Climate Change and Storm Dennis

As I write this on Sunday morning, we are in a lull in Storm Dennis, our second named storm in a week.  Last weekend saw our Highways Department deal with 292 incidents of fallen trees or local flooding, about 7 times what we normally expect in a weekend.  Thankfully, we appear to have solved the issues fairly quickly, which comes down to a bit of luck, but also the preparation that we have undertaken, for example with the more targeted approach to gulley cleaning.  So far, Dennis appears to have been more rain than wind, but of course that comes on top of significant rain in Ciara last week, and a very wet autumn and winter.  We remain ready to respond and help Staffordshire’s residents who have been affected.

Following on from a 5 month drought in 2018 and a dry winter last year, it seems clear that we are seeing changing weather patterns, with lengthy periods of alternately hot and dry, followed by warm and wet.   It was therefore timely that I attended Engie’s Senior Managers’ Conference in Birmingham this week, to speak about our journey to zero carbon.  Engie is a French-owned energy company who ran the coal-fired power station in Rugeley, which closed a number of years ago.  They intend to redevelop the site themselves as a zero carbon settlement, with energy-efficient housing, solar panel farms and a zero carbon school serving the residents.  It is an ambitious scheme, the first of its kind in the country, and we are delighted to be working closely with them on it.  My part was speaking about our own journey, and I majored on reducing our carbon footprint in everything that we do, and across the county as opposed to just the county council.  Staffordshire County Council employs about 1% of the county’s workforce directly, and probably pays the salaries of another 7% in our commissioned operations; we also make up about 2% of the county’s carbon footprint.  We should clearly aim to reduce our internal carbon footprint, but the key will be in facilitating the wider county to reduce.  The target is huge, with about a third of energy consumed at home by heating and power, another third in transport, and about 18% in employment sites.  Helping our residents to make better choices in terms of insulation and heating in their homes, and in their personal transport, will be key.   

It’s not all about transport and housing though.  There are significant secondary benefits from such programmes as Superfast Broadband, allowing more people to work from home, reducing the traffic on our roads.  Our own Smart Working programme has taken an estimated 1 million miles off Staffordshire’s roads, which works out at 100 cars on an average annual mileage.  It doesn’t seem much perhaps, but if every employer in Staffordshire did the same, it would be 10,000 cars, and nationally it would be 500,000 cars.  Now we’re talking. 

Dignity in Care Awards

I was delighted with the response to the invitation to submit entries for the MJ Awards.  It was a change in tactics from previous years, where SLT selected entries, allowing you to shout directly about what you are doing.  I know of six entries, and the ones which were shared with me before submitting were all excellent, full of energy and justifiable pride.  Let’s see how we do in the judging, but I’m expecting a number to make it to the short list stage.  If and when that happens, we will give you every assistance in preparing for the face-to-face interviews, in order that you are lifting the trophies on the night. 

Staying on the awards theme, we are delighted to present the 2020 Staffordshire Dignity in Care Awards, to promote, recognise and reward those people who treat others with dignity and whose actions make a real difference and serve as an example to others,. The awards are now in their 6th year and are organised by the Care Market Development Team. We welcome nominations from anyone who receives support and care in Staffordshire, their families, friends, and / or those who provide care and support to Staffordshire citizens.  I think that these awards are unique in that they recognise voluntary carers and professionals in the same event.  This is entirely in line with our strategy of Doing our Bit; we couldn’t work without the voluntary carers, and we also need a vibrant, valued and capable professional sector to look after our most vulnerable residents.  Find out how you can nominate someone for an award.Dignity

Learning from Gareth Southgate, and celebrating our achievements

I spent Wednesday in London at the National Leadership Centre event for the UK’s public sector leaders.  Apparently, there are about 1000 people spread across Government, the Civil Service, the NHS, universities, local authorities and the Armed Forces who have been identified, and the aim is to develop our leadership such that we achieve better outcomes for the country.  Being naturally optimistic but healthily sceptical, I went along with relatively modest expectations, but was delighted that the event exceeded my hopes. 

The workshops were probably the bit that were flattest and worked the least well, but I have to share two talks which really struck a chord with me – Gareth Southgate and Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller.  Eliza ran MI5 and is a redoubtable lady, but what was interesting was that behind the slightly brusque Establishment façade lies a very caring person who goes out of her way to nurture people whom she leads.  Gareth Southgate was excellent.  He always comes across as a very decent, slightly modest man, but his talk revealed a little more than one sees in television interviews.  He is modest, but he is more generous than modest; he invariably and quickly shares any credit with others, and equally quickly owns any criticism without deflecting it.  He also demonstrates a calmness that is remarkable given his role, along with a quiet and understated confidence.  Between them, they reminded me of a number of qualities and behaviours on which I will be working in the coming weeks and months.

