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Kersten England: Collaborative leaders can cut through complexity

City of Sinners – Waterstones, Bradford Literature Festival
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The economic crash of 2008 marked a watershed moment in British politics.

It drove a wedge into the fissures of an already strained post war consensus built on the virtues of social democracy, economic rights, the redistribution of wealth and the role of the welfare state.

The new orthodoxy became deficit reduction, cutting public spending and living within our means. The principal focus of debate became how much and where to cut. The need to do so was undisputed among our mainstream politicians.

Austerity policies have however, proved to be about far more than balancing the books. This has had significant implications for local authority leadership.

I remember the No 10 policy adviser smiling politely as he listened to a northern city chief executive propose what she thought were innovative and effective ways for the local state to stimulate house building, with a diversity of supply creating mixed and sustainable communities. “How very Scandinavian,” he said in response. It was clear the conversation was going nowhere.

It brought home to me that dramatic shifts in the operating environment of local government after 2010 were driven not only by fiscal imperatives. They were also driven by a view that the state had become overgrown, thereby restricting the space for wealth creation, effective operation of markets and human agency.

Notions of collective responsibility, progressive taxation and the state as a vehicle for good gave way to a much greater emphasis on the market, prosperity and individual responsibility. There was a belief that places and people must stand on their own two feet and live within their means. Austerity would provide the programme through which the reach of the state, both national and local, would be rolled back and curtailed.

Local authorities, despite being the most efficient part of the public sector, have borne the brunt of austerity. They have grappled with government funding cuts while simultaneously facing increasing demand and rising costs.

Bradford City MDC, where I am privileged to be chief executive, has had to find over £262m in savings since 2011. We have got more to come and the pressures on social care are unrelenting, yet we are operating with a low local tax base that is wholly insufficient to meet our high needs.

Bradford Festival

Bradford Festival

Government proposals to eliminate the revenue support grant and to allow 100% local business rates retention were designed to incentivise support for local wealth creation, and in turn, increase the local tax take. But where you end up often depends on where you start.

It is an advantage if you already have a strong local tax base and a thriving, stable local economy. But for places with fragile or volatile economies this approach creates greater uncertainty around funding, greater risk to services and outcomes, and greater challenges for leadership.

But despite variations in local economies and tax base, the fundamental role of local government remains as it has been since its inception: to create the conditions for a place to prosper and to ensure the wellbeing of its people.

My local government career is rooted in northern England and in the cities and towns of the industrial revolution. These are places in which the actions of enlightened industrialists and social pioneers led to the creation of model villages for workers.

They led to the provision of education, the first school baths and school dinner services, community parks, hospitals, sewers and sanitation. The legacy of the work of people such as Joseph Rowntree, Titus Salt and Margaret McMillan is all around us.

The goals, aspirations and values of our forebears persist in the DNA of our local governments. But as financial resources and direct delivery of services diminish, the nature of the leadership required is changing in its scope and complexity.

Effective place leadership requires deep engagement, working with and alongside individuals, communities and businesses of the place. Effective place leadership builds ambition and consensus about what will make for the common good. It convenes, brokers and facilitates relationships, identifies and pursues opportunities. Effective place leadership harnesses the energies, talents and resources of all, with all the complexities, tensions and challenges this entails.

I have been chief executive at Bradford since 2015. It is an amazing place that belies its popular image. It has the UK’s youngest population; with a quarter of people under 16; it is diverse, with 130 languages spoken; and entrepreneurial with unique industrial and cultural heritage, world class landscapes, and the most productive city businesses in the north.

Globally connected, Bradford is built on the movements of people. Migrants from elsewhere in Britain came amid the industrial revolution to work in the mills and factories; German merchants followed and 20th century waves of migration from Europe, the Indian sub-continent and the Caribbean have made their mark, creating a unique fusion of proud Yorkshire heritage and international influences.

The hard graft, enterprise and resilience that characterises the migrant experience is hardwired into our communities, businesses and our council workforce, four-fifths of whom call Bradford home. It manifests itself in no-nonsense attitudes, an ability to make a little go a long way and a bloody-minded determination to succeed whatever the odds.

Sufiana Kalaam Literature Festival

Sufiana Kalaam Literature Festival

Bradford city itself is 50% white British and 50% Asian British and Asian. We are home to the largest population of Slovak Roma people outside London. Within these groupings there are communities that feel neglected, forgotten and discriminated against. There are children and women who are subject to intolerable abuse. There are people who harbour hatred and prejudice towards those that they see as not belonging or undeserving.

At the best of times the challenges are complex. There is huge heartache about the impact of decisions we have had to make to balance our budget, meet statutory responsibilities and retain investment in some universal services and services that underpin quality of life.

In these circumstances, the collective leadership objective of the council, partners, businesses and communities is to unlock the full potential of our phenomenal asset base. Central to this approach is collaborative system leadership that cuts through complexity and removes unhelpful and limiting hierarchies, paternalism and deficit models.

