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A BRIDGE TOO FAR?

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Astonishment greeted Michael Frater's decision to move from London's Redbridge to Telford and Wrekin but he is look...
Astonishment greeted Michael Frater's decision to move from London's Redbridge to Telford and Wrekin but he is looking forward to returning to the place he once thought was a disaster.

Michael Frater is daring to be different. He is moving from Redbridge LBC, one of London's largest boroughs, to Telford & Wrekin Council, a unitary carved out of Shropshire, which many would consider a backward step.

He admits other chief executives have expressed astonishment. But he is a pugnaciously independent thinker who has caught on to ideas some men in their 50s are a bit scared of, such as feminism and cultural relativity.

He says: 'There's a strange view that a lot of people hold about careers; people think the only way is onward and upwards, your next move must always be a larger authority. I just think that's tosh.

'Frankly I think it's a very male, macho view of the world, and the sooner we take the more balanced view [the better]. I don't think it's downsizing, it's not down, it's just different.'

Mr Frater is also genuinely fascinated - a word he keeps using - by what Telford has achieved and the challenges it faces. 'The new unitaries are the interesting place to be at the moment. I enjoy dealing with organisational change and at the same time trying to build success and good performance and so forth.'

He is not put off by the fact that Telford is a new town - indeed, this is all part of the attraction. 'They are fascinating places, they present challenges about creating communities. They have a lot to offer areas like east London that are going through a massive regeneration. In fact the government obviously thought that, because as the new town corporations were wound down in the '70s and '80s, they created urban development corporations.'

He suggests the new towns should form an advisory consortium on regeneration because 'the trouble in this country is we very often fail to learn the lessons'.

Mr Frater recalls the early 1960s when East Shropshire was an 'economic disaster area', home to coalfield, metal and quarrying industries all in terminal decline. 'In the early 1960s parts of it were like a lunar landscape. They now call it forest city - because of the environmental damage done over two centuries they planted 16 million trees.'

He admires, too, the social change in the council where unemployment has gone down from almost a quarter in the mid-1980s to about 3%, and social problems on new town estates have also scaled down.

Ironbridge Gorge, birthplace of the industrial revolution and where the first iron steam train was made, is a lure. 'At one end you've got a town centre which looks modern and futuristic, mirror glass buildings, a huge shopping centre, and four miles away you've got a world heritage site which has a whole series of museums.

'They now have 2 million tourists a year coming to what was an area of complete degradation.'

Mr Frater praises the council and its staff: 'They're focused on the community, doing the best for Telford & Wrekin, they're very active and influential in the East Midlands region, they're represented on all sorts of regional bodies. They have a focus that looks to Europe and indeed internationally because most or a large number of the firms that have come into Telford are from the Far East or the Pacific Rim.'

He suggests that a council faced with a development corporation has two choices. It can either 'sit back and bitch' or it can 'get its act together and work in partnership'. Telford has done the latter.

He is also quite clear, that despite his familiarity with the council, he will not jump in with his own assumptions which are 13 years out of date. And he does accept that there are challenges in Telford & Wrekin: 'There's still a lot that needs to be done with the town centre. It doesn't feel like a town centre in the way we understand it and it has a very low density. It's spread out, there are buildings dotted around with large areas of grass or car parks between them, so it's not easy to get around by foot.

'There are issues about creating successful neighbourhoods, particularly on the new town estates. If you like it's the social inclusion agenda.'

There is an irony to Mr Frater's return. He admits: 'I remember going to Telford in 1971 as part of a fieldwork course and thinking 'God what a disaster this place is. The one place in the world I never want to work is Telford'. In fact I worked there for seven years and I'm now going back.'

But the only real reservation Mr Frater had about the job was taking the place of the former chief executive, David Hutchison, who died in service aged 53.

Mr Frater says: 'When I read in LGC that he'd died I felt very mixed feelings . . . almost guilt about wanting his job. It was irrational, I didn't know him, but nonetheless I had to deal with the sense of guilt.'

He will miss Redbridge, which he helped to haul up from a poorly performing borough to a better outfit altogether. He remembers how it badly in did in the early 1990s on Audit Commission performance indicators, but by the late 1990s was the second best in London, according to a similar exercise done by London boroughs themselves. 'I think that says a huge amount about the dedication of the staff here.'

He also praises the 'remarkable' leader Liz Pierce, with whom he worked for five years: 'She suddenly found herself having to form the authority's first Labour administration, it was a minority administration, and I think everybody would say she was a breath of fresh air.'

Mr Frater's enthusiasm is torrential and quite infectious too. Redbridge still exerts a strong pull, but he can hardly wait to get cracking at Telford & Wrekin.

'There are no ghastly things to be dealt with in Telford as there are in some authorities,' he (almost) gushes. 'Performance is good in most services, not to say that there's not opportunity for improvement, but they start from a good base.

'They've got over the psychological hurdle of modernisation and the members seem first rate. The directors are very impressive. What more could a chief executive ask for?'

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