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Nick Bell is the new director in charge of finance at Westminster City Council. He discussed his plans with Kerry L...
Nick Bell is the new director in charge of finance at Westminster City Council. He discussed his plans with Kerry Lorimer

Having got through five finance directors in five years, Westminster City Council has just appointed number six - Nick Bell, currently director of finance at Bedfordshire CC.

So is Mr Bell, who takes up the reins in June, fazed by the fact none of his predecessors lasted? 'Not at all,' he says. 'I'm the sort of person who thrives on a challenge.'

By recruiting from within local government, Westminster is signalling a shift from its recent flirtation with private sector finance appointments. The last incumbent, Serco high-flier John Unsworth, became embroiled in an acrimonious row with the council which saw him leave with a six figure pay-off after just a year in the hot seat.

Mr Bell is adamant it is the skill set of the candidate that matters, and not their background. 'But the learning curve is greater for a private sector person,' he says.

In any case, Mr Bell has landed his dream job. 'There are certain authorities people want to work for, and Westminster's always been mine,' he says. 'It has a huge reputation for driving forward innovation. It's the local authority in the whole of the UK that's most like the private sector. There are also very strong links between Westminster and politicians in central government so it has the opportunity to get in there and lobby.'

For Mr Bell, the timing was spot on. 'Last time the job came up, I didn't have the experience for it, and I knew it might be five years before it came up again. I had no option but to go for it,' he says.

When Mr Bell joined Bedfordshire in July, the council was stuck in the financial doldrums. Its accounts have been qualified for the last two years and it is one of only three councils to have scored just one out of four on use of resources in its comprehensive performance assessment. Before he leaves, he says his focus will be on removing that qualification and ensuring Bedfordshire is in a position to secure a score of two for use of resources.

Bedfordshire has also had to deal with the high profile collapse of its£250m contract with Hyder Business Services. Mr Bell says two important lessons emerge from that episode: the need to be completely clear about what is expected from both sides of a partnership, and the importance of robust monitoring.

He compares such a partnership to a marriage: 'Two-way communication is imperative. Also, values change, and you have to be alive to that.' He speaks too from his experience at Harrow LBC, where he was executive director of business connections - a role covering finance, IT, procurement, and working with the business community.

After the dramas of Bedfordshire, Westminster's stability must appear attractive. But Mr Bell is under no illusions about the financial challenges ahead.

On top of the usual funding pressures, Westminster has to cope with the fall-out of a less-than-generous finance settlement.

Westminster is also losing huge amounts of parking revenue as a result of the congestion charge, and has to come up with ways of dealing with that shortfall.

Another challenge is to keep Westminster at the top of the local government hierarchy. 'Other authorities get there and then become complacent,' says Mr Bell. 'I want to make sure it stays at the cutting edge.'

He lists three key objectives: to secure a stable financial future for the council, to drive efficiencies, and to boost its use-of-resources rating from three to the top score of four. His timeframe is 'as soon as I can'.

Mr Bell has no intention of allowing things to drift. One of the key qualities he will bring to the job is an ability to innovate. 'I have an eye for doing things differently, for looking at how services can be improved,' he says.

He also wants to keep an eye on policy decisions emanating from central government. If these have an adverse effect on Westminster, that concern will need to be raised with Whitehall.

But Mr Bell strongly believes in bringing a sense of fun to the job. 'Unless people enjoy their work, they will not perform to their best standard,' he says.

Mr Bell himself dabbled in a number of careers before settling on local government. He completed a teacher training course, and then became a trainee surveyor. He also did a stint at ICI and even ran a job club in his native north-east.

However, it was while working in the admin side of the social services department at Cleveland CC that the opportunity came up to earn qualifications with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy. His career, post local government reorganisation, took him to Redcar & Cleveland BC, then Cambridgeshire CC, and then to Harrow LBC.

He pays tribute to the 'excellent' chief executives he had the opportunity to work with, such as Andrea Hill at Bedfordshire and Harrow's Joyce Markham, and says his impressions of Westminster chief Peter Rogers have similarly been 'very, very positive'.

But insiders say Mr Bell will need to tread carefully if he is to avoid ruffling the feathers of Mr Rogers, who himself was appointed from the finance director role to the top job. 'The danger is trying to become too big an influence and putting Peter's nose out of joint,' says one. 'There isn't room for two big people at Westminster.'

Like many in local government, Mr Bell has been following the balance of funding debate with great interest. He expects Sir Michael Lyons to recommend some form of property tax with an expanded system of benefits. The merits of local income tax, he says, are much less clear.

He believes government may be prepared to consider relocalising part of the national non domestic rates system, though it will not hand over complete control. Even partial control would operate as a much more effective stimulus to economic development than the current Local Authority Business Growth Incentive scheme.

'Some councils have seen a lot of economic growth but got no money for it because of the way the formula works,' he says. 'Relocalising business rates would be fairer.'

He would also like to see councils given more power to charge for certain services that are impossible to provide within existing budgets. Housebound elderly people may, for example, be willing to pay for a shopping service, so that they maintain their independence for longer.

Mr Bell also has strong views about the government's drive for efficiency savings, the measurement of which he says has become a 'paper chase' which in itself adds to costs and bureaucracy.

He has particular concerns about the way councils are held to account for the value they provide to residents. 'It is hugely important to demonstrate value for money to residents rather than to a regulator,' he says. 'The real issue is to get the message across in publications, in the press, on the radio.'

That will be just one of the challenges facing Mr Bell when he steps into his new role.

The question is how quickly he will be able to make his mark in what is one of the most prestigious jobs in local government finance. If he succeeds where so many others have failed, he will surely be entitled to a warm glow of satisfaction.

How to...have a better benefits service

1 Don't lose sight of who the service is for. Your housing and council tax benefit service exists to assist the most vulnerable people in the area. Behind every claim form is a person who needs help. Playing with performance indicators is not the same as providing the service that people need and deserve. Decisions must be made quickly and accurately, not to meet internal targets, but to help alleviate the real problems of real people.

2 Accept that you don't have all the answers. But somewhere among your staff there is probably someone who does. Value and use that resource to solve problems.

3 Don't accept things at face value. Just because something has always been done a certain way doesn't mean it is the best way. Get in to the habit of asking 'why?' five times whenever someone explains how a task is carried out. This gets you beyond the surface and down to where the facts are hiding.

4 If you announce a restructure, get on with it. If you don't, staff will feel insecure, morale and motivation will plummet, vacancies will not be filled, and performance will suffer. Be open about why there is a need for the restructure. If it is to save money then say so. If there will be job cuts say so and, be clear about where they will be. Don't even mention a restructure until you can answer those questions.

5 Encourage customers to submit complete claims. Promise them that if they bring in a claim form and it is checked and confirmed as complete it will be processed within two days. If it lacks some evidence, don't say they have 28 days to submit it and send them away. Instead, ask them to bring it in later that day or tomorrow.

6 Now go back to step one.

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