the publication of this article yesterday, two sources have confirmed that senior paid officers initially opposed the ruling Labour Group’s plans for a cleaner Oldham. This welcome initiative, with a modest budget of £1.27 million and aided by an increasing, and pleasing, number of community led ‘litter-picks’, was highlighted as a key priority by their new Leader, Cllr Arooj Shah, when she took office in May:

“I said we’d do something to make a difference and I really do believe that [the ward by ward clean up] is going to do just that”.

Screenshot 2021-07-27 at 07.43.11

UPDATE: Council confirms departure of Carolyn Wilkins. Read full statement here.

*Garden[ing] leave describes the practice whereby an employee leaving a job – having resigned or otherwise had their employment terminated – is instructed to stay away from work during the notice period, whilst still remaining on payroll.

 

Page last updated at 1325hrs on Tuesday 27th July, 2021.

Corrections: Please let me know if there is a mistake in this article. I will endeavour to correct it as soon as possible.

Right of reply: If you are mentioned in this article and disagree with it, please let me have your comments. Provided your response is not defamatory it will be added to the article.

Photo credit: Twitter

© Neil Wilby 2015-2021. Unauthorised use, or reproduction, of the material contained in this article, without permission from the author, is strictly prohibited. Extracts from, and links to, the article (or blog) may be used, provided that credit is given to Neil Wilby, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

Published by Neil Wilby

Former Johnston Press area managing director. Justice campaigner. Freelance investigative journalist.

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