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Diana Terris: ‘It’s much harder when things are being sliced’

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Barnsley MBC chief executive Diana Terris tells Nick Golding how her authority has “always got one eye” on the next round of cuts.

“You can have loads of money and still be a pretty poor performing council; you can have very little money but be a good performing council.”

So says Diana Terris of the impact of austerity. When she was first appointed to local government’s top officer rank, at Warrington BC in 2006, she had no idea how the landscape would change during her tenure as a council chief. This is due to end at the end of May when she retires as Barnsley MBC’s chief executive after nearly seven years.

“When I was in Warrington, financially it was a much less challenging situation. There was more money on the ground. The actual financial sustainability of the council was much more sound,” Ms Terris tells LGC.

Recalling that her former employer had 9,000 staff, Ms Terris says: “That still doesn’t give you an efficient, productive council. What gives you an efficient, productive council is leadership, management and the hearts and minds of everybody in that organisation wanting to do the best for their customers.”

Ms Terris says spearheading culture change has been her biggest challenge, and believes it takes “at least” three years to do, but sometimes more.

“It’s quite hard to express what culture is but if you go into an organisation and you try to change culture, culture will smack you in the face. You know how things are done and changing the way people do things in their behaviour and attitudes does take time,” she says. “You need leaders at every level of the organisation to bring about that change.”

During Ms Terris’s time at Barnsley the council’s staffing has halved, to just over 3,000, as budgets have plummeted. The Centre for Cities in January named it as the urban council worst hit by austerity, with a 40% reduction in expenditure on services between 2009-10 and 2017-18.

“If you are trying to lead an organisation in a new direction, to improve the offer that you are giving your customers, while at the same time things are being sliced from beneath your feet in terms of resources, it’s much harder,” she says.

Ms Terris confesses that the council has “always got one eye” on what it may have to target in the next round of cuts. It could either “reduce the offer down and down” with regards to a particular service, “stop” it entirely or “do it in a different way”.

Barnsley is now formulating a three-year plan, which requires councillors and officers to “look at absolutely everything” with regards to considering potential cuts. She adds: “Nobody would want to go there but you have to do what you have to do.

“We are looking at those services we’ve looked at before: family support; youth services, which is a real worry, and some of the environmental services that we have to cut down on, in terms of places looking clean and green.”

Ms Terris describes her role, alongside that of her staff, as being to “see where you can improve for less”, admitting, “you can’t always improve for less”. The search for improvement cuts across how the council works with partners, its work on productivity, commercialism and commissioning. She names Barnsley’s improved support for business and the bringing up of GCSE results to the national average as some of its “wins”. However, the closure of family centres has been “particularly tough”.

She declares her support for devolution, with the creation of the Sheffield City Region mayoralty “giving the area a voice”, helping it to capitalise on opportunities.

However, wider Yorkshire has been riven with devolution angst with Sheffield City Council and Rotherham MBC being the only councils consistently against a deal covering the whole historic county. LGC’s interview took place in January, before the government made clearer its opposition to the One Yorkshire bid. Ms Terris insisted the uncertainty is not holding South Yorkshire back: “One hopes this would be sorted satisfactorily whatever [the model] may look like. The quicker we get a resolution the better but it’s not holding up the mayoral progress we can make in the meantime.”

Equally important is Barnsley’s work with its partners. Ms Terris says that rather than integrating budgets, the approach in Barnsley has been “aligning” them, describing this as “probably a safer place to be”. This place-based alignment has often taken place at the level of the six ‘area councils’ created within its boundaries.

Referring to integration nationally, she says the “jury’s out” on which model of integration offers the greatest benefits. “From our point of view, we haven’t gone about it as a massive integration but we’ve looked at it as more of a place-based approach and got the benefits on the ground.”

After May, Ms Terris plans to continue on the board of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers, but has no other strong plans apart from enjoying more sport, travel and family time. “There are lots of things I’ve never had time to do,” she says.

Diana Terris’s tips for future chief executives

“Be very clear around your purpose”

“Make sure you grab every opportunity, even though you may feel it’s a bit scary. Get that experience.”

“Be pretty resilient, know how to look after yourself and protect yourself. Manage to keep healthy, fit and resilient.”

“Don’t let people put you off, build up your confidence.”

“Look at the network around you – people who can help and support you.”

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