#CouncilsCan

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

Armed Forces Day, and a mental health event

With Armed Forces Day last week, we had an opportunity to celebrate the achievements and sacrifices that our armed forces make for our country.  With my own background and experience of moving from the Army to Local Government, it is perhaps not surprising that one of the areas that I am very keen on is the transition of Regulars into second careers and also making the most of the experiences of Reservists both in their civilian employment and in their military appointments.  Last week, I had a fascinating discussion with Dr Penny Mell, the Assistant Director and Transformation and Digital at Walsall Council, and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Signals.  Her current military appointment is as a staff officer in the Army Headquarters, and it was clear from the conversation that the Army and Walsall Council have much to gain from her undertaking similar jobs in different circumstances; the cross-over of ideas allows her to take a different view of the same problems, but importantly based upon a wealth of knowledge and experience.  Sadly, as a country, we don’t make the most of this type of experience, and I would point to the United States, and particularly the Marine Corps, as an organisation where people transition seamlessly between full-time and reservist service, mixing the best ideas and experience to everybody’s benefit.

In other news, Chris Kirkland, the former Liverpool goalkeeper and mental health champion, is visiting Staffordshire County Council this Friday (5 July) to talk about his experiences, and continue the conversation about mental health.  There are a number of places still available, and you can find out more details here.

Do come along if you can – it looks like an excellent event.

#DoingOurBit, awards and helping our care leavers

The #DoingOurBit campaign has got going very strongly.  Perhaps not at all surprisingly, many colleagues have come forward with the things that they are already doing within their communities and neighbourhoods.  You’ll see some examples on the “splash” page as you log on every day, and they are inspirational.  If you want to know more, you can read about them here.

Our Highways Department has been highly commended at last night’s MJ Awards for their Infrastructure Plus (I-Plus) contract with Amey.  This innovative approach to working with a major construction company has resulted in better results at lower costs.  Of course, there is always more to do, and the truth is that, in a perfect world, we would spend more money on Staffordshire’s roads, but this commendation is more reinforcement that we are getting good value for taxpayers’ money. 

Castle House, the public sector hub in Newcastle-under-Lyme was also short-listed under the infrastructure category.   This new building brings together the borough council’s and all of the county services delivered in Newcastle, along with the housing association and police.  It really is a one-stop shop, and proves that structural reorganisation is not always the answer; one can achieve many of the same results with the right culture and working environment. 

Lastly, it was a great pleasure to hear that our major IT supplier, Specialist Computer Supplies, have offered to give a laptop to each one of our care-leavers who go onto university.  One of the most pleasing aspects about this job is the manner in which Staffordshire County Council really do take the corporate parenting responsibilities for the children in our care seriously.  It is therefore especially pleasing to see our long-term suppliers helping us out in this endeavour.

The importance of #DoingOurBit

You will hopefully have picked up the launch of #DoingOurBit. This is an honest conversation with residents about Staffordshire County Council helping people to help themselves, with the honesty around what we will now be enabling as opposed to doing, as we might have in the past.  It’s about the county council and residents working together for a better Staffordshire, but in a different way.  Part of this has been collating the countless things that our officers are already doing in their communities, and the presentation by the Destination Innovation group to Informal Cabinet on Wednesday was a real eye-opener.  This group of colleagues are taking an innovative approach to what many companies and organisations call Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), with the unique selling point being that it is about using our professional and organisational skills in our voluntary activities.  The first results suggest that we are engaged very firmly in our communities and groups – many of our colleagues play indispensable roles.  Given that 80% of us are Staffordshire residents, it should be no great surprise, but it’s clear that we are already invested in the project, and #DoingOurBit is as much about turning up the volume as it is something completely new.  I urge everyone to go to http://doingourbit.info  to find out more, and to explore the ideas for small things that everyone can do to help themselves, their family and their community.  Small things really do make a difference.

