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LGC FINANCE - PROFILE, LAURA ROWLEY

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Laura Rowley has just about done it all in local government finance - now she's tackling the murky world of pension...
Laura Rowley has just about done it all in local government finance - now she's tackling the murky world of pension funds.

Jon Hanlon charts her career so far

Laura Rowley was just 27 years old when she took on the job of assistant director of finance and support services at Brent LBC in the mid-1980s but, by that time, she was already making her mark in local government.

Hailing from Stoke, she began her career at Stoke-on-Trent City Council, after graduating in biology at Sussex University. Following a move to Southwark LBC, she became a district auditor for the Audit Commission while still only in her mid-20s.

Taking on a challenging role at what was then seen as a troubled council, Ms Rowley found her stint at Brent had her helping carry out a property management review for the council. From there, she moved to Birmingham City Council where she was assistant finance director for nine years.

'That was a fabulous job,' she says. 'Birmingham is such a varied, enormous authority with so much going on and is always at the leading edge of things.'

Her most recent port of call is Shropshire CC where she has been head of resources for just over four years. Her latest challenge has been to get to grips with the myriad issues around council pension funds and she relishes the opportunities this provides.

'It has been really interesting working with investment managers,' she says. 'They have very good client relationships and are generally very good on that sort of care.'

Ms Rowley is now responsible for the council's£650m pension fund, which has an array of investments from private equity and hedge funds through to UK equities and more traditional forms of investment.

'Getting to grips with different sorts of investment approaches takes some doing,' she says. 'But that presents a real challenge which is what I enjoy about it.'

Even though the Shropshire scheme is in pretty good shape, Ms Rowley is aware that she faces an uphill struggle to maintain the final salary scheme as it stands.

People living longer and poor stock market performance mean it is becoming increasingly unlikely that local government pensions will continue in their present form. John Prescott's plans to extend the retirement age to 65 met with hostility from unions and the threat of strike action.

'The debate has really brought home to people how good their pension is and how it is worth protecting the benefits we have and protecting the fund,' says Ms Rowley. 'The local government pension scheme is a big bonus and I think a lot of people took it for granted in the past but, now that stock markets have been doing so badly, final salary schemes are looking more attractive.

'I am convinced that the scheme in Shropshire is sustainable but . . . the most important thing for local government officers to bear in mind is that, by making some concessions, we will be able to hang on to

the scheme.'

To some extent, the challenges Shropshire's head of resources has faced throughout her career mirror those of local government at large. This may be because she has always had specific interests and responsibilities in all the posts she has held: social services at Brent, education at Birmingham, property and asset management at the Audit Commission and elsewhere and school catering in her current role at Shropshire.

This last post raises the inevitable question following Jamie Oliver's campaign to improve school food - and Ms Rowley confirms that there are no high-fat Turkey Twizzlers on the menu in Shropshire schools.

'In fact, we have a pilot scheme which ensures all our schools serve organic food,' she says. 'We also have a scheme which encourages suppliers in the area to buy locally, within legal constraints.'

Another challenge Ms Rowley has taken on with alacrity is 'the future funding arrangements for local authorities'. She is the only council representative on the local government funding inquiry led by Sir Michael Lyons, the findings of which are due at the end of the year.

As such, Ms Rowley spends some of her time in London talking to representatives from the Local Government Association and working closely with the Treasury and Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

She says it is interesting to look back over decades of local government finance and find that many of the issues remain the same. 'I found some Shropshire accounts from 1908 and discovered that, even back then, the treasurer was complaining there wasn't enough money,' she says.

Although many of the issues remain, Ms Rowley is keen to point out that local government has moved on and achieved a great deal over the years. As for the future of local government finance, she says: 'We can already see some of the changes that are taking place in terms of three-year funding. We know what the proposals are on ring-fencing and funding for schools and the plans for a dedicated schools grant for 2006-07.

'There is another consultation paper about regional funding for services and another about the regional spatial strategy,' she adds. 'There is so much going on in terms of medium-term planning for how public services are delivered. There is also a lot going on in terms of changes to children's services, adult services and social care.'

Ms Rowley sees the development of joint working with other public sector organisations and with the private sector as key to the direction local government is taking.

There are already many ways in which Shropshire works with colleagues in the health sector and this, she says 'helps to forge effective working relationships that help us in other areas'.

The council is in the process of setting up a private finance initiative project to deliver six new services, ranging from a nursing home to a community centre and day services for adults with learning disabilities. It already has a number of successful PFI projects, including a highways maintenance contract and a community services project which is about to be signed. Shropshire Waste Partnership, which consists of the county council and four districts, has secured£35m in PFI credits and is open to an 'invitation to negotiate'.

Ms Rowley's career charts an intriguing parallel of the changing landscape of local government over the last few decades and will, no doubt, throw some light on the future as she continues to represent local government at Shropshire and in the wider government community.

Secrets of a successful PPP

Ms Rowley is a keen proponent of the New Labour adage that 'What matters is what works' but she has her own criteria for ensuring the success of public/private partnerships:

>> Set clear objectives outlining what you want to achieve through the arrangement at the outset

>> Be clear about what you are going to do as a council and what you expect the contractor to do

>> Lay out your requirements clearly so that you can effectively assess submissions and choose a preferred bidder

>> Make sure you choose a contractor which has a solid track record of similar contracts

>> Don't underestimate the importance of selecting advisers who can offer support and advice.

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