Some of the country's worst performing town halls are culling senior managers as they struggle to recover from being branded failures in the government's recent audit of council standards.

Headhunters report a boom in business as councillors blame their officials for embarrassing showings in the comprehensive performance assessment published by watchdog the audit commission eight weeks ago.

Recruitment specialists predict an influx of managers from the private sector and the NHS as such councils as Kingston-upon-Hull, Oldham, Walsall and Swindon seek to restock their top teams.

These are among those branded "poor" or "weak" by the commission, which graded councils on how well they deliver their services as well as the strength of their finances and management.

Wesley Emmett, an executive at the headhunting firm Veredus, said: "There's a recognition that in some cases people at senior levels have not delivered."

So far few councillors have themselves resigned or been ousted as a result of authorities being classified as weak. One senior council official criticised Labour party headquarters for failing "to do its share of sorting out the dead wood" - Labour controlled authorities form the majority of those deemed to be under performing. Labour party executives have in the past made behind the scenes moves to oust failing council leaders but party chairman John Reid has not made this a priority.

Hull, the council containing John Prescott's constituency, was described by inspectors as facing "daunting" problems. It is trying to replace its entire senior management team, including education and social services chiefs. Once a Labour bastion, Hull is now controlled by the Liberal Democrats.

The troubled West Midlands borough of Walsall, Labour controlled, is also in the process of recruiting an entirely fresh team of seven senior staff, with a chief executive and legal director among the first jobs to be advertised.

Oldham, where the Liberal Democrat council is struggling to cope with the aftermath of the race riots two years ago is, is trying to replace around half of its senior team, with five jobs being advertised at up to £100,000 a year.

Swindon, labelled a poor performer, is seeking a chief executive at £125,000. The council insists that its problems "are steadily receding" but wants someone to take the next decisive step forward.

Some authorities are using their relatively comfortable position in the commission's assessment to try to attract ambitious officials who can help them rise up the ratings. Wokingham, a unitary district in what used to be Berkshire, is offering a minimum of £113,000 a year to help it into push its way its way into the "excellent" portion of the league tables.

These are profitable times for such headhunters as Veredus, the recruitment specialist concern formerly known as PriceWaterhouseCoopers executive search.

It is part of the Capita group, which has grown rapidly in recent years thanks to contracting for government services and its involvement in private finance initiative projects.

Sir Jeremy Beecham, Labour chairman of the Local Government Association, insists that councils can sort out their own problems. He points to the recent appointment of the chief executive of Camden, Steve Bundred, to head the Improvement and Development Agency, which has spearheaded assistance to Walsall and Hackney. Camden, Labour controlled, was ranked among the excellent performers.



Captcha image