When Trish Haines left Belfast, she was an 18-year-old, fresh out of secondary school. Next week, she is back in her native city presiding over the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers annual conference .
“Belfast was not a place where you wanted to stay. It was the mid-1970s, everything shut at 6 o’clock and there was no nightlife,” says the Solace president. “I didn’t live in a terribly troubled part of Belfast I was fortunate but I went to school closer to the centre of Belfast and had to go through areas where we had to use special buses.”
She is coy about the side of the sectarian divide she comes from. “I don’t tell anybody that,” she says, laughing.
While the city remains deeply divided, in other respects, it is a very different place, she believes. “Belfast is a cracking good example of regeneration.”
Not only is the former social worker Solace president this year, she has also recently taken over as chief executive of Worcestershire CC . And next year, she could also be in charge of Worcester City Council if the two councils give the green light to merging their senior management teams. The idea has been mooted because Worcester faces a financial shortfall (LGCplus, 25 September).
She believes it is right that the shire should help its county town authority. “We are all part of one local government community. The county council is not in a position to bail out the city council, but clearly it is not in anybody’s interest for the county town to have gone belly-up financially.
“If it was just the case of a financial bail-out, it would be much less attractive,” she says. As a former unitary chief executive, she believes there are big efficiency prizes to be gained by bringing together the services provided by the two authorities, such as highways and street cleaning, planning and economic development. But she is not wedded to the idea of joint management.
“One of the challenges for any partnership working is how you get the focus and drive that you need. One of the ways you can get that is to get a single management. You don’t have to have joint management to have better joint working it is much simpler, but it’s just as possible to have it in other ways.”
And there are thorny issues, such as potential differences between the district and county, acknowledges Ms Haines. Having a large family means that she is well versed in keeping a lot of people sweet.
She is cautious to guard against perceptions of favouritism lest the county’s five other districts think Ms Haines is spending too much time on Worcester. “Anything we do with Worcester has to be capable of being rolled out to the other districts. Otherwise it becomes very unbalanced,” says Ms Haines.
It means less time too for individual members. “We have 57 councillors on the county council and 35 on the city council. I will not be able to give the kind of personal service that those councillors have been used to.” Staff too might see a difference. “At Reading I did a lot of face-to-face stuff, going out meeting teams and so on. I still do some of that in Worcestershire, but clearly with 18,000 staff it’s more of a challenge.”
She believes that within a large organisation, it is crucial for staff to be empowered to take decisions. “If you have a good idea, just go and do it, within boundaries,” she says. “The risk is that if you insist everything comes through the chief executive, you’re not helping anybody you become a bottleneck.”
And, she says, the role of chief executive itself is changing. “It’s much more about partnerships, getting people to a table and coming up with common solutions.”
Some believe this spirit of partnership should extend to Solace’s relationship with the opposition. With the Conservatives so far ahead in the opinion polls, she believes the society should make greater efforts to get senior officers’ views across to what increasingly looks like the future government.
“It would not be wise for Solace to get into political lobbying, which is really the preserve of the Local Government Association and politicians,” she says. “Nevertheless we are the local government managers we are the people that manage the way things happen therefore it makes sense for us to talk to the people who are shaping policy about what is workable.
“Solace’s relationship with senior civil servants is pretty constructive. Whether we have the same track record with the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats I don’t know, because Labour has been in power for so long.”
One Lib Dem idea unlikely to have a cordial reception is Treasury spokesman Vince Cable’s suggestion that all public servants earning more than£100,000 a year should have to reapply for their jobs.
On a personal level, she says if she were to oversee two councils, she should be rewarded. “I’m not going to do all that work for no extra money, but at the same time we have to demonstrate significant efficiencies.”
On a broader level, she dismisses Mr Cable’s proposal. “The pay scales for chief execs are the same as for everybody else. My pay went up 2.4% just like everybody else. That’s not the problem, the problem is that there aren’t the people in the market and they are being chased. It’s not just chief execs, it’s true of some of the other key directors roles, it’s true of planners and social workers, wherever there is a shortage.”
“The really sad thing is that when you look at the improvement journey local government has been on for the last 10 years, managers are a lot more focused and better value for money. And when you get a result, somebody turns around and says we don’t need them any more, pay them off. You can’t have it both ways.”
Chief executive of Worcestershire CC and president of Solace
Chief executive of Reading BC (2002-08), director of social services at Warwickshire CC, assistant director of social services for Herefordshire Council as well as other management roles at Suffolk, Warwickshire and Worcestershire CCs
Her big family. Ms Haines has two children, four step children, nine grand children, two dogs and a cat