"My job is not to run the council but represent the people," says Notts leader Kay Cutts
KAY Cutts tells how, a few months after becoming leader, she was summoned from a full Notts County Council meeting to take a phone call from a Government minister.
If the authority didn't pull its socks up within a year, he would demand her resignation. Children were being failed and failed dismally.
She was shaken by the conversation and returned to the chamber to inform councillors.
There was a deathly silence. The authority was failing children and had been doing so for many years before her Conservative party took control. An Ofsted report had said that children in the care of the authority were not safe.
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"We didn't realise the depth of the problem," recalls Mrs Cutts. "Things had to change dramatically."
They did – and rapidly. Today, there are around 900 children in care, compared to as low as 200 at one stage. Historically, money had been put in the budget and subsequently raided for spending elsewhere, she says.
"We didn't have enough social workers and cases were chaotic," says Mrs Cutts.
It proved to be the nadir of her leadership.
But it was also a test of her mettle and tells us much about what she is made of. Within a year, the authority had turned things round, becoming an exemplar of best practice.
Kay Cutts is tough, plain-speaking and knows her own mind. She is fearless, perhaps even more so if she is confronting a Conservative minister she believes to be errant in their views.
There is something of Margaret Thatcher about her. A photo of the former Tory premier, younger than we might remember her, hangs on the wall behind her desk. "She is my hero," says Mrs Cutts.
She has occupied the leader's office of Notts County Council since June 2009, having broken Labour's nigh-on-30-year grip on County Hall. She was elected on a manifesto which pledged to freeze council tax and set about applying her no nonsense approach to cutting the bureaucracy.
County Hall had grown flabby, too many managers, long lines of communication; 2,500 jobs were to go.
"I knew what needed to be done," she says. "I knew we were over-staffed. I knew we were spending too much on ourselves and not enough on the services we provided. I knew there had to be a culture change.
"We needed to do things differently. We needed to turn the council upside-down, to give it an opportunity to re-make itself.
"Councils are not good at doing what businesses do and that is looking at themselves and continuously improving. We hadn't done that for a very long time."
Mrs Cutts set about cost-cutting a year before the 2010 coalition Government came to power and swung its own axe. It is said in a way to remind us she was ahead of the game.
"We arrived a year before the Government. We froze council tax. Old people's homes were more expensive to run than private homes. They were not one of our core services. I looked at what our core services should be, how we could provide them for less money. It meant keeping all the front-line services going but looking at what was going on behind.
"We had too many management lines, although we still have one line more than business. We had 11, even 13 at one stage, in some departments. We have a much flatter structure. There may have been jobs that didn't need doing.
"My job is not to run the council but represent the people. It is not my job to micro manage. It is to set policy. My job is to ask the questions the man in the street might ask."
Mrs Cutts anticipated that the man in the street might well have asked how council staff got so much holiday.
"We changed the terms and conditions. They are very generous here, and we took two days holiday out from some staff. We have 28 days holiday and eight statutory. That's a lot of holiday. I am very conscious it is the public who pay for all the privileges we have here. We need to keep our costs down."
More posts still face the axe, she says.
None of this was plain sailing. What was the toughest?
"Raising charges for older people's services. That was a really hard decision and I don't regret taking it. It was the right thing to do. I am conscious the services we deliver here are a lifeline."
The alternative, she says, was to place the charge on younger, working people who are buying their homes and saving for their own old age.
Time and again Mrs Cutts returns to a theme – that children must be given a chance in life. When she took over, she recalls, Notts was near the bottom of the education league table. Families didn't see the value. Their aspirations were low, she says.
From hovering around the bottom among 140-plus education authorities, Notts is 29 in the league tables.
"We appointed officers who could do the job and we let them do the job. The previous Labour administration didn't want academies. Now we have academies everywhere.
"There was no rigour in the system: 'we are going down the mine or into the construction sector. We don't need an education. Girls will get married and have children.'
"Well, I'm not happy with that and those children weren't happy. That is why we get rebellion."
In two months' time, the county will go to the polls. It will probably deliver a verdict on national Government rather than Mrs Cutts' performance.
But she says: "I am proud of turning this council round. We have made such a significant difference. It can no longer go back to the bad old days."