Many thanks to everybody who submitted entries for the MJ Awards this week.  We took a slightly different approach this year, allowing individual managers to submit their entries rather than having a centralised mechanism through the SLT and the Communications Team.  Let’s see how it goes, but I was very impressed with the energy and passion in the entries that I saw, which was the aim of freeing you up to shout about what you are doing.  We are guilty in Staffordshire of sometimes underplaying our achievements, and I have noticed at several local government events that other authorities make large of things that we do rather better than them.  Only last week, Helen Riley noted that the Department of Education were off to visit a city authority who were doing something apparently very novel with their youth service, something that we have been doing for about 7 years!   There is of course a balance – back to Gareth Southgate – but we should probably be a little more confident in what we are doing for the residents of Staffordshire. 

Local Enterprise Partnership, and Holocaust Memorial Day

There is much happening in the Staffordshire and Stoke on Trent Local Enterprise Partnership (SSLEP) at the moment, and I thought that readers might wish to take a moment to familiarise yourselves with it.  A new Chair has been appointed in the shape of Alun Rogers, the Founder of risual, a software development company which some may be familiar with from their work with the Council to implement our digital programme.  Alun is a superb choice for Chair, a local business owner who is focussed on getting the very best for Staffordshire.  Even before his appointment, as Deputy Chair, he has been leading the work on forming the Local Industrial Strategy (LIS), a key document to ensure that the County’s economy continues to prosper and makes the most of the opportunities that business outside the European Union holds.  The LEP launched the consultation a couple of days ago and we’re aiming to submit a single response as a county council which employees have the opportunity to contribute to.  Any thoughts/views should be emailed to: by midnight on 5th February.

We had an excellent Members’ event at Beaconside on Tuesday in which we discussed the Strengths-based Approach for Adult Social Care and Restorative Practice in Child Protection Social Work.  These are hugely important changes for us an authority, and although they come with different terms and tactics, they share a common strategy – that of working closely with families and communities, focussing on what people can do for themselves, rather than on a deficit-based approach of what they can’t do.  Elected Members are enormously important in implementing these policies, and it was hugely encouraging to listen to the level of engagement and conversation around these concepts.  Lastly for this week, Monday 27 January is Holocaust Day, and this year it is particularly poignant as it marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Soviet Army in 1945.  We’ve worked with the Holocaust Memorial Trust to produce some material to publicise this event; I would encourage you to browse through it if you have a chance.  Although this year is naturally focussed on the Nazi genocide of European Jews, the reason for having the day is to ensure that such things can never happen again.  Sadly, there are historic examples before and since which suggest that it was not an aberration, and the worrying thing for me was that otherwise and previously decent people convinced themselves and others that killing or denouncing their neighbours was not only all right, but was actually the only proper course of action. It must never happen again.

The importance of listening

For me, the highlight of a very varied and interesting week was our first LEAD Conference of the year on Tuesday afternoon, which brings together 100+ of the county council’s senior leaders, managers and members of cabinet four times per year.  Regular readers will be familiar with my theme of opportunity for Staffordshire County Council as we enter the new decade, and that came out strongly in the discussions.  This grouping of people is, for me, pivotal to success, as the attendees are the leaders and managers who will take the county council’s strategy, convert it into tactics and make it real.  I was hugely impressed with the energy and morale of everybody there.  I believe that we are ready.

Our external speaker, Simon Eastwood of Blue Starfish, gave an excellent session on communication, focussing on how we speak and how we listen.  Some readers may remember Simon from previous work which he has done with us, but it was the first time for me, and I was hugely impressed.  He told us about the three levels of listening, and it reminded me of my efforts when I first came to Staffordshire of bearing down on our meetings culture.  I think that we have got better, but I brought it up with the group, and the feeling was that we should remind ourselves of the basics.  In essence, let’s make more time for doing meaningful things rather than sitting in meetings.  If you’re checking your emails while sat in a meeting, you should ask yourself what you’re doing there, as you’re not listening at Simon’s third level, where you’re taking in the non-verbal communication as intently as the words.  Equally, can we have another go at timings?  Let’s try to complete a half-hour meeting in 20 minutes and a one-hour meeting in 45 minutes.  That leaves time to do other things, like emails, with complete attention. 

