THE former chairman of the Welsh Labour party has been appointed to Blaenau Gwent council's education recovery board to help support the council's troubled leadership.

Education minister Huw Lewis AM announced today that Garry Owen, Wales regional officer for the Unite union, would join the panel which has been tasked with dragging up standards after the authority's education services was plunged into special measures in 2011, and failed to come out of it last year.

In a statement the minister said he was making the appointment to strengthen Blaenau Gwent's recovery board.

"I have appointed Gary Owen to the board in order to support the political leadership of the authority," he said.

The Argus understands Mr Owen will take over from the previous ministerial appointee to the board, former Welsh finance minister Sue Essex.

Today Mr Lewis said that during Blaenau Gwent's re-inspection in January last year, Estyn once again concluded the performance of the education services and the authority’s prospects for improvement were "unsatisfactory" and that the department should stay in special measures.

The appointment of Mr Owen comes in a week when political opponents of the council's Labour leader Hedley McCarthy, and sources close to his own party, have suggested there is pressure on him to step down, a suggestion which he rejected in Monday's Argus.

Commenting on Mr Owen's appointment, Cllr McCarthy said he welcomed it and had been calling for a replacement for Ms Essex since the last meeting of the recovery board.

"There is always a ministerial appointment of a person with a political background," he explained. "It's a useful conduit because we speak the same language and it balances the make-up of the board.

"Merthyr, Monmouthshire and Torfaen's recovery boards all have ministerial appointments. I welcome this one."

Yesterday, Cllr McCarthy hit back at criticism from his opponents in the council, including the leader of the minority independents Cllr John Hopkins, as "sour grapes" and his deputy leader Cllr Steve Thomas dismissed reports that Labour members were calling for him to organise a meeting to discuss leadership.