Harry Catherall’s enthusiasm for Blackburn with Darwen, the place where he has spent more than half of his 40-year local government career, is infectious.
He joined the Lancashire council as deputy director of social services in 1997 as the council was preparing for unitary status the following year.
“Those first few years were really exciting as a unitary council,” he says. “Right from those early days we really set high ambition for residents. I’d come across nothing like it, it was really liberating, a case of good strong political leadership.”
Mr Catherall retires in May after more than six years as chief executive. Asked to name some of his proudest achievements over the time he points to the lifting of educational attainment – “people used to throw around deprivation almost as an excuse; we banned it” – and the fact that despite austerity over the past decade the council has secured substantial investment in the borough by recognising that “it’s our job to attract investors”.
“If you go through the town now it’s got investment in brand new infrastructure – not just a repair job: brand new leisure, education, housing, roads. It’s almost a reinvention of a whole borough.”
Mr Catherall, an accountant by background, also pointed to the partnership with residents through the council’s Your Call initiative which has seen thousands take part in activities such as litter picking, gritting streets or volunteering in leisure centres and libraries.
“You invite people, with a bit of support – don’t dump on them – and an appropriate thank you and wow what a response we get,” he says.
A recent peer review of the council was full of praise for its partnership working, noting that partners had “real confidence” in the council “in part inspired by Blackburn with Darwen’s track record in stepping up to its responsibilities in partnerships across Lancashire and by its ability to deliver”.
Mr Catherall says his authority’s strong relationships with the NHS and police were down to a shared recognition that “what we have in common is the population we support”.
“If someone ever forgets that they’ll quickly be reminded. That’s what people see when they come here,” he says.
However, the peer review said the council needed to “shift emphasis further towards the people agenda, to complement what it has achieved for the place”. Mr Catherall says this is a fair criticism and it was a “disappointment” the council had not had “more of an impact on poverty and household incomes in this borough”.
However, the council has been recognised for its work on community cohesion and in February was one of the five areas selected to work in partnership with the government on integration. But a BBC Panorama programme late last year took a different view, saying communities had become more segregated over the past 10 years.
Mr Catherall says too much is made of the fact the council’s different communities may cluster in different parts of the borough because the difference in skin colour means it is “in your face”.
“Communities congregate together, live together, you go across Europe and you find this everywhere.
“The Polish and the Irish and Italians all do the same here. We’ve never denied there are potential issues, so we’ve proactively engaged with communities in order to avoid any of the negatives that can flow [such as riots].”
He said this included creating opportunities for people to mix through events, training and leisure opportunities.
“We look at it in everything we do, are we creating positive conditions for integration? We encourage business leaders to come together, for example.
“You have to acknowledge that primary schools serve the population they’re based in so we ensure they’re linked up, so children get the opportunity to meet people from different colours, faiths and backgrounds.”
The council has developed a social integration strategy, but Mr Catherall says this goes beyond the obvious divides over colour.
“It’s not black and white stuff. Yes ethnicity and colour comes into it, but it’s everything that brings barriers to communities that’s at the heart of this strategy: poverty, jobs, skills.”
More broadly, Mr Catherall worries that central government is “not valuing what local government has delivered” over the past decade or recognising the need to invest “upstream” to tackle rising demand for public services.
“The police, the NHS… those sectors will not give them the returns they need,” he warns.
Mr Catherall, who joined Tameside MBC straight from school in 1979, says he may consider some charity work in future but definitely not a full-time local government role.
Asked to describe his own style of leadership, Mr Catherall says “an honest, open approach goes a long way”.
“It’s not rocket science, it really isn’t. We’ve got some amazing people working in the public sector therefore be honest with them, tell them as it is – the rough stuff and the tough stuff – and you’ll be blown away.”
No doubt that unbridled enthusiasm helps too.
‘Even the NHS doesn’t understand the two-tier system’
Ministers should instigate reorganisation, with Lancashire divided into three unitaries, according to Harry Catherall
The government should show some leadership and “grasp” the issue of reorganisation in two-tier areas, according to the outgoing chief executive of Blackburn with Darwen BC.
I don’t agree with the two-tier system anywhere. The government should grasp it once and for all
The unitary is one of four councils that recently submitted a request to government to set up an East Lancashire unitary council.
Harry Catherall, who retires at the end of May, told LGC Lancashire CC was “too big” and should be split into three unitaries.
“I do not agree with the two-tier system anywhere in the country. I think the government should grasp it once and for all,” he said.
While the current government has given the go ahead to reorganisation where all partners agree, it has proven reluctant to force the issue if any object.
Mr Catherall said: “It needs government to make that decision because it’s Christmas and turkeys and all that.”
He described the two-tier system as “confusing and inefficient” and not understood, not only by the public, but also by “very experienced public servants”.
“I spend a lot of my time explaining to the NHS and public sector that to get upstream [and reduce demand] you need to engage with your district councils,” he said.
Mr Catherall was part of the senior team that oversaw Blackburn with Darwen’s unitarisation in 1998. However, he said the council was now “too small” to face the current challenges of austerity.
He said scrapping the two-tier system would save “significant resources” for local government but also the wider public sector by allowing for a “real place-based approach” to service delivery, stripping out any duplication.
“In local government itself it would save millions. It’s therefore wrong we’re not doing it already,” he said.