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FEATURES - BUILDING ON SOLID FOUNDATIONS

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Michael Frater - in his spare time an accomplished digger-driver - is chief executive of Telford & Wrekin, the coun...
Michael Frater - in his spare time an accomplished digger-driver - is chief executive of Telford & Wrekin, the council where he began his career. As Mark Smulian finds out, he believes in finishing what you start

It takes a degree of courage to return as chief executive to the council where you started your career. There may be older staff who remember youthful embarrassments, or that you used to do be their gopher. But this did not deter Michael Frater when he became chief executive at Telford & Wrekin Council in 2000.

He had spent seven years at the old Wrekin DC before embarking on stints round local government that eventually took him to Redbridge LBC as chief executive before his present post.

The festive season brought him a CBE and the council 'excellent' status. The gong was not only for his work at Telford but for also having sorted out the mess that was Walsall MBC. What was it like dividing his time between excellence and, well, not excellence?

'A lot of the stuff that makes us an 'excellent' council was started 20 years ago, and I think that if you look at any organisation that is generally running well the roots will go back a long way,' he says.

Nonetheless, he was surprised that performance was not taken seriously when he arrived at Telford & Wrekin.

'We had a long discussion and determined we were going to place emphasis on performance management,' he remembers.

'We were good on planning what we were going to do, but not so strong on performance management,' he says.

'We have in place a robust system based, as far as we can, on what the managers need to manage, and we fit that to the performance indicators, not the other way round.'

He has been helped in this by an internal culture where councillors take 'a sophisticated view' and by 'a very strong can-do attitude among staff'.

The culture is 'uncluttered and unbureaucratic' and councillors and officers do not second-guess each other, Mr Frater believes, and while all this has taken time to d evelop, the culture is deeply embedded.

Even for an 'excellent' council, inspection is not plain sailing, and Mr Frater has some strong views on how it should be applied.

He says: 'It has to be proportionate. It is a distraction when it isn't, but done properly can be very helpful.

'Our worst example was the inspectorate for adult education, where there were eight of them here for a week for a budget of£80,000. I don't think that is proportionate.'

The Audit Commission is moving inspection in the right direction, he believes, in terms of making it useful.

'I always found the Social Services Inspectorate to have the most supportive and developmental approach, whereas Ofsted in its Chris Woodhead days was of the ha-ha-look-what-I've-found approach.'

At Walsall, the commission had taken the extreme step of removing the entire senior management team, and Mr Frater became interim chief executive after making a few enquires about whether he could help.

Telford & Wrekin's political leadership was supportive, seeing this as a good development opportunity for him.

It also allowed his eight directors to step up as chief executive in rotation in his absence in Walsall.

'As soon as you neglect personal development you should think about retiring,' he says.

He arrived in Walsall the day after the previous managers had gone. 'The thing that shocked me was how unshocked people were. I used the smokers' roof garden for informal focus groups and people would say 'well, that's Walsall for you.''

His top priority was rebuilding the self-confidence of staff, which had been destroyed, and he did this by finding Walsall's 'islands of excellence' and celebrating these.

Experience at both councils has made him sceptical about the 'absolutism' of the CPA process.

'It says that if you are 'excellent' you must do everything brilliantly and there is an implication at the other end that everything must be dreadful,' he says.

'Of course it is not like that. There are things we need to work o n here and things we could learn from Walsall.'

Mr Frater's tenure at Telford & Wrekin has coincided with political modernisation. The council has a leader and cabinet, but scrutiny has only recently been a success.

'A year ago I was concerned it was not working and had talked to the leader about devoting a lot of time to it,' he says.

'A new chair of overview committee has galvanised members and it has suddenly taken off, for which members across parties can take credit.

'It is important in any political system there are checks and balances, they were out of balance last year but are not now.'

Mr Frater is also concerned about local democracy. 'The issue is - how do you attract good people into public office?' he says. 'It will not happen until local authorities have much more control of their own destiny.

'The sort of central control that local government has experienced for the last 20 years has been hugely damaging to local democracy because the public know pretty well that the critical decisions about what any council spends on services are determined not here but by the government and civil servants.'

Efforts at democratic renewal and rescuing civic pride remain peripheral unless this issue is addressed he believes, although Telford & Wrekin has succeeded in sharply improving turnouts as a postal ballot pilot.

Mr Frater likes the area, where he owns a house with a hectare of land on which he has become an 'accomplished digger driver' while carrying out renovations, when he is not occupied by converting an outbuilding into a studio for his drummer son.

But one curiosity of Telford is that, as a 1960s new town, it is lumbered with a centre that consists almost entirely of shopping malls, office buildings and a conference centre. It is lifeless after dark to an extent that deters investment.

'The town centre is our biggest priority. It is about coming up with a multi-agency basis to create more life in the centre, which people describe as being like Lakeside but in the mid dle of a town.'

Telford & Wrekin is still growing and the two-year 'data lag' between collection of statistics and awards of government grants means it is always stretched financially, says Mr Frater.

'Every year we provide services for 4,000 people we don't get grant for. We and other authorities in growth areas may well ask the Local Government Association to take up the issue,' he says.

'We could end up 'excellent' and capped. That is the subject of a lot of internal discussion and hard work, but I cannot guarantee we won't be capped.'

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