Archive for September, 2015

New arrivals and challenge sessions

Monday, September 28th, 2015

This week unusually had a couple of military events: the Beacon Barracks ‘End of Build’ Event on Tuesday and a dinner on Thursday with other West Midlands employers and senior Army officers.  It was interesting to be on the civilian side this time, and gave me some food for thought.  The Army, and the building contractors, have done an amazing job of completing the Beacon Barracks project so quickly, including some 450 houses for those families returning from Germany.  The trick will be integrating the families into Staffordshire, and it was reassuring to meet a corporal again whom I had last seen in Germany two years ago. He told me that his wife had started work that day in the care sector, and their daughter had started at secondary school in the town. They were now looking to buy a house, as they had decided to settle here.  That is undoubtedly the future for the armed services, living a more settled life in more stable locations.

The Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) kicked off properly this week with the first Challenge Session for Place.  These are not easy discussions, but the reality is that we’re facing significant reductions in funding in the coming years and need to look at doing the best we possibly can with the 70% funding that we expect to remain. The exact amount will be confirmed in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in late November, but we have to think ahead now.  I was very impressed by the readiness of our people to defend their positions, and to look for better ways of delivering the best outcomes for the residents of Staffordshire.

I spent Friday morning on a visit to Lichfield, with Councillor Janet Eagland, focussed on the Minerals Plan.  This is a very difficult issue, and striking the balance between the needs of the construction industry and the interests of our residents will be the key to success.  It won’t be easy.

Just before heading off for the weekend, I spent a couple of hours with Steve Bergin of Alstom.  He’s a Stafford man through and through, passionate about the county and its people, and it was very useful to get his impressions not only on the company and its activities in the town, but also his views on the wider issues that we face.  The good news is that he thinks that we are doing a good job overall.  Not a bad note to end the week on.

Examining and explaining

Monday, September 21st, 2015

I visited Medequip in Stafford on Monday morning, the company which delivers, fits and maintains equipment for disabled and elderly people in Staffordshire. It’s a great service, and one that reacts very quickly to requests for equipment.  As ever more of our residents require assistance as they age, this is an essential service in helping them to live at home where they want to be.  Most of the staff have been transferred from the county council, and morale was high, which was good to see.  There are a couple of things that we can do better in terms of process, but that is why I do these visits.

Philip Atkins, Ian Parry and I travelled to London on Tuesday to meet our MPs in Portcullis House.  They were on good form, and asked questions about the things that their constituents write to them about, things like bus services, potholes and school places.  The key here is that they appreciate the job that we’re doing, and the difficult decisions that we’re having to make.  When they write to us on behalf of a resident, we just need to explain the situation as it is.

We also talked about devolution.  I sense that there is still a great deal of confusion on this subject, and that there is a long way to go.  With my background, you won’t be surprised to read that I’m keen to work out why we’re looking to do something, before working in what we’re going to do, and finally how.  Meeting with a number of fellow CEs at the end of the week, it was reassuring to find out that we are all facing the same challenges.

Lastly, can I remind you of the opportunity to nominate a deserving colleague for the Connect Awards. Getting the right public recognition is really important; we all like to be told that we’re doing a good job, and this is our chance to do so in Staffordshire County Council.

Caring for our residents and those who may join us

Monday, September 14th, 2015

This week has been dominated by the proposed changes to the Senior Leadership Team, and by the emerging refugee crisis.

I’ve always tried to undertake re-organisations in a deliberate manner, starting with defining the outcomes or products, then working out the processes which make these outcomes and products, and only then looking at structures.  I’ve found that too often people rush to an organisation chart, or set themselves arbitrary targets before working out what they actually want to achieve. For this reason, I was keen not to be rushed into a new structure, and was delighted that Philip Atkins and the Cabinet agreed to give me a three month window in which to think things through.

The biggest change is a proposal to bring Health and Adult Social Care together under the leadership of one director in the SLT.  As I think most people agree, the biggest challenge of our generation is to extend the healthy years of Staffordshire’s  residents in line with the improvements that medical science is making in life expectancy. Bringing preventative health and care at home together will allow us to work with our NHS colleagues to achieve this.

The refugee crisis, and the news that the UK will take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next 5 years, brought a feeling of déjà vu for me, having worked on this with the German authorities over the past three years, and with experience from the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan.  The first key issue is to define the end state; are we accommodating these people with a view to repatriating them after the civil war in Syria is over, or is the intention to integrate them into British society?

Everybody focuses on housing, but it is probably the easiest and cheapest part of the problem.  We can reasonably assume that all the children have a need for extra support, for language if nothing else, and a high proportion will fall into our looked-after children system, having seen and experienced things that children should not.  There will also be long-term health issues to address from people who have spent weeks and months, and in some cases years, living in refugee camps without adequate sanitation and medical care, and in areas where malaria and other tropical diseases are endemic.  That’s before you get to dentistry, post-traumatic stress disorder and adult education.  It’s not for the faint hearted.

On a lighter note, I very much enjoyed my hour in the hot seat of BBC Radio Stoke with  Perry Spiller.  He’s a really decent guy, who is interested and interesting.  I promised to go back in six months or so, when I suspect that the callers might be a little less generous in terms of welcome, given that I will not have the defence of being the new boy.

Devolution and Cooperation

Monday, September 7th, 2015

The autumn season will be dominated by our MTFS and Business Plan, of which more later, but first I hope that all our Staffordshire colleagues managed to get some well-deserved holiday during the summer, even if the weather was not the best.

Devolution has continued to take a proportion of our time and attention, as we work out what is genuinely best for the people of Staffordshire. Friday was the deadline for bids to Central Government, and it is clear that the West Midlands Combined Authority, including the seven Metropolitan city and district councils, will make a bid for greater control of transport, mental health and planning, among other areas.  An excellent meeting with Keith Ireland, Managing Director of Wolverhampton City Council, on Wednesday gave us an indication of what lies in store.  The short answer is lots more work, but in essence no reduction in our already close cooperation with the Combined Authority and its members.  In the meantime, our own politicians across the county and in Stoke will be meeting soon to build a political consensus on what we want for Staffordshire.  It is gratifying to note that everybody is concentrating on outcomes and improvements, rather than governance and structures – long may that continue.

Philip Atkins and I had two Business Meetings the week before last in Lichfield and Keele.  It was really useful to get the unvarnished opinions of business people on what we should be doing for them.  Two observations – they were more than slightly surprised by the range and scale of what SCC does, and they want us to take a leading role in building the county’s name.  Neither is a great surprise, but we might usefully explain ourselves and our roles more effectively to our citizens; and lively discussions on such subjects as whether Ironman in the county is a good thing (we came to the conclusion that it was) were very helpful.

I spent a very pleasant afternoon in the Peak District with Sarah Fowler, the Chief Executive of the Peak District National Park..  Sarah has a clear vision for the National Park in which we can play a supporting role.  We are very fortunate in the UK with our pragmatic approach to such areas. We look after them differently to the way I saw it done when I lived in the United States, and more especially in Germany: our mixed use of the landscape, with people living and working inside the parks, makes them much more accessible, as well as preserving traditional communities and skills and wildlife.  It is a delicate balance, but a very British compromise.

This week, Andy Burns gave me the timeline for the Business Plan and MTFS meetings, which promises to fill many of our calendars for the period running up to Christmas. The key issue for all of us this year and in coming years is to deliver the outcomes and services for which we are responsible, while sticking to our spending plans and commitments. That will only happen with the requisite attention to detail and self-discipline from all of us.