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FEATURES-SUTTON'S FAIR LADY

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After a year in charge at Sutton, Joanna Simons reveals how she turned her back on flower selling and joined local ...
After a year in charge at Sutton, Joanna Simons reveals how she turned her back on flower selling and joined local government. Joe Gill spoke to her

Joanna Simons has recently moved from the tough inner-city environment of south-east London to the relatively prosperous suburbia of Sutton LBC, gateway to the south-east.

Sutton may not be the most beautiful of towns, suffering from its fair share of drab architecture and one-way systems, but it is clean and efficient, with an air of contentment and neighbourliness.

Barely a year into the job, Ms Simons is cautious about describing it as conquered territory. In fact such language would never pass her lips - Ms Simons conveys the tone of a caring, listening chief executive.

She has a disarming personal touch and there is no hint anyone might be pushed into doing anything without first being gently persuaded it is in their best interests.

A recent study claimed the culture of local government was not well adapted to accepting women in leadership positions (LGC, 22 June). But at Sutton, Ms Simons has stepped into the shoes of a long-serving woman, Patricia Hughes.

She says: 'One of the good things about Sutton is that Patricia was ten years in the job. She was one of the first female chief executives, but I think the world has moved on a great deal since then.

Ms Simons says she has rarely experienced overt discrimination in her career. 'At certain times I've encountered it, but it has been largely indirect. When I moved back to London to get married I remember being interviewed for a job at a London council and being questioned on how this was a very peculiar thing to do.

'That was probably the closest it has got to being overt, and, of course, it was hugely inappropriate because people relocate all the time for all sorts of reasons.'

Local government has occupied Ms Simons' working life since she finished A-levels. After a brief period as a legal officer at Hammersmith & Fulham LBC, she became a housing officer at Hounslow LBC before moving to Tyneside, where she managed a Newcastle City Council housing office in a poor neighbourhood in the west end of the city. This she describes as a culture shock, but as a life-long Londoner, one she learned a great deal from.

Ms Simons was born at Hyde Park Corner, in what is now the five-star Lanesborough Hotel, but was then St George's Hospital. However, she grew up in a council flat and went to school in Fulham 'before it was yuppified'.

She almost became a real-life Eliza Doolittle: 'I come from a long line of flower sellers in Drury Lane. My great grandmother and great aunt did it, I almost continued that trend when I was at school and had a Saturday job at a florist, but local government attracted me instead.'

There was no career plan, she explains: 'I've always felt that I do one job at a time, get to a stage where I'm on top of it and want to do something more.'

She is back at college studying for an MBA in her spare time, on top of running the council.

She says: 'I've not started out with a life plan where I wanted to end up as a local authority chief executive. I wouldn't have known what one of those was if you had asked me 20 years ago.

'The perceived wisdom out there might not be as positive about the sector as I am, but luckily, according to our surveys, Sutton residents appreciate their council.'

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