Chief executive Tim Shields recently announced that he will retire at the end of May. Photograph: Hackney Council

Hackney Unison has fired a broadside at departing Town Hall chief executive Tim Shields, following his January announcement that he would be retiring in May after 13 years in post.

In a sweeping critique of Shields’ legacy on in-house diversity, officer pay and industrial relations, the trade union accuses the council chief of presiding over a “boys’ club mentality”.

It also raised concerns over organisational “certainty and stability” after an apparent clear-out of officers from top jobs.

In an exclusive statement to the Citizen, Unison pointed to the recent departure of a large number of service directors, including those of Neighbourhoods & Housing,  Legal & Governance, Children & Families, Adults, Customer Services, Financial Management, and the Head of Human Resources, Operational Development and Elections.

A spokesperson said: “Hackney Unison members and their colleagues have dedicated themselves to supporting our community and those in most need throughout the pandemic, more than at any other time, sometimes even putting our own health and lives at risk to provide services.

“The council needs a committed leadership team to steer it through the uncertain times ahead, taking account of a £65 million deficit, a cyber attack that has left staff and our communities at risk, and a global pandemic that has stretched the council’s overly stretched public health team.

“[With] a failed Ofsted report, shocking Care Quality Commission report, growing equalities disparities, a disparate workforce and an apparent ongoing desire to foster an inclusive leadership, in the face of these massive challenges it would appear that certainty and stability will not be something our members can expect from the council and their renegade managers.”

The local Unison branch added that it viewed Shields’ legacy as that of creating “one of the most highest paid senior leadership teams across the country and nurturing a divide across the council”, with 28 officers paid over £100,000 and four on £50,000 more.

It also pointed to the divide between a “mostly white and male hierarchy leading a diverse and mostly female workforce”.

Unison played a key role, along with Unite and the GMB, in challenging Town Hall bosses on equality and diversity during the council’s bullying row, which resulted in an independent report in April 2019 which, pointing to the overall industrial relations climate in the council, called for “measures [to] be put in place to help facilitate an improved position”.

The union added: “While Tim Shields says that the council are working on strengthening the grievance procedure and other policies to better protect staff and encourage a ‘speak out’ culture, the council refuses to allow the option for independent managers to take forward investigations of staff grievances.

“Under Tim’s leadership the council has decided to stop recording all equalities data for management processes. This is indirect racism at best and out-and-out racism at worst.

“[We] note with frustration that under Tim’s leadership key equalities data for key management processes is still not collected or otherwise centrally analysed. This despite unions consistently lobbying the council and raising the issue with the cabinet member for workforce and equality.

“The council’s actions makes a mockery of their motion declaring the council as anti-racist. It appears that positive steps won off the back of Hackney Unison campaigns a generation ago and the findings set out in the Crawford Report have been replaced with a clandestine approach to equalities monitoring.”

Unison also criticised the Town Hall top boss for his opposition to calls for extra dependency leave entitlement for trade union members forced to keep their children at home as a result of the pandemic.

It challenges Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville and his administration to “ensure that whoever Tim’s replacement is, that they will take up the role with a positive vision for the council and a willingness to engage with Hackney Unison and the other trade unions”.

In a detailed response to the union’s points, Shields was uncompromising in defence of his record, speaking of his pride in his 19-year stretch of public service and council leadership and pointing to “continually rising” satisfaction levels of both residents and staff as “among the highest of all councils in the country”.

A recent wellbeing survey’s indicative results showed that 80 per cent of staff say the council is supporting them during the pandemic.

On the widespread change at the top, the council boss pointed out that neither he nor the departing directors of Children & Education, Neighbourhoods & Housing, and Legal & Governance, who represent nigh-on a century of experience in local government between them, will receive redundancy payments.

A council spokesperson added that officers “are entitled to retire or get jobs with other local authorities”, with all the posts expected to be filled by the time Shields retires in May, apart from his own role.

Responding to the union’s argument that Shields initiated a scheme that saw all four officers over £100,000 receive voluntary redundancy (VR), the council boss pointed out that nearly 40 per cent of all staff who applied received VR, with the total number of senior management and associated support posts reduced by over 50 per cent since 2010, saving around £10m.

The Town Hall also pointed to Shields’ other achievements, including leading Hackney from one of the most poorly performing boroughs in the country to its receipt of a ‘Council of the past 20 years’ award, “sound and robust financial management” throughout austerity, supporting the delivery of the 2012 Olympics, and keeping the borough financially solvent through the pandemic.

The Town Hall went on to argue that the additional 30 days’ dependency leave granted to staff as well as their normal five was “by the far the most generous in London, where the next highest was 10 additional days”.

The high-ranking officer also hit back at the union’s challenge to his record on diversity and equality, saying that equalities impact assessments on restructures cannot be shared if in relation to a small number of staff due to ease of identification.

The Town Hall also pointed to a large platform of recently instituted work, such as an inclusive leadership programme, local recruitment campaigns, and the introduction of mandatory manager training on diversity and inclusivity, with all senior leaders and a further 500 managers now trained in principles of cultural competency and anti-racism.

According to the Town Hall, the recent restructure of senior leadership in the council was designed to create opportunities for career development at that level, with candidates interviewed by resident representatives and community organisations on their commitment to anti-racist and equality-based practice.

A leadership programme for senior managers on the impact of disadvantage on staff and communities is also planned, with the council highlighting that its apprenticeship programme is making a difference for disadvantaged groups, along with the introduction of name blind recruitment.

In its statement, the Town Hall reaffirmed its commitment to “improving our relationships with trade unions”, with at least fortnightly meetings with senior management understood to be taking place since the pandemic struck, as well as catching up “regularly” with the Mayor and his cabinet.

Shields said: “I have had to make some tough decisions over the years, especially in the face of sustained core government funding cuts, but the wellbeing of residents and colleagues have remained a singular focus.

“I also leave the council as a much more rich and diverse workplace, which better reflects the residents it serves, and where equality and inclusion are now embedded principles and priorities throughout the organisation – this includes the ongoing inclusive leadership programme to achieve a more diverse leadership.

“Our inclusivity champions and some residents were also directly involved in recruiting senior leaders, testing their commitment to inclusive leadership, and anti-racist and equality-based practice. We have made sustained change for the better, and were recognised for this work by the Local Government Association’s Equalities Framework, which said that ‘equalities is in Hackney’s DNA’.

“But we know we can do better, and we have committed to boosting our equalities drive, including by developing an inclusive management toolkit co-designed by staff.

“Working with trade unions is an important part of that work, which is why we do – and will continue to – work closely with them in making improvements now and shaping our future workforce policies.

“Whilst I’m disappointed with some of the comments they have made about me, I do not believe that this reflects the views of the wider workforce.

“However, I know that their aim is the same as mine: to ensure Hackney Council continues to improve and remain a council for everyone.”

Shields most recently appeared in the news locally after he was heard advising councillors to tell “those people that criticise” to either get elected or “shut up, go away”, or to apply for jobs at the local authority themselves, in remarks that raised eyebrows among activists on social media.

Asked if he applied the same advice to Unison’s critique, Shields said:  “As senior officers and councillors, we are accountable to local people and everything we do is open to scrutiny – and of course to criticism – from those who disagree with it.

“In my remarks I was referring to those who resort to personal criticism and attacks – or even death threats – on individual councillors or officers.”

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