From the outside, it might appear that North East Lincolnshire Council is experiencing troubling times.
The council’s revenue budget has been reduced by about 40% this financial year alone, resulting in a growing funding gap.
But council leader Ray Oxby (Lab), who is the unusual position of previously holding one of North East Lincolnshire’s most senior officer roles, remains upbeat about his council’s future.
“There’s been an opportunity for the council to work more cohesively with our partners. That’s what we’ve done successfully under my tenure as leader over the past three years,” he told LGC.
He added “relationships are everything”, something he learned during his almost 40-year career in local government. This saw him serve in roles including chief environmental health officer at the former Grimsby BC and, eventually, as North East Lincolnshire’s strategic director of environmental services.
Cllr Oxby first stood as a councillor in 2012 having retired as an officer three years earlier. He said his career put him in good stead for the switch into the cut and thrust of politics.
“People are people, whether it’s a government minister or a bin-man,” he said. “That’s always been my approach: be respectful of whatever station in life people are at because they’ve always got a contribution and it’s often a very sensible contribution.”
Cllr Oxby said his experience as a council officer has made him prioritise “cohesive working” as a politician, whether working with government agencies, officers or councillors from across the political spectrum.
“It’s very much about relationships, supporting people and building strong relationships,” he said. ”I love growing teams that have a common objective and helping them achieve them.”
Despite the varying perspectives, responsibilities and demands, Cllr Oxby said there were many crossovers between the roles of leader and officer, with a strong personal ethos and identity key to winning over hearts and minds.
“You’ve just got to be yourself,” he said. “I’ve always been a very passionate person and committed, being open and honest. That hasn’t really changed from being an officer to being a member - that’s one of the things that leadership is.”
Cllr Oxby insists leadership also requires a clear vision to back a strong sense of purpose, which must be communicated effectively to everyone involved - particularly political opponents.
He said: “90% of all politicians at the local level share a common agenda, the 10% difference only really comes in during election time.
“We’re all passionate, we want to make a difference for our community and we want to help people.
“You have to take a respectful approach to people. Good leadership is about being prepared to listen and prepared to take on board new ideas.”
One of the council’s challenges has been to shift the town of Grimsby away from its historical primary industry of fishing and towards a new and growing sector: offshore wind-farms.
Following decades of economic decline that followed the infamous ‘Cod Wars’ of the 1960s and 1970s (a series of disputes with Iceland over fishing rights), Cllr Oxby said North East Lincolnshire in 2016 started to once again experience a growing economy.
Danish energy group Ørsted announced earlier this month that it would connect the Hornsea Wind Farm, located off the Grimsby coast, to the UK’s national grid, creating enough power for 1.3 million homes a year and delivering thousands of new jobs for the area.
Cllr Oxby said this economic success has led to a growing trust in the council by the government. Grimsby’s £67m town deal was the only one of its kind to be referenced in the government’s industrial strategy white paper.
Stage one of Grimsby’s town deal was approved by the government on 5 July and aims to create 8,800 new jobs and about 9,700 new homes by 2032.
Cllr Oxby said: “We first delivered our vision to the government under the Greater Lincolnshire devolution deal.
”That deal was not approved but it helped us to decide our vision. Many government ministers, including [previous housing and communities secretary] Sajid Javid, were very supportive of our plans and that helped us to deliver a vision that people could get behind.”
This vision for the wider area includes a South Humber Industrial Investment Programme (SHIIP) and a series of six enterprise zones to help industrial centres develop.
The Port of Immingham is the UK’s largest port by tonnage, handling around 55 million tonnes every year, and the council aims to develop its supporting infrastructure.
At the heart of Cllr Oxby’s vision is the recurring theme of collaboration on the way forward, ultimately requiring a closer working relationship between members and officers.
“I’ve worked in authorities where members follow dictats from the members - but for me that stifles innovation,” he said. “Clearly there are boundaries” to this vision. We can have a partnership and recognise that the officers are here to do a job, they want to do a good job, they’ve got good ideas so let’s listen to them.”