I’ll share one last thing that Simon mentioned, which absolutely rang a bell with me.  If you feel, when talking to somebody, that there’s nowhere else that you’d rather be, discussing any other subject, or with anyone else, then your partner in the conversation has made a great achievement in empathy and leadership.  I know a number of people who fit that description, and my challenge to us all is to be that person.  Have a good week.

New Year, Clarity and Finances

Firstly, Happy New Year to those of you to whom I have not already seen in person.  I hope that 2020 is a happy, healthy and prosperous year for you and your family.  It is also the start of the new decade, and it feels like we have a number of differences for Staffordshire County Council to take advantage of.  The political stalemate in London has been cleared, and we now have some clarity in terms of leaving the European Union; that clarity will hopefully also extend to getting some of legislation, held up for the three years since the European Referendum, passed.  Secondly, the Prime Minister and his government have stated that they are more focussed on the Midlands and the North of England than they were before, and we must be ready to react quickly to attract as much of that attention – and funding – to Staffordshire.  Thirdly, we are in a good place as an organisation, well-balanced and capable – the obvious partner for realising the government’s ambitions.

Picking up on the last point, if you have not read our Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), it would be worth a few minutes of your time to browse through it.  Getting to this point has been hard; we have made tough decisions and followed through on them.  We are a smaller, more agile organisation than even when I arrived in post five years ago, and I do not underestimate the effort required to get here.  That said, we have come through austerity in good condition, and some of the conversations that I have had on the side-lines of local government events before Christmas about “Is austerity over?” are missing the point.  We are where we are, and we won’t be going back.  If there is some more money in the coming months and years, we will aim to invest it in the future, for the benefit of Staffordshire’s residents, rather than turning on things that we have turned off in the past.  The analogy with our personal finances is, in this case, sound.  When we face a financial shock at home, we can either raid the savings, run up debt on the credit card, or reassess our spending.  Like every sensible person, Staffordshire County Council did the latter, and if our income rises in the future, we will spend it on what we need today and tomorrow.          

The General Election, support and Merry Christmas

I couldn’t not mention the General Election in this week’s blog.  Many readers will have seen my message to all staff on Friday; whatever one’s views, we now have a period of more clarity in front of us; we must use that wisely.  It is mostly due to the hard work over the past years that we in Staffordshire County Council have the ability to plan for the future with confidence.  We still have a challenging Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), but it is achievable and balanced over the 5 year period; that is not something that all local authorities can state.  We have refreshed the strategy to include the focus on environmental sustainability, embody the ambition that we want to champion and support, and to enunciate that balance between encouraging personal responsibility and looking after the most vulnerable.  I’m very grateful for the efforts of Members and Officers across the Council in bringing us to this point.  It feels to me that we have a real opportunity, and we must use it wisely for the benefit of Staffordshire’s residents.    

Some readers may be aware of a recent court case which involved serious threats of violence made against one of our social workers.  I just wanted to mention it, both to thank everybody involved for their prompt and courageous behaviour in bringing this to court, particularly the social worker involved, but also to reassure colleagues that the Council will, in all circumstances, support those who are facing threats or violence.  We regularly work with people in stressful periods in their lives, and often with the most vulnerable people in society.  We will always strive to help and do our best for them, but never at the cost of risking the safety and well-being of our staff.  It’s a fine balance, and I am constantly impressed by the fortitude and resolve that our colleagues demonstrate.  Where that balance is tipped, we will always support our staff.  In this case, due to the significant threats being made, the Magistrates have referred the matter to the Crown Court for a higher sentence; the perpetrator has been remanded in custody until a hearing date is set.

Lastly, in what has turned out to be a very varied blog entry, this is probably the last entry that many readers will read before Christmas.  Can I take this opportunity to thank everybody for their immense efforts in 2019?  It’s been another busy and, at times, stressful year.  Looking back, we’ve achieved a huge amount across the organisation, and I am very proud of you.  I hope that you all have an opportunity to relax and enjoy some time with family, friends and loved ones over the Christmas break, and that you enjoy a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year in 2020.  For those of you who will be on duty in the services which cannot shut down, I hope that you have a quiet duty. 

Inspiration, and getting things done

Sometimes inspiration comes from unlikely sources, and so it was this week.  One of our Looked After Children acted where many others would have hesitated, and prevented a friend from making a terrible mistake.  Readers will understand if I don’t go into details as the incident involved the potential use of illegal drugs, but that was avoided by a young man who has faced his own challenges, having the strength of character to stand up for what is right.  Along with his own part in this, his foster carer and social worker can take credit for creating a positive environment to allow him to develop as well as he has. 

