Climate change, business and housing

This week, Councillors Mark Winnington and Conor Wileman hosted a Members’ Event, in the shape of a Climate Change Workshop. It was a fascinating event, where we discussed what we are already doing in terms of sustainability, and then went on to visualise what more we could do. The enthusiasm from Members and Officers in the room was palpable, and it was a great pleasure to be there. On the theme of “Think global, act local”, we have a pretty good record, and we will continue to focus on this moving forward.

On Thursday evening, I attended the Keele University “Breaking the Mould” Business Awards in their newly opened Business School. We contributed to the construction of the building, and sponsored one of the awards, the Future Enterprise Award presented by Councillor Mark Winnington. It was won by the hugely impressive ZenaMed Ltd, who have produced a detector which helps people with a chronic alcohol problem kick the habit by detecting a relapse before it happens. In the spirit of the “Keele Difference” which Professor Trevor McMillan has done so much to nurture, the awards ceremony was great fun, short in duration, and included some excellent entertainment from the Spark! LED Drummers – worth a watch on YouTube. 

Friday morning saw an early start for a long drive to Norwich to see how new steel frame technology is being used for housing. Housing has risen on the County Council’s agenda, and we are always looking at better ways of doing things. As a Mechanical Engineer, and having built our own modular house a couple of years ago, I was particularly interested in this project. We saw 2 sites, one a development of flats in central Norwich, which was hugely impressive, and a more standard housing estate, in which the houses had been traditionally finished in brick exteriors. The reduction in cost is relatively small, but it is in the reduction of build time and low waste, as well as the ability to insulate and seal the buildings to a much higher level than traditional build that is most impressive. I was slightly disappointed that the design of the houses was indistinguishable from traditional brick-built, but that is probably more a reflection of the UK housing market than anything else. Much of the cost of the house was spent in having bricklayers produce a completely cosmetic wall around the steel frame, which added nothing to strength or insulation. I suspect that tastes will change in the coming years, and we will adopt more advanced technologies for external surfaces.

Universities, education and increasing digital jobs

I was very fortunate this week to attend the opening of Staffordshire University’s London campus. It’s called the Digital Institute London, and is offering the class-leading courses that Staffs Uni offers, such as Cyber Security, Computer Gaming and eSports.  The campus is to be found in Here East, the former press centre for the 2012 Olympics on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, London.  I have to say that it is a superb location, with a real energy and vitality to it.  Indeed, I was reflecting with somebody who, like me, went to university in the 1980s, that Staffordshire University are very much more student-focussed than I remember my own undergraduate experience – I remember feeling that we were the necessary encumbrance for the lecturers’ lifestyle.  Part of that, certainly, comes down to the fact that students now pay for their courses, and are therefore much more demanding customers, but I also sense that the university sector is much more dynamic that it used to be, which cannot be a bad thing at all.

Darryl Eyers and I also met with Tony Evans, who leads Amazon’s Financial Services business, and has recently returned to his native Staffordshire.  Tony has spent the last 20 years in the United States, and has a real passion and energy for doing something positive for the county.  We talked about how we might increase the number of well-paid and highly-skilled digital jobs, aligning the efforts of ourselves, the universities and colleges, and the Local Enterprise Partnership to attract large financial employers into the county.  It’s a very exciting prospect, particularly coming at a time when we are working with those partners on the Local Industrial Strategy, and we will follow up with enthusiasm.

Staying with the theme of inspiring people and events, I spent some time with Mike Donoghue, the Chief Executive of the John Taylor Multi Academy Trust (MAT).  Mike’s organisation runs the excellent secondary school that we built in Branston, near Burton, and it was there that I met him for a discussion about how we work more effectively with MATs like his.  The conversation ranged widely over local and national issues, and Mike gave me some great insights.  We talked at some length about how we can achieve greater inclusion for pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), and I was most impressed to hear that Mike insists that his newly-qualified teachers spend some time in SEND settings to better understand the needs, challenges and opportunities.  The conversation certainly gave me a lot to think about, and I left feeling energised and optimistic.

Clothes Swap, and the Queen’s Award for Enterprise

For this week’s blog, I wanted to remind everyone about the Waste Team’s brilliant ‘Clothes Swap’ taking place in SP1 today. We throw away so many clothes these days, when many can be reused or recycled. This clothes swap is an excellent way to recycle your old or unwanted clothes, and will help us to think more carefully about what we throw away in future.

