The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers’ new president has urged the sector to unite around a “single vision for the future of local government”.
In an exclusive LGC interview, Martin Swales, chief executive of South Tyneside MBC, set out his strategy for a two-year term which began at the turn of the year and also paid tribute to his predecessor Jo Miller as a “a passionate advocate for the sector who has given tirelessly to the role”.
Mr Swales predicted his term, which is set to be marked by Brexit and the spending review, would be a “defining period – a pivotal point for the sector – with a number of very significant milestones”.
“I see my focus as about creating the right platform and conditions for the sector to prosper over the next decade,” he said.
“We will continue to lead with our usual optimism and energy but we have to work with our civil service colleagues and the [Local Government Association] to help shape those new public sector policies that are going to take us through that decade.”
He urged his body, the LGA and other professional leadership bodies to “unite behind a single vision for the future of local government but also the public sector more widely”. While Mr Swales said it was legitimate for local government’s different groupings to make separate arguments, he insisted that “in an era of depleted resources… we are interdependent”.
Mr Swales responded to LGC’s suggestion the fair funding review and local government reorganisation could lead to factionalism within the sector.
“What I would hope to do is… accept we have acknowledged points of difference between us but work together across Whitehall, across local government, to try and achieve the most effective means of policy shaping as well as the implementation,” he said.
Turning to Whitehall, he said he sought to “build up relationships” with the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government and its permanent secretary Melanie Dawes, and the other 13 Whitehall departments with which councils have significant relationships.
“I want a positive and productive working relationship with Melanie at our host ministry,” he said.
“It’s at the level at which permanent secretaries, director generals and senior civil servants are shaping policy that Solace needs to be involved and to influence.
“[We] bring to the table what we can which is unique: direct delivery experience and the experience of implementation of many of those policies.”
Asked whether Solace had sufficient influence within the corridors of power, Mr Swales said: “What we have to do is to be that respected voice and create an environment of trust where difficult conversations can take place and we recognise our respective responsibilities in those discussions.
“I think there’s an appetite for that both from Solace members and our civil service colleagues.”
Mr Swales, who was Solace’s housing lead until his election as president, said he believed the organisation had “played a part”, alongside the LGA and housing bodies, in the government’s decision to axe the housing revenue account borrowing cap.
“I’d like to think that the paper we produced and managed to discuss very positively with our central government colleagues did help to influence that and we did conduct those discussions in the right way,” he said.
Asked how he would lead Solace, Mr Swales said he sought to use the “the extended expertise that exists across the membership”, including “chief executives and senior leaders who don’t necessarily hold policy roles” within the society but could represent the perspectives of cities, counties and districts.
On the issue of senior officers’ morale, Mr Swales said: “Even in the last few days I’ve talked to chief exec colleagues in different parts of the country. The energy and enthusiasm for the job as far as I see remains undiminished, despite the scale of some of the challenges.”
He said there was a need to “sustain existing leaders but we have to also invest in future leaders”.
Mr Swales said of future leaders: “Crucially you have to have the energy, passion and enthusiasm for the challenge, and see the opportunities, have an open mind and be able to build, maintain strong working relationships across a much broader system in the public sector.”
LGC asked Mr Swales about the whether the balance of carrot and stick offered by the sector to Northamptonshire CC before its financial collapse had been appropriate. He said the issue was the “subject of a great deal of consideration by the sector at the moment”.
Mr Swales said he supported the Department for Education’s Partners in Practice programme. This sees strongly performing councils – including his own – given funding to support councils experiencing difficulty.
“I’m in favour of that type of constructive support well ahead of the need for intervention,” he said.
In addition to its ‘good’ Ofsted rating, South Tyneside was in 2017 described as a “high performing council with many outstanding features” by a Local Government Association corporate peer challenge.
Mr Swales, who is entering his 10th year as chief executive, said the north-eastern metropolitan council’s leadership had sought to “build steadily over the long term”, following a vision document agreed in 2010.
“I think that approach has been one of a single united vision that we have all coalesced around in the public sector to serve South Tyneside, then… working very closely to make sure that we stay focused on outcomes, and getting the right processes to deliver those outcomes,” he said.
He was upbeat about his area’s future, namechecking Nissan and Hitachi as two of the firms investing locally, and saying how an advanced manufacturing park would create 5,000 jobs. “I’m very optimistic,” he added.