On Thursday morning, I was invited to speak to the Staffordshire University Staff Research Conference, which was a fascinating event.  Staffordshire University is on a rising curve under a group of excellent people, led by Professor Liz Barnes, whose well-deserved award of a CBE I mentioned last week.  Research is, in many ways, the glue that holds a university together.  It provides the answers to many problems in society, but it also forms the reputation of a university, and gives pride to students and staff.  The big names and projects are often associated with the larger universities, but it was a real pleasure to listen to some of the excellent work being undertaken at Staffordshire University under the direction of Dr Tim Horne, the University’s Director of Research.   

Lastly this week, I attended the Association of County Chief Executives (ACCE) Spring Seminar in Nottingham.  It was a great pleasure to gather with about 30 colleagues from across the country and discuss the big issues in local government as they affect England’s counties.  Although money and finance is never far from the agenda, the big themes this year are the pressures on children’s services and SEND, and the potential of digital to disrupt and improve what we do and how we do it.  After some very good presentations and discussions, it was crystal clear that we are all facing the same issues and challenges and that we need to work more closely together.  The closer links with the County Councils Network (CCN) allows a more effective mechanism for sharing best practice and the costs of innovative solutions.  Staffordshire County Council are engaged in this work, and we will be driving it forward in the coming weeks and months.       

Queens birthday honours, and a Peer Challenge

I was delighted to see our colleague Sue Ball awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Sue has worked in our library service for more than 30 years. She oversaw the recent moves to new premises at Stafford and Newcastle, and is currently responsible for our strategy and policy. As past chair of the National Association of Senior Children’s and Education Libraries, she was instrumental in developing national approaches to helping expectant parents and tackling childhood obesity. So this recognition is richly deserved.

It was also a great pleasure to read that Professor Liz Barnes, Vice-Chancellor of Staffordshire University has been awarded a CBE Liz has been in post slightly over 3 years, and has achieved a huge amount in a short time, establishing Staffordshire University as a forward-thinking and dynamic institution; this is reflected not only in this award, but also in the consistent climb every year in all of the university league tables.  You may have also seen the aptly named Jean and Bill Foster in the news, awarded MBEs after fostering more than 100 Staffordshire children over the last four decades.

I also want to thank everyone who played their part in making yesterday’s Ironman 70.3 Staffordshire another resounding success. It really is a day when we can showcase our wonderful county to a global audience and many of you play a part every year, either in your day job, by volunteering, or of course, taking part.

I’ve spent the last week leading the Local Government Association (LGA) Corporate Peer Challenge for Nottinghamshire County Council.  Many of you will have been involved in ours last September, and this is now the 4th that I have done, 3 as the team leader.  I have to state that I think that it is a very good system; a team of politicians and officers are drawn from similar councils across the country and facilitated by a permanent LGA senior officer.  This strikes the balance between the risks of having professional inspectors who inevitably become out of touch with what is happening on the ground, and keeping a constant standard across all peer challenges.  In essence, we start with an empathy for the council and understand the issues that they are facing, because we are facing the same things at home, but we have a guide to ensure that we follow the process and produce consistent results. 

Nottinghamshire is probably the closest peer to Staffordshire in the country.  They are a 2-tier authority covering 800 square miles with 817,000 inhabitants and a core city of Nottingham surrounded by the county; we are 1000 square miles with 871,000 and Stoke instead of the county town as the unitary council.  They are doing some really interesting things, and I have come home with at least 3 ideas that I’m going to investigate for Staffordshire.  There are also some significant areas in which we could cooperate, such as digital, where they are copying our MyStaffs app, and we could learn from their digital integration of NHS health and council care records. 

Perhaps most interestingly for those who follow local government closely, is Nottinghamshire’s decision to return to the committee system in 2012, leaving the cabinet system which we have in Staffordshire.  In a council where political control is more finely balanced than it has been in Staffordshire, there are logical reasons for this decision, and the team, all of whom came from cabinet-run authorities, took a genuinely agnostic approach the issues.  What came out was perhaps not surprising; both systems work, and it is the “how” rather than the “what” that is important.  We made some recommendations on how they might use digital means such as Microsoft Teams to speed up the production of papers for their committees, and hopefully it was a useful experience for all involved.