For more information and to get involved in this and future swaps, click here.

It was a pleasure to attend the awards ceremony for the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for Conversion Rates Experts, a small and highly international digital company which is based in the unlikely setting of a country house in Rugeley.  Most of the employees were there, gathering for their one day a year when they meet face to face.  The rest of the year they work from their homes designing and optimising some of the most world’s biggest companies’ websites.  As well as sharing in their celebration, I learned more about Smart Working from a company that really makes it happen.  They have developed techniques and tools which build the ethos of the company, but the key is getting the culture right, which came as no surprise to me.  In an industry where people move very quickly, they have built up an amazing loyalty.  I’m hoping that Ben Jesson will come to one of our future Senior Managers’ Conferences to explain not only what a successful digital business in Staffordshire needs from its county council, but also perhaps share some tips on the next steps for us in Smart Working.

On a completely different subject, and testament to how varied this job is, I returned to the office to present the Health and Care Sustainability and Transformation Partnership (STP) Estates Strategy to senior NHS officials.  Last year, we were disappointed to receive an “Improving” grade for our work, but we listened to the feedback, and this year it looks like we will be heading into “Good” territory.  This is testament to the efforts of a large number of people, but if I can single out 3 for particular praise, it would Wendy Woodward, Becky Jones and Phil Brenner.  The Estates Strategy will not in and of itself makes the transformation that community care needs in Staffordshire and Stoke, but it will enable many of the changes that need to be made, and support the new workforce model, as well as integration of health and care, and the digital offer. 

Brexit, Parliament and planning for the future

I could not write this week’s blog without mentioning the events in Parliament.   Local Government has always been a good place to work, but right now we do appear like an island of calm in an otherwise turbulent political sea.  I see no reason why that should not continue as we focus on providing the positive outcomes for Staffordshire’s residents.  Many of you will be involved in the preparations for Brexit, and specifically for a potential no-deal departure from the European Union.  We have covered as many of the areas that we can forecast, but there is no doubt that we have to retain some capacity and vigilance to deal with the unexpected. 

The Chancellor’s financial statement was, for us, the most important event of the week, almost lost among the drama of Brexit, with the indications of extra money for Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), as well as a continuation of the money for social care from last year.  While we will have to wait for the detail of the announcement – the Chancellor only covers the highlights in his speech with the detail normally coming out just before Christmas – it does look like some good news, but for next year only.  From Staffordshire’s point of view, it probably means that we will be able to stick to our hard-won Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS), without having to resort to more savings measures.  In essence, the extra money will likely cover the pressures that are building up in Children’s Services and SEND, but it is almost certainly not enough to allow us to cancel any of the measures that are already in train.  And with the one-year nature of the spending round – we had been hoping for a 3-year settlement – we won’t be able to make any new commitments, long-term or otherwise.

Closer to home, we have this week circulated the final draft of the Strategic Infrastructure Plan to all Staffordshire and Stoke local authority Leaders and Chief Executives.  It’s an excellent piece of work, led by our own James Chadwick and Matt Shufflebotham, and with significant assistance from AECOM; I understand that we are now one of about 5 places in the UK who have undertaken this level of analysis, and it is a real win that it covers Stoke-on-Trent as well as Staffordshire, as this is also the footprint for the Health and Care STP, Police, the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), amongst many others – it therefore makes sense that we have contiguous boundaries for this piece of work.  As well as covering the things that you might expect, such as roads and rail, it covers a wide range of health, educational and social factors that will be invaluable for anybody undertaking any strategic planning work.  It will now go through our scrutiny committees and Cabinet, and the intention is that we keep it up to date with regular revisions, probably annually, incorporating any suggestions and amendments as we progress. 


With the return from summer holidays, for many of us our thoughts turn to finances.  That is especially so this year, where we are awaiting Chancellor Sajid Javid’s one-year spending round being unveiled on Wednesday 4 September. As was reported in the LGC last month, uncertainty is hanging over at least £3.5 billion of council funding streams for 2020-21, including the £1.8 billion Better Care Fund. 

On Monday 2 September, we will be joining in with the Local Government Association’s #CouncilsCan campaign, to call on the Government to give us the certainly we need from the spending round and ensure we can sustain the services we provide. Councils up and down the country will be posting about how secure funding from Government will help to continue local services. I hope you can join in with the campaign–look out for the hashtag #CouncilsCan on the County Council’s Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages, and get behind the campaign by pressing the like button, retweeting and sharing the posts.  

