There are not many people who have been chief executive of three top-tier councils, let alone to have done so by the age of 50.
Admittedly, Sean Harriss’s tenure at Lambeth LBC, the second council he headed, came to an end sooner than anticipated (more on that later). Nevertheless, his experience at the helm of an inner London borough, Bolton MBC, the northern met where he took on his first chief role, and now Harrow LBC in outer London provides him with a fairly unique perspective on the past decade in local government.
harriss sean for web
For example, in the current debate on the future funding of the sector it has been suggested councils in the capital have had an easier time than their friends in the north.
“There has been lesser impacts of austerity in parts of London,” Mr Harriss says, due to the “incentive-based funding formula” which rewards councils in growing areas with additional cash from business rates and new homes bonus.
However, he says it’s too “obvious a stereotype to say that everything’s ok in London”, especially given the scale of its pressures around children’s social care and temporary accommodation.
“The challenges are significant in all of those scenarios,” he says. “And when you get to places like Harrow in outer London you start to get things that sit between the two.”
Mr Harriss is under no illusions about what he has taken on at Harrow LBC, where he became chief executive in February, describing the council as one of the most financially challenged in London.
The council has a net budget of £169m, just £10m of reserves and must find a further £23m of savings by April 2022.
”We need to do more to support people to become senior leaders, not just the technical skills but also to handle the increased complexity”
Mr Harriss says that along with overseeing major regeneration of Harrow town centre and the council’s huge civic centre site, keeping the finances under control is his biggest focus.
“Harrow is a low funded outer London authority which has relatively low levels of reserves and, although it has been generally well managed and financially stable, it’s certainly one of the councils that’s in one of the more challenging positions in terms of balancing its books.”
Mr Harriss started his career at Tameside MBC and became chief of Bolton in 2007, where he was involved in delivering the first Greater Manchester devolution deal in 2014, something he describes as a “real career highlight”. He left after eight years to take on the top job at Lambeth as the south London council was finally facing up to one of the worst historic child abuse scandals to emerge in this country.
In March this year Lambeth reported more than 1,000 claims had so far been made to its £100m compensation scheme for survivors of abuse at its children’s homes between the 1930s and the 1990s.
The council has previously estimated more than 3,000 victims could make claims.
Mr Harriss was heavily involved in developing this compensation scheme, which the council was given special permission to use capital receipts to fund, during his time at Lambeth between 2015 and 2017.
The claims are centred around the Shirley Oaks children’s home, which is also a major focus of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.
Mr Harriss describes dealing with the issue as the most challenging time of his career. He says: “It was challenging for many reasons: the legacy of understanding the impact of the terrible things that happened to a very significant number of children and young people who were in the council’s care over many decades. Needing to recognise and deal with all that was very humbling.
“Secondly, the complexity of dealing with all the aspects of it in relation to developing a compensation scheme for survivors, dealing with the organisational mechanics of making that work and managing the potential financial impact…
“It’s a set of circumstances that none of us can be trained in because it’s such a unique set of circumstances and the ability to make the right decisions is very difficult.”
Mr Harriss went on sick leave in August of 2017 and announced his resignation in October of that year.
Asked about the reasons for his departure, Mr Harriss says it was a “difficult decision” as he had enjoyed working at Lambeth but it was an “important attribute of a leader” to know when it is time to move on as well as when it was “important to look after yourself”.
“I experienced a period of ill-health at Lambeth and felt it was the right decision for me to leave my role as chief executive there,” he says, “both in order to get better and to allow the organisation to move on when it clearly needed effective officer leadership given the challenge the organisation faced.”
Despite the challenges Mr Harriss is still proud of his achievements during his time at Lambeth, not least turning around a children’s services department that was rated inadequate by Ofsted in 2015.
“You can have an impact [as a senior leader], even if sometimes that impact is two or even three or four steps removed,” he says. “Seeing the improvements in services means it wasn’t just chairing an improvement board.”
However, he says he is concerned there is a growing reluctance of local government officers to aspire to the top job, while his own experience in Lambeth has made him reflect on the importance of “resilience”, particularly in the current climate of “austerity, service change, political volatility and social media”.
“I think that’s a shame and I think as a sector we need to do more to help support and train people to become senior leaders, not just the skills for the technical bit of the job but also to handle the increased complexity of what they might need to deal with in the role.”
He says the role of the chief executive and other senior leaders has become “increasingly precarious”.
“The things that can go wrong, the challenges around resources, the difficulty of managing complex relationships with politicians has just become harder and people see it doesn’t always work out well.
“There’s a lot of scrutiny and some people probably quite rationally assess whether that is a choice they want to make. And perhaps we have become less good at explaining why being a chief exec or senior leader still presents the ability to achieve a huge amount if you’re committed to public service.”
He says the unique role of a council chief executive of providing “leadership in partnership and support” of elected members “isn’t always easy but that is what makes it unique and ultimately incredibly rewarding”.
“Being a part of supporting the democratic system is in itself a really strong motivator for me,” he says.
In the 18 months between leaving Lambeth and joining Harrow, Mr Harriss undertook some consultancy work and was interim chief executive of One Source, Newham, Havering and Bexley LBCs’ shared services organisation.
However, he says he now feels in a much better position to “do positive things for local communities”.
“There were times when it was nice to finish at four on Friday and not worry about it all weekend,” he says. “But coming back has given me a really big buzz. It is a genuine honour and privilege to do these jobs.”