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Home   Medway   News   Article

Under-fire Medway Council cabinet member for children's services Les Wicks and colleague David Wildey dropped in re-shuffle

15 May 2013
by Dan Bloom

Council leader Rodney Chambers, who made the changes

Council leader Rodney Chambers

Both children's chiefs have been sacked in a dramatic shake-up of Medway Council's Conservative cabinet.

Children's services head Les Wicks, who faced countless calls to resign after controversies including premature school closures, poor exam results, the hugely over-budget Woodlands School expansion and botched 11-plus tests, has lost his job.

David Wildey, 57, in charge of children's social care - part of which Ofsted recently graded inadequate - has also been sacked.

Sacked Cabinet member for children's services Les Wicks

Sacked: Cabinet member for children's services Les Wicks

Replacing them both is Mike O'Brien, 68, the current community safety chief who failed in a bid to become Kent Police and Crime Commissioner last year.

He will oversee a huge brief comprising his two axed colleagues' jobs put together.

Working for him will be Kelly Tolhurst. At 34, she is one of the youngest members of Medway Council. She will hold a much smaller school improvement post.

Cllr O'Brien's replacement in community safety was never far away - it will be his Rainham colleague David Carr, a former mayor of Medway.

Perhaps the most surprising sacking is that of Tom Mason, cabinet member for corporate services. His role has been axed altogether.

The 80-year-old, who has been a councillor in Medway non-stop for 45 years, said he was shocked to hear the news yesterday from council leader Rodney Chambers - his former deputy.

"I was disappointed and unhappy," he said. "To be honest I've never felt my age. Hopefully I don't sound it and hopefully I don't look it.

"People were asking for change and in politics people do manipulate and people are always looking for promotion. It's also sometimes true that young people get the opportunity to move forward and get experience.

"In politics people do manipulate and people are always looking for promotion"

"I don't honestly know [why], I can't say what's in the leader's mind. He makes the decisions rightly or wrongly and I have to accept that.

"I will always be involved and carry on serving the community. I will be standing as a councillor again next time."

Cllr Mason was Medway Council's first leader when it formed in 1998. He was replaced by Cllr Chambers.

"There were lots of reasons then as well which I won't go into," he said. "It was a bit political."

Cllr Wildey, who will be chairman of the scrutiny committee overseeing his replacement Cllr O'Brien, said: "I'm sure Mike will do a great job. Was I disappointed? Of course, you want to do the best in a job you enjoy."

Sacked Former leader Tom Mason

Sacked: Former leader Tom Mason

Cllr Wicks, who left soon after the meeting and declined to be interviewed, had faced a petition signed by 800 people calling for his resignation. He repeatedly and pointedly refused to resign.

Labour group leader Vince Maple said: "We have repeatedly said that the parents, pupils, professionals and the wider community of Medway had no confidence in Cllr Wicks - whether it is the campaigners who fought to save schools like St Johns, St Peters and Ridge Meadow, those concerned with massive overspends in capital projects, parents quite rightly worried about Medway having the lowest Key Stage 2 results in the country or anyone who thinks having the worst possible Ofsted for child protection is unacceptable."

Cllr O'Brien said: "Les has had a very rough time and he worked extremely hard."

Cllr Mason added: "I have to say I feel sorry for him."

Marine surveyor Cllr Tolhurst is now the second woman on the nine-strong cabinet and by far the youngest member.

The former Chapter School (now Strood Academy) pupil was only elected in 2011. She is single, childless and runs the Beacon Boatyard in Borstal with her father Morris, 60.

She led a task group last year after Medway's primary school results were named the worst in the country.

Promoted Kelly Tolhurst, 34, is the new cabinet member for school improvement

Promoted: Kelly Tolhurst, 34, is the new cabinet member for school improvement

"I only found out [about my new job] on Monday," she said. "It was a pleasant surprise."

Despite the challenges faced by her predecessor, she said she was not nervous.

"I always think there's a solution to everything," she said. "It takes hard work and perseverance but it's always there."

Cllr O'Brien, meanwhile, has taken on Cllr Wicks' infamous claim that he couldn't possibly visit all Medway primary schools - by promising to do exactly that.

"Over the next six months I plan on visiting all schools in Medway," he declared - including primaries, secondaries and academies.

A councillor since 1977, the retired insurance broker denied he was leaving community safety too early.

"Medway is a safe place and I was ready for the challenge," he said. "I have my vision and I'm looking forward to getting to work first thing tomorrow morning." 

Tonight's annual meeting also included the selection of Medway's new mayor.

City worker Josie Iles will be the mayor with Jane Etheridge as deputy. Cllr Etheridge was bought a clock to help with her infamous punctuality.

The mayor's charities for this year will be Help for Heroes, Caring Hands in the Community, Medway Age UK and Demelza Kent.

And her focus will be on the elderly and vulnerable - a marked change from the "get Medway moving" approach advocated by her mountaineer predecessor, Vaughan Hewett.

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