Hopefully, this will highlight all the great and innovative work done by you and local government every day to keep communities running.  It’s a timely intervention, and I would add that Councils Already Do, and Will Do in the Future, but that probably doesn’t have the same ring as #CouncilsCan!

Brexit and the Local Industrial Strategy

Despite the holiday period, and I hope that you are all getting an opportunity to have a break with friends and family, there appears to be two subjects which are filling our attention: Brexit and the Local Industrial Strategy (LIS).  They are related, in that the LIS will form the basis on which government investment is based after we leave the EU and the various European funding sources are replaced with national ones. 

We are told that the quality of the LIS will dictate half of the funds that we receive, with the other half coming as a more traditional calculation of size, population and need; it’s therefore worth expending some effort in getting it right.

The Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), under the energetic leadership for this activity of the Deputy Chair Alun Rogers, has really got this going.  They have engaged the services of Metrodynamics, a think-tank which has done some excellent work in other places; our lead is Patrick White, whom we know well from his previous service as a director in central government.   The aim is to look at the economy of Staffordshire in the future and prepare the ground for the businesses that will provide jobs and prosperity for us and our children, rather than perhaps in the past supporting the status quo.  As such, the four areas that have been identified are Advanced Manufacturing and Materials, Business and Professional Services, particularly around digital, Energy and Logistics.  There are of course other areas of opportunity, such as agriculture, but this seems like a good start. 

I was particularly happy to see logistics in the mix, as there has been a certain “sniffiness” about the quality of the jobs locally and indeed nationally.  Logistics is a major employer because of our location in the country, and we should be encouraging the higher end of the industry with better and better-paid jobs, focussing on automation.  Whether it’s Click and Collect, or buying fresh fruit and vegetables in supermarkets, excellent logistics facilitate the way that we live, and Staffordshire is at the heart of the industry. 

Logistics also plays a vital role in getting Brexit right.  We are working with central government and neighbouring local authorities to plan for the smoothest transition possible as we leave the EU.  There is a huge amount of work being done and many of the outstanding issues have been quietly solved.  Although one can never be complacent, the difference between deal or no-deal does not feel as much of a cliff-edge as it perhaps did some 6 months ago.  The key will be to do as much preparation as possible, and leave a bit of capacity in the system to plan for the unexpected.  I’ve always found that if one has solid plans and processes in place, those who understand the subjects can retain the intellectual headroom to deal with unintended consequences.   

Taking time to reflect in the summer break

As the schools break up for summer, I hope that you all get some time to relax with family and friends, after what has been a busy period.  There is much to do in the autumn; a new Prime Minister and a promise of leaving the European Union on 31 October, along with a raft of new policy initiatives.  We will certainly have our work cut out when we get back, making links with a completely new group of ministers (with the exception of Health and Care where Matt Hancock stays in post).  But that can probably wait for you to recharge your batteries. 

The natural break in the rhythm of the year allows us an opportunity to reflect on where we are and where we are going.  The major changes internally, which we commenced last autumn, are coming to a close, and we are seeing the new models and structures taking off.  Change on this scale is not easy, and it is something of which we can be very proud.  We are adapting to the world around us; the desired outcomes remain the same, but what activities we do to achieve them, and how we undertake these activities changes.  Some very valued colleagues and long-term friends have left the organisation–they have been part of our journey, and I wish them well in their future.

Looking forward to the autumn, we will be refreshing our strategy again.  The finances remain tight, but Rob Salmon and the team have a coherent plan to move the MTFS forwards which continues the good work that has already been done.  Although it will be something to discuss, I expect that environmental sustainability will rise up the agenda, and will appear in our strategy – the motion at Full Council on Thursday and the appointment of Conor Wileman to the Cabinet are key indicators that we will be Thinking Global but Acting Local.

Graduations and planning for the future

Philip Atkins, the Council Leader, and I visited the New Beacon Group in Stafford this week to find out their plans for developing the Beaconside site to the east of the county town.  We met Richard Li-Hua, the President of the organisation, and his staff, and received a set of formal briefings, followed by a wide-ranging discussion.  They have great ambitions to link with Chinese universities in a business school and a School of China Studies, as well as with Staffordshire University.  We briefed them on the various plans for the county and the region, including HS2 and Midlands Engine.  It certainly feels like there is something in this that will benefit Stafford in the long term, and we will be working with them closely to achieve it.      

