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FEATURES - MEET THE VISIBLE MAN

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Ealing chief executive Darra Singh did not get his approachable reputation by hiding away in plush offices, writes ...
Ealing chief executive Darra Singh did not get his approachable reputation by hiding away in plush offices, writes Suzanne Simmons-Lewis

One of the perks of securing the top job in a local authority is being able to choose the swankiest office with the best views.

But not only is Darra Singh, chief executive at Ealing LBC, without an office, he also works side-by-side with his corporate management team in what looks like a very smart call centre. Staff from various departments also share the space, and eventually all offices will be open plan.

'I haven't worked in an open-plan environment for five years,' says Mr Singh. 'And initially I had questions as to whether we could make it work. But I am a huge convert now. It has really improved the speed of communication, and increased the level of face-to-face communication as opposed to e-mail.

'Before, if I wanted to pick up an issue with one of the corporate board members I would have had to go to another office. If they were in a call or meeting I would have had to pull away or interrupt. Now I can have immediate discussion because they are right here.

'Another important thing is visibility, in terms of its impact, seeing the chief executive working in the same way as other members of staff.'

A highly visible way of working is just one of the major changes that Ealing has undergone in the last 18 months.

In 2004 the council was rated weak in the comprehensive performance assessment, downgraded from 'good'

after losing its only social services star.

Former chief executive Gillian Guy and the whole corporate board resigned.

In the midst of this upheaval Mr Singh joined the council last July and is working with a team of six new executive directors and a new leader. Ealing recently gained three stars in the CPA, and regained one star for social services.

Leader Leo Thomson (Lab) says: 'We were particularly impressed when we met Darra because he has a real passion and commitment to the communities of Ealing to make a prosperous community for all.'

She adds: 'He has a very determined streak about him and is not afraid to make difficult decisions, he isn't someone who beats around the bush. He is fantastic about walking the floors and making impact and he really respects the role of councillors to do their jobs.'

Although cliché, 'a passion for communities' is what has defined Mr Singh's career. Originally from Bradford (he still retains his Yorkshire accent), Mr Singh passed up his original intention to become a solicitor after graduating with a law degree from the University of Northumbria, to work in the voluntary sector. He started out as a housing case worker in Tyneside and then London.

Surprisingly, for someone who is described as ambitious, he admits: 'I stumbled upon my career. I started off as a volunteer in Newcastle when I was studying and then worked in the voluntary sector in London. I joined a community programme scheme which was like a YTS scheme for older people.

'It sounds a bit trite but I am very committed to serving the public. At the start of my career I was committed to the voluntary sector and working with individuals in housing need.

'Once I started working in the voluntary sector, I got the bug for it and there wasn't any looking back.'

A career in housing culminated in a number of high-profile positions including director of the North British Housing Association, rising to chief executive of Asra Greater London Housing Association in 1995 and then chief of Hexagon, another London-based housing association.

In 2000 he joined the Audit Commission as a director and the following year he secured his first chief executive role at Luton BC.

Mr Singh is one of a small number of local authority chiefs with a background in housing, and is almost unique in having gained this experience while working in the voluntary sector.

He says: 'Potentially it is an advantage that I don't come from a particular discipline within local government as I don't get drawn into specific areas but draw on the best that we have here in Ealing, and offer leadership and management to the whole organisation.'

Former local government minister Nick Raynsford, who managed Mr Singh in the 1980s as director of SHAC housing association, recalls: 'He was a very young lad just coming from working in a voluntary project in the north-east, it was his first big job. He had considerable talent and he flourished there.

'My early impressions were that Darra was a very able, serious and thoughtful person who had a great deal of talent and skill and was determined to do a good job whatever he was doing. I was always impressed with his commitment and we have kept in touch ever since.'

Of his key strengths Mr Raynsford says: 'He has got a real commitment to deliver high standards and this is hugely important in local government.

'He has a sympathy for the communities for whom he works, whether that is the Asian community from which he comes or the wider communities because he has always worked in a multi-cultural context, so he has an understanding of the needs of a range of different communities.'

Whoever you speak to about Ealing's new chief, the same words come up: determined; energetic; driven.

When asked how he would describe himself, he says: 'People ascribe to me the word 'ambitious'.

'My leadership style has been described by others as being very visible, very approachable and fairly straight and direct, trying to be clear with people.

'Of course, I can be impatient and sometimes get frustrated if progress is not happening as quickly as I think it should.'

It is with these measured responses that Mr Singh demonstrates his ability for caution while remaining engaging and open.

David Marlow, chief executive of the East of England Development Agency, has been a colleague and friend of Mr Singh's for the last five years.

'He is enjoyable to worth with. He has a clear agenda and knows what he wants to achieve but is also willing to consider other points of view and what different people's priorities and perceptions are. So in that sense he is very good to work with.'

He adds: 'Darra is quite pro-active and identifies opportunities and realises them well.

'What is enjoyable about spending time with him is that he is also very good fun to work with. That blend of a very professional disposition and very human way of relating to colleagues, it's very positive attribute.'

Mr Singh has always taken charge of expanding his leadership and management skills and is a keen advocate of broadening his experience.

'I have always been keen to learn from other chief executives,' he says. 'I recently spent a day shadowing Sir Robert Kerslake, chief executive at Sheffield City Council, which was very helpful. It was a privilege to watch him in action. Soon I will be going to shadow John Foster at Wakefield MDC. It helps to learn how others work as chief executives and reflect back on my own approach.

'When I was chief executive of a housing association, I did the same thing. I identified individuals that I thought I could learn a lot from and who I respected and made contact with them.'

Having had his eye on Ealing for a number of years before joining the council, Mr Singh says he has no unfulfilled professional ambitions.

'When I turned 40 I bought a motorbike which is what I always wanted to do. I am a fair weather rider and I try to I go off riding on a summer break with friends. It's a brilliant way to unwind.

'I crossed the Alps last year on my bike which was great. Next year I am hoping to go to Germany for the World Cup with some friends.

'At some stage I would like to plan a long trip on my motorbike across continents, but with a young daughter [eight years old] by the time I have the space to do that I probably won't be able to get on my bike!' he laughs.

'But at the moment, I am very focused on this job - the grass isn't greener anywhere else for me right now.'

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