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.      

An outstanding college, and a chance to complete the Digital Skills Survey

We heard this week that Newcastle and Stafford College Group (NSCG) have become the first Further Education (FE) college in England to be judged “Outstanding” across all areas by OFSTED.  This is a major achievement, only 3 years after the amalgamation of Newcastle and Stafford Colleges.  The offer of high quality academic and vocational education and training is key to improving the prosperity of individual residents and Staffordshire’s economy.  The Local Industrial Strategy, which is in its final stages of drafting, makes great play of providing more, highly paid and highly skilled jobs.  NSCG are very much playing their part, and we are very fortunate to have them in the county. 

Talking of skills, we have a Digital Skills survey that is now live to support a Learning and Development offer. The survey is open to the whole workforce, to gain an insight into the current digital skills level of our workforce when using technology and software. The results of the survey, which closes on 27 November, will help us identify a suitable and targeted learning offer to help develop our colleagues.  The links for the Leadership Teams and the  Wider Workforce will take you straight there.  Please take a little time to complete it – it will help us to focus our efforts in this vital area.

It has been pointed out to me that I omitted a specific mention of children with disabilities in my piece in last week’s blog entry on SEND.  Clearly, providing the right support for children with disabilities, with the aim of enabling them to live as independent lives as possible, is our focus in this vital area.  As with those with Special Educational Needs, the focus of our efforts is to allow them to be educated in mainstream settings with the appropriate support, which benefits not only the children with disabilities, but also wider society through greater inclusion.  I am happy to correct the omission. 

Remembrance and SEN

Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith of the A Team in the 1980s’ TV series had the catchphrase of “I love it when a plan comes together”, and I did feel that way after an excellent discussion with Julie Day, our newly appointed lead for Vulnerable Learners, and attending the Special Educational Needs (SEN) Hub for South Staffordshire on Friday morning.  I’ve long believed that the role of the senior leader is to create the conditions in which good people can achieve their greatest potential; with SEN, it’s taken some time, but it does feel that that is now happening.  The SEN Hub is one of the key elements of the Local Offer, and it is worth describing.  The Head Teachers of the district’s mainstream and special schools meet on a monthly basis to discuss cases of children with SEN – in this case about 20 children were discussed in detail.  Also in the meeting are County Council SEN specialists and representatives of the children’s services.  What struck me was the open and engaged nature of the discussions, with all parties offering advice and suggestions of different approaches and therapies to get the right solutions for some children with very challenging conditions and behaviours.  The patience and resolve of all involved was inspirational.   I passionately believe that the best solution is for as many children with SEN to be educated in mainstream settings with the appropriate support to ensure that they live as independent lives as possible.  As we roll out the Local Offer across the rest of the county, it will adapt to the local conditions, but it certainly looks like the right solution to a very complex set of issues. 

I am writing this on Remembrance Sunday before attending a service in Stafford; tomorrow I will lay a wreath in Chadsmoor in Cannock at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 101 years after the end of the First World War.  It is remarkable and humbling, as a veteran, that the country makes such an effort to remember the service of our Armed Forces.  We often focus on those who died, and sometimes we focus on those who bear the mental and physical scars of their service, but I would ask you to consider all of those who have served our country in your everyday activities.  We are just ordinary people, who joined whichever branch, regiment or corps of our service, and we return as civilians to the communities that we left.  I count myself as enormously fortunate to have moved into a challenging and rewarding job, but not everybody is so lucky.  It is a reality that the Armed Forces in the UK are dearly loved, but not very well understood; the preconceptions often get in the way of veterans establishing second careers.  I would ask that, if you are ever hiring somebody, take a little time to understand a veteran’s experience and potential.  The chances are that he or she is just like you, but with a slightly different set of education, training and experience, and it might be that their potential will add real value to your team.         

The New Parent Mentoring Scheme and Vision for Staffordshire

I’m always heartened by colleagues who take matters into their own hands and come up with solutions – it reminds me of the calibre and energy of our people. I spent some time recently with 5 members of the New Parent Mentoring Scheme, an initiative to assist colleagues who are becoming parents for the first time. The group is made up of people who have recently returned to work themselves from maternity and paternity leave, and who are keen to offer support to those going through the same process.  They focus on providing practical and emotional advice and guidance, providing a “buddy” from prior to the birth through to the return to work.  Some of what they have identified is practical, such as our ICT policies which lock accounts out which have not been active for a number of weeks, but a lot of it is about supporting people who are juggling work and parenthood for the first time. I was enormously impressed with the enthusiasm of the group, and I envisage that it will grow in strength, not only in the practical aspects of supporting colleagues, but also in formulating policy which fits with our People Strategy of retaining, developing and recruiting quality people. 

Also this week we had the high level meeting of the Vision for Staffordshire group, attracting senior leaders from across the public and private sectors.  The three areas that we are focussing on are: Smart Staffordshire, in which we are looking to retain the lead that we have built in superfast broadband into the next generations of 5G mobile phones and fibre broadband; a Data Institute in which we are looking to maximise the sharing of data across the public sector to the benefit of Staffordshire’s residents: and Place Branding, an effort to produce a coherent and compelling brand for Staffordshire with due consideration of our history, but focussing on the county that we want to be in the future. It’s a fascinating set of programmes, and it is clear that the County Council sits at the centre, as the organisation with the reach and the mandate to provide the necessary leadership and effort.

Lastly this week, we had a slightly longer Digital Programme Board in which we conducted an audit into the many digital projects that are running across the County Council. We have deliberately allowed colleagues the freedom to run with projects to make best use of the intelligence and enthusiasm in the organisation, and it was heartening to see how much is going on – over 50 separate projects. The other key finding was that there is remarkably little overlap and duplication, which is always a risk with this approach; it appears that we are much better at working across barriers than sometimes we give ourselves credit for. Watch out for the introduction of a chatbot to assist us in taking Smart Working to a higher level – we’re closer than I had hoped. 

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.