Council defends chiefs Oz trip

THE outgoing chief executive of a service-cutting local authority is flying out to Australia and New Zealand for a three-week fact-finding trip at council taxpayers' expense.

THE outgoing chief executive of a service-cutting local authority is flying out to Australia and New Zealand for a three-week fact-finding trip at council taxpayers' expense.

Stewart Ashurst, who retires from his £185,000-a-year job at Essex County Council at the end of the year, has leave for the trip on October 23.

A council spokesman said he would fly economy class "where possible" for what is likely to be an exhausting business trip with just a single day's holiday and which will cost the taxpayer £6,000.

It is hoped the council's top man will be able to forge good relationships from council bosses in the two countries, ask questions about how they manage their IT developments and also compare legal attitudes towards anti-social behaviour.


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He will also visit key players from Hutchison Whampoa – the company behind the redevelopment at Harwich Port and which also has major involvement in the Haven Gateway partnership – during a three-day stopover in Hong Kong.

County Hall, which has recently axed hundreds of jobs in a bid to cut costs, has defended the all-expenses trip as "vital" for Essex and insisted it would help it become a "leading edge authority".

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A spokesman cited its nationally acclaimed family conferencing scheme, which was directly inspired by a visit from a senior Kiwi local government officer, as evidence that fact-finding tours work.

In an official paper written by Mr Ashurst himself, he said: "Over the past two years or so senior officials of the Local Government Associations in both countries have encouraged the chief executive to visit but because of the competing pressures on his time there has never previously been an opportune time.

"Now that the chief executive's successor has been appointed…there is a window of opportunity…to make such a visit."

He said that on his return he would prepare a report, which "would be of particular relevance to Essex in the future".

Council leader Lord Hanningfield said: "Essex County Council aspires to becoming a leading edge authority for the benefit of all who live and work here.

"Learning best practice from others is a vital component of an improvement agenda.

"Those in local government know that countries like Australia and New Zealand have some excellent examples of practice and innovation.

"Essex County Council is keen to find out more and continually learn and improve the way it delivers services to the people of Essex.

"A local government learning trip of this sort has simply been impossible for our chief executive because of the extreme work commitments he has had.

"Now that an orderly transition of the chief executive role is under way, Mr Ashurst finally has a window in which to carry out this important bit of council business.

"We look forward to the feedback and recommendations that his study visit yields."

Paul Sztumpf, leader of the county council's Labour opposition group, said: "I've been assured that this is a results-driven trip."

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