“The resilience, it gets into you.” This is how Robin Tuddenham describes the influence of his early career, which involved periods working with life sentence offenders and families at risk of seeing their children go into care, on his current work as Calderdale MBC’s chief executive.
The former social worker says he originally entered local government from the probation service because he was excited at how local agencies could work together to improve “whole system performance”. This theme continues to loom large in his current council’s farsighted work with its partners including local NHS organisations today.
Expanding on his point about resilience, Mr Tuddenham describes how he worked in a residential unit in which families had their “last opportunity in the community” to avoid their children entering care.
“You need to try to support and manage a team through the emotional and psychological impact of that,” he says. “It was an environment where you were challenged by what we were dealing with.
“There’s a theme of being reflective, being a resilient human, and trying to be a leader. This kind of builds into what you do.”
Mr Tuddenham says this mindset helped him after he moved north to become Calderdale’s director of community services in 2010. He says the restoration of Halifax’s historic Piece Hall as a destination to spearhead the regeneration of the rest of the town “felt like a compulsion” but he experienced doubts when the council’s attempt to bid for the funds went through its “darkest days”.
“To contextualise things and put things in perspective, that got me through a lot of project work at the Piece Hall. A lot of the time you felt that things were about to fall over and fail. Everything feels like a failure in the middle [of the process]… It is about how do you pick yourself up again.”
LGC asks Mr Tuddenham how he has coped with running a small metropolitan council amid austerity, since having been appointed chief executive in June last year. Council documents show Calderdale expects to have saved £105m in the decade to 2019-20 while its reserves went down from £62m in 2015 to £33m in March this year. In response Mr Tuddenham again uses the R-word.
“It’s resilience,” he says. “It’s the ability you have to build a narrative that isn’t about a bar chart that gets smaller every year. There are moments of despair and moments of luck and good fortune.”
Mr Tuddenham started his local government career with stints at Barking & Dagenham and Waltham Forest LBCs. He first encountered Calderdale on a council peer review.
“I didn’t know where it was,” he confesses. “I thought, ‘where’s that?’. Myself and a councillor from Haringey went up to Halifax and we had this ‘wow’ moment as we got out of the station.”
The tone of Mr Tuddenham’s LGC interview suggests the wow factor remains strong today. He describes Calderdale as a “place of activism” and praises its “very, very strong voluntary and community sector”. Many services and assets have been transferred to community groups, including all children’s centres. He believes local activism enables the council to boldly “re-establish our civic identity” through its “Vision 2024”, setting out how Calderdale, the place rather than the council, should operate as it prepares for its 50th anniversary as a political unit.
The Calderdale vision is “enterprising, talented, resilient, distinctive and kind”. Mr Tuddenham says its implementation involves “saying to politicians and some colleagues ‘let’s get out of the way, step back and listen and just amplify’.”
He describes this vision as being “not just to stop doing things or get into battles but to think differently”.
“Our role is to convene,” he continues. “We’re democratically legitimate, we’re not redundant – we have an absolutely key role that no one else has.”
On the council’s work with its health partners, the vision is “about what brings us together as a place, how can we make that ease external pressures and… step back and enable community organisations to step forward”. The borough has “a lot of brilliant people” whose work can be “amplified” by the council. Mr Tuddenham describes this work as “a social movement”.
“If local government’s going to survive the next 20 or 30 years, not just the next two or three, it’s all about reclaiming,” he continues. “We need to reclaim Joseph Chamberlain and let’s go back to why we all bloody did this in the first place. What makes us passionate and love local government? It’s about civic identity, the ability to make things happen in a place.”
Mr Tuddenham has similar ambitions for a convening role in his new position as a community wellbeing spokesman for the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives & Senior Managers.
“There’s an identity with Solace as a professional association for local government which is powerful in health,” he says. “Solace can broker a way to deliver integrated care and better place-based health and care – we can be a strong voice.”