This time of year involves a number of conferences and events where Chief Executives and other senior leaders in Local Government gather to compare notes and learn from each other.  The conversations this year are framed by the unusual December General Election; policy and its implementation were always to the fore in the discussions.  The thing that has struck me more than anything else in my time in this appointment is the practicality and pragmatism of the Local Government sector.  Central Government, of whatever colour or tone, deal in strategy, policy and theories.  They pull metaphorical levers and switches in Whitehall and hope that they have the desired effect on the ground.  Local Government then takes the idea and makes it real, dealing with the problems and challenges along the way.  Taking a relatively uncontentious promise from the election campaign, on planting tens of millions of trees, it will be local authorities who have to source these trees, find somewhere suitable to plant them, and make sure that they survive into maturity.  It’s a details business, and one which will occupy the attention of councillors and officers long after the ministers and civil servants have moved onto their next initiative.  Having worked in both strategy and tactics, I wouldn’t have it any other way – making things real, as we do in Staffordshire County Council in so many areas, is much more rewarding when the two are connected as we are.  Have a good week.

Midlands Engine update and conversations with Cheshire counterparts

This has been one of those weeks where I have spent a quite a lot of time out of the office.  I’ve always tried in this job, and in my previous appointments, to strike a balance between time in the office listening to colleagues and solving problems, and getting out on the ground and understanding what is happening at first hand.  I worked for an American general who had a strict 50/50 rule, which worked well for him, and stopped the temptation to constantly be out on visits.  That said, smart and agile working means that we don’t need to be so proscriptive, and the skill now is to balance face to face discussions – wherever they take place – with the digital.   

I spent most of Wednesday working on the Midlands Engine, which is not a return to my first jobs as a mechanical engineer on Chieftain tanks, but rather the organisation which champions the economy of the East and West Midlands.  We are in the process of refreshing the strategy in preparation for the new government, and planning for the next phases in the development of the economy, the infrastructure requirements and the skills levels across the region.  An interesting aspect of the activities at the moment is the planning for the visit in February of China’s Regional Governors, which we are hosting in February in Birmingham.  It is an annual event which alternates between China and the UK, with Belfast having hosted it in 2018.  I am a member of the Operating Board which is planning the programme, and have found it fascinating balancing the cultural and political considerations, as well as the sometimes conflicting aspirations of some of the British participants. 

Lastly for today, I spent a couple of hours with Andrew Lewis, my counterpart in Cheshire West and Chester Council.  Andrew and I share a background outside local government, but his is central government, including time in the Treasury.  We had a fascinating conversation comparing our challenges and the opportunities to cooperate through such organisations as the Constellation Partnership.  As always with these opportunities, I left having learned a number of things.  One of those was how the Council had turned around the market in Chester, improving the offer in terms of stalls and traders, which has had a transformative effect.  The market now has a huge rise in footfall and its recent extension of opening hours on Friday and Saturday evenings has made it a real destination for residents and visitors alike.  As so often is the case, it comes down to one person with a vision – their market manager has achieved something in a few years that is hugely admirable. 

The Annual CCN Conference, and our hard-working highways engineers.

Last week the Council Leader, Philip Atkins, a number of Cabinet members and myself attended the annual County Councils Network Conference.  With the General Election campaign ongoing, there were no leading national politicians there, but that gave us the chance to concentrate on the issues that face all county councils across England.  There were excellent sessions about children’s services, the challenges of improving adult social care, and many others.  I find this probably the most useful of the few conferences which I normally attend, as it is more focussed than those which cover the whole local government sector.  We are all doing the same things in different places, and as a result there is much learning to be had.  One thing that was noticeable was that, despite the uncertainty of Brexit and the outcome of the General Election, morale was robust.

With this very wet autumn, which is such a contrast to last year’s 5 month summer drought and dry winter, spare a thought for our highways crews who are working across the county to keep traffic moving.  One aspect that has struck me is that our work in mapping and analysing the drainage system appears to be paying off.  About four years ago, we didn’t know how many drains (gulleys in the highways vernacular) we had and where they were.  We do now – we have 148,000 of them across the 6,400km of roads in the county.  Having done that piece of work, which was an accomplishment in itself, our highways engineers then worked out which ones need cleaning more often than others. Like so many things in life, putting in the effort up front before the emergency reduces the effort required to recover from the emergency.  And so it has been with the recent flooding.  The system relies on Severn Trent Water’s mains drains and the Environment Agency’s stewardship of our rivers, but the water has abated more quickly in known flooding areas on our roads than it has done previously.  We will need to keep an eye on the pattern of rainfall as the climate changes, to work out whether the overall system is capable of dealing with it, so there’s no room for complacency, but so far, so good.