How can Peterborough City Council chief executive run a second big authority?

Gillian Beasley

Gillian Beasley

12
Have your say

The news that councillors have voted to allow Peterborough City Council chief executive Gillian Beasley to take on a trial role running Peterborough City Council and neighbouring Cambridgeshire County Council has sparked a major local debate. Here, we summarise some questions raised on our website - peterboroughtoday.co.uk - and put them to the in-demand Ms Beasley...

It’s been said that if you can carry out this job share successfully the city council may not need a full-time chief exec... what’s your response to that?

Since the financial crisis local government has changed. Authorities have seen their government grants fall by 40 per cent since 2010. We need to make savings in the region of 
£19 million at Peterborough City Council next year.

One of the ways of maintaining efficient and effective public services for residents is to look at sharing services with other authorities. For example, we have a shared planning service with Fenland District Council but each authority retains their planning committee.

I see myself as another shared service. It’s a 12-month trial, with a review after six months, and it’s vital that we’re all honest with each other about how it is progressing.

However, if at the end of it, Peterborough councillors don’t think they need a full-time chief executive then I would work with them to effect that change.

But we are only a few days into the shared role so there’s a long way to go yet….

Conversely, others have said this is a big role that might be too much for one person... how can you do the job of two chief execs?

There has been some research done into shared chief executives and there are two key ingredients needed, that I believe are in place, to make this a success.

The first is that I am already an experienced chief executive after accepting the role here in 2002. This isn’t a job you would give to a person with little experience at this level.

My knowledge and experience will enable me to look at each council’s agenda and work out the issues that I need to be in control of.

I will also work out the areas that I need to keep my eyes on and what is important to the respective local politicians.

But good leaders also have good people in the important positions that surround them. Both the senior management teams at Peterborough and Cambridgeshire are of very high quality and this gives me confidence that it will be a successful arrangement.

I would not have taken on this shared role if I thought that it would harm either council.

I truly believe that it will bring benefits to the residents of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough. It also received the unanimous backing of both sets of councillors – and their trust and respect is vital.

We thought very carefully about bringing these two jobs together and there has been a lot of preparation. I have the desire to make it work and my family are backing me 100 per cent.

What are the main challenges of this new role?

Achieving a balanced budget for each council will be my most important challenge. Peterborough needs to save in the region of £19 million next year and Cambridgeshire about double that.

There will of course need to be difficult decisions made, but councils have to do things differently and be more innovative.

In Peterborough we’ve seen this innovation, for example, with our libraries. We needed to make a saving but we didn’t want to close libraries because residents told us how important they were to them.

So we became one of the first councils in the country to use self-service technology to actually extend opening hours. Now we’re talking to other councils who are interested in following in our footsteps.

I think it’s also about bringing the community along with us during the setting of council budgets. We need to have honest discussions with residents about their priorities in these cash-strapped times.

What do you hope to achieve in this new role?

A major priority for me is to understand which services we can share between the two authorities.

This won’t mean establishing one-size-fits-all services because Cambridgeshire and Peterborough are different and have their own priorities. But what it could mean is bringing the same department at each council closer together.

This would enable the sharing of best practice, innovation and would allow us to maintain good services for residents at a time of growing demand and a reduction in council funding.

You can’t share everything and what I hope to do is quickly identify the services that can be shared and bring departments closer together.

Sharing services is also done for greater efficiency and I would be being disingenuous to ignore the fact that this could lead to further job cuts. But both councils have handled these difficult decisions with individual staff members up to this point and I will ensure this will continue.

How will Peterborough benefit from the creation of this role?

As already mentioned, benefits will come from sharing services and best practice between the 
two councils.

But another benefit will be that as chief executive for both authorities it will give us a louder voice nationally.

Peterborough is one of the fastest growing cities in the UK and Cambridgeshire one of the fastest growing counties.

We have some important discussions coming up with government on things like councils retaining all their business rates and the prospect of greater devolution for the area.

I feel that working together through a shared chief executive, alongside the district councils, we can make our case most convincingly to government for the benefit of every resident in the city, and in Cambridgeshire.

If successful, does this role open the door to a merger of Peterborough City Council and the county council?

That one isn’t my decision and I would always respect the political will of the councils that I support.

At the heart of this secondment agreement is that both councils retained their own sovereignty. No matter who’s the chief executive at either council, it is the elected members that make the decisions for their area and their residents.

Do you see the role becoming permanent?

We’ve done a lot of planning and preparation to give this shared role every success – however it is a trial.

What is vital is that we are all honest with each other. If something isn’t working we need to discuss why not and move forward. Another benefit to this arrangement is that both council leaders have a good relationship with one another.

It’s obviously hard to predict the future. But if it works well for councillors, brings benefits to residents and I feel that it’s effective, there is of course a chance it could become permanent.

However, at this stage, it’s for an initial 12 months and they’ll be a review at half way. It’s too early to say of course, but if everyone is happy in a year’s time – it would be a discussion to be had.

It’s clearly a compliment to you personally and the city council that the county council has made this approach. How do feel about that?

I don’t think I’ve ever been that good with compliments.

What motivates me to work the hours that I do and to take on this challenge is that I want to deliver the best services possible to residents. I want to know that I am, alongside my officers, making a positive difference.

If the changes I establish help, for instance, more people to live independently in their own homes or result in more children staying with their families then I will be very satisfied.

Rather than tell you how I feel about it, I can tell you that my 83-year mum is proud of me. When I told her the news she looked at me and said ‘If you think you can do it, I trust you’.

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