Derek Cunningham's long career in the NHS is now helping Surrey CC get to grips with its new role as local health watchdog.
The council's health select committee has the difficult challenge of trying to help fill the black hole left by the abolition of community health councils. The committee, made up of 11 county councillors and three district councillors, hears evidence on specific health issues and policies and then publishes its conclusions. Issues so far have included investigating changes to primary care services in the area and transport for people to and from hospital.
He says: 'I have a very close working relationship with members. It's a huge learning curve for them and for the NHS, which hasn't been used to being answerable to the residents of the community they serve. I decide what they might need for a task. For example, if they are looking at changes to A&E services I set up meetings with the ambulance service. I find out who is the best person to interview. We need a balanced view, so we don't just listen to managers but talk to staff, clinicians and voluntary services to get a different perspective.'
The recent investigations into mental health services saw Mr Cunningham dealing with chief executives, local community users, voluntary groups and setting up visits to in-patient units.
Mr Cunningham started his working life as a social worker, specialising in group therapy. Twenty years in the service followed, ending up in governance and performance management.
Of his existing role, he says: 'Most authorities that take overview and scrutiny seriously realise they can't operate health service responsibilities without having somebody with a fairly
in-depth knowledge of how the NHS works to advise and work with the health select committee.'
Rita Stringfellow, chair of the Local Government Association's social affairs and health executive, agrees: 'It is hard to scrutinise issues properly if you are under-resourced. You can end up with a former committee clerk as your scrutiny support person and they don't necessarily have the right skills for this onerous job. Health select committees have such a huge agenda and you need someone who can carry out research in parallel. Local government has been given a really good opportunity to make health more democratically accountable so we have to get it right,' she says.
Mr Cunningham also feels there is a moral imperative about his work: 'I'm deeply committed to it. There are a million residents in Surrey. It is important residents have a caring and committed friend of the NHS to help get information from users into the decision-making network.
'About 40% of GP referrals have a mental health element, if that is exacerbated by poor environment then local government can make positive changes. Look at transport - if it is grid locked then it affects ambulance blue-light times.'