A LETTER released under Freedom of Information law lifts the lid on an extraordinary clash between two of Wirral Council’s most senior figures.

The document provides an insight into the extreme pressures the town hall was under in 2011 shortly after a devastating investigation into its corporate governance carried out by consultant Anna Klonowski.

The letter was from Cllr Steve Foulkes, Labour leader of the council at the time, to former chief executive Jim Wilkie and focuses on a report prepared by Mr Wilkie for a committee meeting in September 2011.

It shows Cllr Foulkes warning the chief that unless he changes his stance on key issues, it will not "bode well for the future relationship between this administration and yourself."

Councillor Foulkes today told the Globe that the language and style of his leadership had to harden as the Klonowski report had "changed everything".

After Ms Klonowski's inquiry had set a bombshell under the town hall, Mr Wilkie made recommendations for a series of senior appointments to help him steer the authority through the crisis.

The independent investigator's shocking review said Wirral was in the grip of a "corrosive and inward-looking culture...where the needs and rights of residents had become submerged under its own bureaucratic machinations".

It said major changes were needed to call a halt to a culture which any other local authority would have considered to be “abnormal."

On the day the report was published, Mr Wilkie commented the findings represented the “most important challenge this council has faced” and immediately began working towards producing a range of improvement measures.

Among them was the creation of a new post of “Head of Policy” and making permanent a number of senior positions which, for more than a year, had been filled in an interim capacity.

Mr Wilkie believed this would create "more stability” within the authority.

But the released letter shows there was serious disagreement over this proposal.

Dated September 27, 2011 - two days before the crucial appointments were scheduled to be made - Cllr Foulkes' letter reads:

“Dear Jim, I have looked carefully at the report you have prepared for the Employment and Appointments Committee.

“You asked for my comments, which are as follows.

“I am relieved that you have at least prepared a report which can go to Employment and Appointments on Thursday, containing a number of the recommendations we put forward to you.

“There may well need to be a discussion at some point about what happens at the centre of the organisation, and how it should be structured, but that is a much wider discussion for another time when the Corporate Governance Review is complete.”

Several pages are then redacted before the key paragraphs:

“If you are not prepared to change your approach, then we will have no option but to move the relevant amendments at Employment and Appointments Committee and make it clear that the Chief Executive and his administration have failed on a constructive way forward for the council.

“I do not believe this will be remotely helpful when we are considering the failure of Corporate Governance, nor do I believe, frankly, that it bodes well for the future relationship between this administration and yourself.

“I very much hope you will reconsider your position."

How, or if,  the chief executive responded is not revealed.

Councillor Foulkes told the Globe: "As the lead politician at the time of the Klonowski report, my language and style had to change.

"It was unusual for me as previously I had been very co-operative with officers.

"But you have to understand that that report changed everything.

"A lot of trust disappeared overnight.

"I had to ensure what I was being told was correct, that what people were doing were the right things to be done and that they were not still doing them in the same old ways as before.

"That investigation put a lot of people behind the 8-ball, including myself, like never before.

"My letter reflected the issues we were facing and the need to ask searching questions.

"It is never an easy time to be council leader, but 2011 was particularly difficult.

"There was a great deal of soul-searching among a lot of people and I found myself having to use harsh language and having hard conversations with senior officers simply to make it clear we were not going to allow things to carry on the way they were."

Conservative group leader Cllr Jeff Green fumed: "I asked for these papers at the meeting in 2011 and was told I could not see them.

"I can now well underststand why Labour was so keen to bury them.

"Clearly the administration at the time put immense pressure on Jim Wilkie to alter his report - and when I asked them to declare if they had any direct input to that report, Steve Foulkes' minuted response seems disingenuous at best.

"I now have to question what other matters Labour have had a direct hand in."

Leading Liberal Democrat councillor Stuart Kelly said: "The redacted documents raise as many questions as answers.

"But it is clear there was major disagreement at the very top of the council on the way the authority needed to be organised with Steve Foulkes effectively threatening to declare he had no confidence in Jim Wilkie as chief executive if he didn’t get his own way.

"It is impossible to know who was right from the information released so far, and I believe the council should now release all the documents, unredacted, to allow us all to make that judgement."

Councillor Foulkes - the borough's mayor-elect for 2014 - was ousted as leader after Tories and Lib Dems united in a vote of no confidence in the council chamber in February last year.

Mr Wilkie left the authority under a voluntary early retirement agreement in June 2012 following a prolonged period of sick leave.

A raft of measures aimed at turning the authority around have been implemented and earlier this month a review by the Local Government Association praised Wirral for making an “impressive journey of improvement.”

  • The Klonowski probe - which cost tax-payers £250,000 - was in response to a scandal first exposed in the Wirral Globe.
  • In 2008, we exclusively reported whistle-blower Martin Morton's revelations of systematic overcharging of vulnerable and disabled residents living in council care homes.
  • His claims led to the investigation, which concluded in uncompromising terms the council needed a root and branch change in its culture.