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Helen Bailey: 'Every time I step back I become more impressed'

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Helen Bailey “caught the bug” for local government early on, in her first job in the parks department at the Greater London Council.

“I wanted to be in public service, I thought there was something attractive about that,” she told LGC.

Although the current interim chief executive of North Somerset Council has spent a number of years working in the private sector, she confessed that she will “always keep on coming back” to local government because she “can’t stay away”.

Ms Bailey started at North Somerset in July on a six-month interim contract while the council looks to recruit a replacement for Mike Jackson, who moved to neighbouring Bristol City Council in May as executive director for resources and head of paid service.  

When asked why she was attracted by the small unitary, Ms Bailey said it was “partly because” the area offered something “different”.

“It’s got a fantastic range of challenges – from the usual coastal town issues to some really interesting regeneration work that’s going on. Absolutely everything you can think of plays out in North Somerset,” she said.

The council is currently investing in a “bold vision” for its main town of Weston-super-Mare, which is intended to eventually be reborn as a “lively university town” that positively impacts the economy of the rest of the region. To this end, the council recently bought the Sovereign Shopping Centre in the town centre for £21m, a purchase which Ms Bailey described as “quite creative” due to the levers of control over the town’s economy it creates for the authority.

While some experts have warned against councils investing in shopping centres, citing a decline in the retail sector, the council has said it expects to draw a “significant annual income” – about £1m – from its investment for the foreseeable future.

Yet Ms Bailey believes that this investment is not just prudent financially, but in the cultural sense as well.

“Retail will never die entirely because people out and about will want to buy things, they are always going to want places to congregate,” she said.

“Whatever is happening to retail, [councils] still need to create places and we will still need places for people to congregate with things to do.”

In part, this core mission of local government is also what drives Ms Bailey’s leadership style, which she said needed to be delivered with a constant mind on the local place and its residents.

“I think [local government staff] are all motivated by the same thing – it’s an interest in the challenge of trying to make the council work. It’s a sense of public service and of being rooted in a community and a place,” she said.

And it is this investment in people and places that has always drawn Ms Bailey back to local government. After leaving the GLC to become a consultant at Ernst & Young and PricewaterhouseCoopers during the 1990s, she later returned as a corporate policy adviser on a one-year contract at Islington LBC in 2000. Two years later she was appointed chief executive at the inner London council, at which she remained until 2008.

Since leaving Islington she has served stints as director of public services at the Treasury; chief executive of Local Partnerships LLP, the joint venture between the Treasury and Local Government Association; chief operating officer at the London Mayor’s Office for Police & Crime and as chief executive of the consultancy Impower.

When asked why she continued to return to local government, Ms Bailey said it was because she felt that the culture was “real” and “you know when you are making a difference”.

“It’s real people using real services,” she said, “nothing is theoretical and you know when you are making a difference.”

Comparing her experiences of the private and public sectors, Ms Bailey said she becomes “more and more impressed” by the quality of local government and the services it delivers.

“Life is more complicated in local government than in other sectors – you have to manage your budget, manage people – and all while staying publicly accountable to a very high standard,” she said.

This complexity and the need to balance many different considerations at any given moment would not be considered “normal in other spheres”, she added, all while trying to provide a strategic agenda for an area that is “unique and special”.

“Some days it’s exhausting. Other days it’s energising,” she said.

Ultimately, Ms Bailey said the beginning of October was “exactly the right moment” to be asking what she wanted to be doing next, adding that she was engaged in conversations about future opportunities.

And should those opportunities take her out of the sector, LGC predicts it is more than likely that her “bug” for local government will ultimately draw her back once more.

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