Elsewhere, the end of the academic year means graduations at our colleges and universities.  A few weeks ago, I attended the Newcastle and Stafford College Group graduation at the County Showground; last week it was Staffordshire University and this week it was Keele University.  It was a great pleasure to see so many people receive their diplomas and degrees after so much hard work – we are very fortunate to have such good colleges and universities in Staffordshire which take such a full part in the wider community as well as in academia.  It reminded me that I missed my own graduation because I was under training at Sandhurst – on the morning that I was supposed to be collecting my degree, I was soaking wet through, breathless and aching on an assault course.  There was, as I remember, no sympathy from the instructors!

This week has also seen a range of evening meetings in the many organisations in which we work with partners across the private and public sectors.  The Health and Care Sustainability and Transformation Partnership held a workshop with a wide range of partners on the progress of implementation as we look towards an Integrated Care System, and the Local Enterprise Partnership met to discuss how they are going to strengthen their planning ability as we approach Brexit.  In this latter instance, we will see the end of the EU funding that we have enjoyed for many years, and the start of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, which will use as its basis the Local Industrial Strategy.  It will come as no surprise therefore. that we are working hard to ensure that this is as good as it can be, so we can attract the businesses and good-quality jobs that we need to continue Staffordshire’s progress.     

Working together to solve some of the big issues

We had the third of the revamped WLT/OMT Business Development Sessions on Tuesday, and I have to state that the new format is achieving the main aim, which is to engage across the business in the bigger issues that we are facing. It was a packed agenda, and I thought that we had some very useful discussions. We had four vignettes in the first session to set the scene of Doing Our Bit, and I’m very grateful for the effort that Louise, Julie, Ryan, Matt and Dan put into their presentations. Louise Molineux and Julie Street-Anderson talked about using puppets with people with Learning Disabilities; Patrick Baskeyfield talked about Leek Town AC FC, a football club focussed on those normally excluded from sport; and Ryan Proctor and Matt Pringle talked about the clean air initiative, enabling the children of a Cannock primary school to take the issue into their own hands and check air quality outside their school. Dan Maddock then talked about how we are going to make it easier to do our bit, giving time to colleagues to use their professional skills in the wider community, which is something that we will be working on in the coming weeks and months. I was certainly inspired, and from the looks on people’s faces around the room, I was not alone.

I am noticing a greater level of cohesion at the events, with colleagues making contacts across the Council, and working very well together. This is very much what I wanted to achieve, and I hope that you will start to see the benefits of these growing relationships in your everyday activities.

LGA Annual Conference, and thoughts on leadership

I spent much of last week at the Local Government Association (LGA) Annual Conference in Bournemouth, which was a fascinating experience.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to a breakfast meeting with Matt Hancock MP, the Secretary of State for Health and Care, as well as sitting in the audience to listen to such luminaries as Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England.  It’s a concentrated string of events, in which one usually finds that there is at least 2 things happening at once that one would like to attend.  The overall tone was surprisingly upbeat; local government is an island of relative stability in a turbulent political sea at the moment, and the attendees reflected that feeling.  Ministers were, given the impending change of Prime Minister, naturally guarded in making promises and commitments – they might not be in those jobs in less than a month –  but there was a general impression that local government is doing a good job. 

I also managed to speak to Odger Berndtson’s Emerging Leaders Programme during the week.  This is the major recruitment agency (head-hunters in the vernacular) and they run a scheme for particularly promising candidates whom they have identified for jobs across the private and public sectors.  As a result, I was asked to speak to a group of about 30 on leadership.  I have avoided doing many of these so far; because leadership is taught well in the military, and is something that is hugely important to them, many retired senior officers go into this field, without necessarily understanding the differences across sectors and organisations.  I chose to speak on building trust and confidence, but treating them as relationships rather than one-sided qualities.  There is a recurring theme about trust in leadership circles and forums such as LinkedIn, which is understandable, but the discussion feels, at times, one-sided.  My own view, formed mostly since my arrival in Staffordshire, is that trust, like so many human qualities, is a relationship; if you want to be trusted, you have to trust people.  The same goes for confidence; I want SCC to be a confident, outward-looking organisation, but to do so, I, along with all leaders, have to demonstrate confidence in our colleagues and their abilities.  It all comes back to the assumption that has served me well throughout my working life – we all got up this morning wanting to do a good job.  s