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Stuart Love: Westminster is 'crying out for a culture change'

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Stuart Love gives such a strong impression that he has strived throughout his entire career to obtain his current job as Westminster City Council’s chief executive that it is hard to believe he emigrated to the UK from his native South Africa as recently as 2002.

wcc ceo stuart love

wcc ceo stuart love

In an LGC interview Mr Love recounts how prior to his first stint at Westminster he had been working in the private sector, gaining “a very, very strong focus on customer service… [which is] something I have brought into my public sector ethos which is all about delivering the best possible services we can for our residents, businesses and people who visit this city.” In 2006 he left his role as the council’s head of road management to further his CV. “I knew I had to go and get experience elsewhere in order to come back to a more senior role,” says Mr Love.

Mr Love moved to Isle of Wight Council to become director of economy and environment – “practically everything that wasn’t children’s and adults” –, obtaining “a wealth of experience that I wouldn’t have got possibly in a large authority”. He then transferred to Southampton City Council as director of environment and economy because “I wanted to get city experience back on my CV at a senior level”. It was while he was there that “the opportunity came up [in Westminster] for the executive director of city management and communities role”, and he was “very grateful to be appointed”.

It was after three years back in Westminster that he became chief executive in January this year. It is one of the most prestigious jobs in local government. And – in an era when too many national policymakers are oblivious to the work of councils – it is one in which his authority’s work is very much in the national eye.

Speaking soon after up to 700,000 people participated in the People’s Vote anti-Brexit march through Westminster last month, Mr Love says “a lot of that” sort of thing takes place in a borough which is “home to Parliament, to Buckingham Palace”.

“That puts a huge amount of pressure on our resources, alongside the police and others,” he says, demanding that the government’s fair funding review recognises Westminster’s “additional responsibilities that a lot of the rest of local government won’t have”.

These additional responsibilities on Westminster were also evident when the March 2017 attack on the Houses of Parliament served as a painful reminder of how the borough’s landmarks are also prominent terrorist targets. Mr Love describes work to prevent terrorism as “literally an ongoing day-to-day challenge for us, working with the police”. The council is collaborating with the security services, Greater London Authority and Home Office on the “ceremonial streetscape project” to facilitate “hostile vehicle mitigation measures”. Mr Love emphasises that the council’s emergency planning team – which contributed 150 officers to the Grenfell Tower recovery operation – “is hugely important to us… and the function has a direct line and responsibility to me”.

Similarly, Westminster’s prominence contributes to it having the highest rate of rough sleeping in the country. Mr Love says only 4% of rough sleepers have “local connections”, with many of them foreign nationals. On homelessness Westminster has bold ambitions. It plans to take advantage of the lifting of the housing revenue account borrowing cap to build 2,000 new council homes by 2023 – a number the council believes it can double by a date still to be determined. While this will be more than Westminster “has built in a generation”, Mr Love cautions that “at the end of the day it is borrowing so whatever is borrowed needs to be paid back”.

New housing is part of a “real drive to ensure that people who grow up in the city all get the same opportunities”. Mr Love declares pride in Westminster’s number one rating in the government’s social mobility index, boosted by an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted rating for children’s services.

The children’s and adults’ services are still run jointly with those of Kensington & Chelsea RBC – a vestige of the former triborough partnership which also featured Hammersmith & Fulham LBC. Mr Love insists triborough was “very successful” for Westminster, saving money and improving services. However, the council now has a “more nimble” outlook on partnerships and is “always open” to contemplating sharing services.

While he insists triborough had no negative impact, Mr Love is firm about the case of Robert Davis (Con), a former deputy leader of Westminster and chair of its planning committee. Cllr Davis resigned from Westminster last month after an internal investigation found he breached its code of conduct after being accused of accepting gifts or hospitality valued at over £13,000 in three years.

“I think it has damaged the council’s reputation,” says Mr Love. He insists “decision-making and governance is robust”, adding: “There’s nothing there to suggest anything other than that.

“However, the service should be more open and transparent to our residents. There’s been a real drive from our leader [Nickie Aiken (Con)] since she’s been in post – she has made some significant changes to how planning works in Westminster.”

If Cllr Aiken is on a drive for transparency, Mr Love indicates his personal crusade is about empowering officers.

“There is a change in culture that the organisation’s crying out for and my drive is about shared leadership across the organisation,” he says. “The leadership of this organisation should not be vested in one person – it’s the executive directors sharing that leadership throughout the organisation [which] is the only way we are going to drive forward the culture that everybody wants.

“We are overhauling our policies and approaches, modernising, being much more ambitious, outward looking, innovative.”

As part of this work, Mr Love wants to improve the diversity of Westminster’s management: “We are not diverse. A real driver for me is to ensure that that changes… That is an absolute focus for me and fully supported by the leader of the council.

“Westminster needs that relentless focus on how we continually improve and the only way we are going to do that is if we have different ideas, people who will challenge, who will come with different ideas, from different backgrounds. Diversity is hugely important to continuous improvement.”

In contrast to some of his peers, Mr Love insists the personal burden on council chief executives remains bearable.

“For me the agenda we’ve got here is hugely exciting and challenging and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

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