Archive for December, 2019

The General Election, support and Merry Christmas

Monday, December 16th, 2019

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

Monday, December 9th, 2019

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

Monday, December 2nd, 2019

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.