'I want us to be a council that people are proud to work for'

The first interview with North Northamptonshire Council's new boss

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By Sarah Ward

Rob Bridge has the task of doing something no one else has ever achieved in local government:  to lead the formation of a new unitary authority out of the remnants of a bankrupt county council and the amalgamation of four borough and district authorities. 

To say it’s a big job is an understatement and doing it against a backdrop of a world pandemic obviously makes it even harder.

But the new chief executive, who has spent his entire working life in local authorities, is confident he can forge a successful council. 

“I want us to be a council that people are proud to work for,” he says.

“North Northamptonshire is a bit of a difficult concept at the moment for our residents.

“But we want to be seen as a successful council: I mean in terms of what we deliver and how we help shape the place and make it somewhere that people want to work and live. We won’t get everything right - we have to be honest about that - but if we get it wrong, what are we doing about that?”

He says the values of the new council is key to making it an excellent one.

“Culture is the heart of how we make ourselves a success. Those principles and values around being open and transparent and how we work as one team. How we solve problems and avoid creating a blame culture.

“It won’t just be driven by me,” he says. “We have got some work to do with staff about the values and how we operate, which is hard at the moment - as I’m not able to get around to see people.

“I don’t want it to be Rob’s culture, I want it to be North Northants’ culture, that everyone has contributed to develop and own. That’s something I did at Welwyn Hatfield.

“We as an organisation will only succeed if that culture is right.”

It’s no secret that Northamptonshire’s recent local government past has been troubled. The collapse of the Conservative-run county council in Spring 2018 has been reported on extensively, and many want to put it in the past, but not only is the downfall a recent memory but it brings with it many legacy problems.

The new authority’s first budget is to a certain extent hamstrung by this past, not least because it is having to be developed by bringing together the accounts of five authorities and some of the final figures will not be fully known until after the new council has started on April 1.

And unlike most unitary reorganisations, Northamptonshire’s was not a voluntary one. The government ordered that it happen - and all of the councils (apart from Corby) then reluctantly voted for the restructure in the summer of 2018. Two new councils would be created, one in the North - covering the areas currently served by the Corby, Kettering, Wellingborough and East Northants councils and a larger one in the West  - covering the geography serviced by South Northants, Northampton and Daventry councils.

Since then there has been two years of intense work by officers from across the eight councils (led by county council chief executive Theresa Grant). They are in the final stages of implementing two blueprints that map out the mammoth task of breaking up the county council and pooling all resources to create two new unitary authorities.

Due to the pandemic and a relatively short time frame, the aim for the two new councils has had to be scaled back along the way and the hope is now for them to be ‘safe and legal’. Many of the service transformation work that had originally been spoken of must now happen after the councils are created.

And rather than stand alone - the two new unitary councils will be intrinsically linked (at least for the first few years), offering some shared services and in some instances a particular service will be hosted by one council and supplied to the other. Therefore Northants residents hoping to have to deal with just one local authority for planning issues, bin collection, pothole complaints and adult social care, will be disappointed. 

There is also some uncertainty still around which of the existing council offices in the North will act as the new authority’s headquarters. The current staff from the five councils (around 3,000) will have their contracts transferred over to the new unitary council. However many are not certain where they may end up working, or even if they will have a job next year, as redundancies are almost certainly on the way.

In post since November, the chief executive says the run up to vesting day (the technical term for launch day) is on track.

 “It’s going well,” he says. “It’s been hectic, there’s a lot to do but everybody, councillors and officers are working incredibly hard. But vesting day is one day, the big opportunity and challenge for everybody is beyond April 1 as we go live as a council and then deliver the service and transformation and ensure the resident and business get the services that they expect.

“I say expect, that is not always straightforward and we can’t always deliver to the expectation because of the constraints we will have, but we want to make a success of the council after what has gone on in the past and make sure we move on from that.”

A potential spanner in the works could be the delay of local elections. As it stands the elections are going ahead on Thursday, May 6 (after being cancelled last year due to the pandemic) and last week the government committed again to the date. However the track record of government u-turns throughout the pandemic looms large and it cannot be ruled out that local elections will be postponed again if Covid-19 cases don’t drop significantly. A point of no return will come at the end of March when the election is officially called. Rob Bridge will act as the returning officer and oversee the elections in North Northants.

The chief exec says an election in May would be the best thing if it can be done safely and thinks few would disagree.

As it stands there will already be six weeks (from April 1 to election day) when there will not be an elected council or leader. If the elections are delayed until autumn, it will mean the new authority will be run by a body of unelected councillors.

“It is a challenging period if there is no election. We can’t just stand still and we won’t stand still,” he says.

Unlike the new chief executive of the West, Anna Earnshaw (who was deputy chief executive of the county council), Rob Bridge is new to the Northamptonshire local government scene. Prior to getting the job he was chief executive at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council - a council servicing a population of 122,000. Before that he worked for Fenland District Council and was the chief finance (or 151) officer. Many officers and councillors still bearing the scars of the county council’s illegal 2018 £40m overspend will be glad to hear of his financial background. He will also lead a team of mostly new senior officers, which only time will tell if that’s a bonus.

Asked why he wanted the job (he beat local candidates such as the former chief executive of Wellingborough Borough Council Liz Elliott to the role) he says he felt ‘I was ready for that next step’. 

“The more I got involved in the process, the more I got enthused about the opportunity and it is not often you get to start with a blank sheet of paper.” 

The economic prosperity of the area  - especially in the wake of covid - will be a priority for him and he says he plans to do some work to understand the current economic baseline.

Housing will also be a priority. He has a track record of developing affordable housing and thinks this could be an opportunity for the North Northamptonshire Council.

Put that alongside keeping a watchful eye on the Northamptonshire’s new children’s trust - the failing service has been moved out of direct local authority management and is being delivered by an independent trust - as well as a transforming adult social services, he has his work cut out. He says the measure of how well he has done after a year will be:

“ . . (if) we have embraced the right culture; we have progressed the confidence and reassurance in our residents and businesses as an authority that (for the most part) is doing the right things; that we are delivering the members’ visions and objectives and we are on the way to that transformational piece that helps us become a sustainable council.”