It dismantles boundaries that artificially divide. It demands the creation of a team spirit and mentality that transcends departmental, organisational and geographic borders. Only by using the totality of our resource can we secure and sustain better outcomes. So for me, anyone who wants to take the Bradford district forward is in #teamBradford – a team underpinned with respect, appreciation and support for all its members.

We have some great examples of #teamBradford collaboration:

  • Our work on inclusive economic growth, giving residents access to good jobs with decent employers and sustainable businesses, where the cost of living and doing business is minimised and where there is support for people whose lives do not turn out how they had hoped. Get Bradford Working, our flagship employment and skills programme funded by a range of partners, has helped over 3,000 disadvantaged people into sustained work.
  • The council has set challenging targets on local and social value procurement, discounted business rates and aims to have 500 apprentices by 2020. Five thousand of our 17,000 businesses are supporting schools through our Education Covenant.
  • A new collaboration between the HE, FE sector, our acute and community health trusts, GPs, the council and independent sector is developing routes into careers and progression pathways across the health and care economy.
  • The strong, mature partnership working across health and care systems has been recognised by the Care Quality Commission and is making a real difference on the ground. Our joint targeted area inspection of domestic abuse drew similar conclusions. The strong tradition of mutualism and reciprocity in our communities is being celebrated and promoted through a shared ‘People Can’ approach, supporting people to play their part in securing the outcomes they want for themselves, their families, and their communities.
  • Collaboration on cohesion and integration is built on four shared objectives: securing equitable outcomes for all; creating high levels of civic participation and pride; building strong, trusting community relations; and combating all forms of prejudice and extremism. We initiated the national schools linking project that brings children from very different communities together. This has many committed community mediators. It also gave life to the inspirational Bradford Literature Festival, which breaks all records for the diversity and representativeness of both audience and author/performer.

In all these examples there is huge emphasis on creating common cause and ambition, on each partner bringing what they can to invest (whether that is time, skills, expertise or money) and on leadership from many quarters. The council can achieve little alone, but often it is council leadership that acts as the glue binding our collective efforts together.

Within the council itself we are making decisive shifts to evidence-based investment for outcomes, and creation of space and support for innovation. We are shifting from ‘benevolent paternalism’ to working with and alongside communities. We are supporting talent to flourish, building confidence, celebrating success and assertively positioning the offer of ‘Bradford’ with our key audiences.

People have sometimes felt weary and under-confident, worn down by the attrition of austerity, and nervous about being ambitious, with its risks of potential failure. There were times when Bradford didn’t show up in regional and national arenas. Sometimes the challenges felt overwhelming and the odds stacked against us. Yet many employees and teams keep plugging away, finding innovative ways to deliver some incredible work.

Having worked across all of local government in Yorkshire and the Humber, as a civil servant, and within several local authorities, I know just how committed and capable the Bradford workforce is. So I have spent quite a lot of time holding the mirror up so that people can see themselves and their capabilities, to encourage and create opportunities for people to get their heads up, their chins stuck out, and to get out to ‘bat for Bradford’.

Akala, Lowkey and Layfullstop at the Alhambra Bradford Literature Festival

Akala, Lowkey and Layfullstop at the Alhambra Bradford Literature Festival

I love Bradford. It is where my family and I have lived in for some 27 years and I am deeply indebted and committed to it. I have loads of energy, tenacity and optimism about what we want to achieve.

Some days this job feels great. I can see the progress we are making and the greater impact this whole system team approach is having. Persistence is critical, but leadership in a big, diverse, complex and frankly under-resourced district where there are no easy answers to some of our challenges can be tough.

There are days I am not at my best and where frustration looms large. It is easy to become isolated and depleted, and not to make time to reflect and get support. So I jumped at the chance to take part in Ignite, devised by Collaborate and the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers, and spend time with fellow chief executives. It didn’t disappoint.

Thanks to skilful facilitation our group established a high level of trust, rapport and connection. Egos were parked at the door and people shared stories of hope and ambition, anxiety and difficulty and examples of extraordinary work and commitment. Even though we came from very different local authorities our points of connection were much greater than our differences, and the differences were fascinating.

Leadership is a difficult, complicated, and sometimes lonely business. Ignite gave me an immediate boost, new thoughts and perspectives and on-going access to a community of people I trust, whose expertise and wisdom I value, and whose mutual support is invaluable.

Kersten England, chief executive, Bradford City MDC

This essay forms part of a new collection on system leadership from Collaborate and Solace which can be found at www.collaboratecic.com

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Liked your leadership essay Kersten. Long time since I have been in Bradford (seem to remember it was for a gig!) but I empathise with your "industrial North" as a long - standing supporter of the "industrial Midlands".We could do with a bit more of the "very Scandinavian"…

    Stella Manzie

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