Motor bikes, football and Lego: How West Berkshire's new CEO unwinds
As the pandemic levelling up begins, it is, perhaps, a timely moment for a new chief executive to take over at West Berkshire Council.
Local democracy reporter Niki Hinman speaks to the man with the job – Nigel Lynn – on the challenges which lie in wait to tackle the economic and social legacy left in the wake of Covid.
Nigel Lynn is just through the door, having moved from a decade in charge at Arun Council on the south coast where he was described as a ‘safe pair of hands.’
Rather avuncular and with a pleasantly non-partisan face, Nigel Lynn is definably more beer than lager, and more gin than vodka. It is easy to see why he got the job.
He likes motorbikes, has a Harley-Davidson in the garage, and is also a football referee – perhaps demonstrating some appropriate transferable skills.
“I referee every week in one of the Surrey leagues. People give you lots of abuse and you stand there on your own in the middle and have to take it,” he joked. “I think I have much more support than that here!”
Joking aside, the importance of a healthy work/life balance may chime with the 1,500 or so employees under his wing, and one of the key things to emerge from the pandemic, he said, is people working longer and longer hours at home.
“You can’t work all the hours and be at your best,” he said. “And I want to instil that here. I am a great advocate for looking after your own wellbeing. I ride my bikes [he has three], like swimming or building Lego with the kids. It is important to switch off to do a good job.”
In the lexicon of management, the CEO is the epitome of leadership, and the face of any organisation.
CEOs are the modern kings and queens of the world. But Nigel Lynn doesn’t strike you as all that Falstaffian. His role requires peace making, diplomacy and collaboration more than power broking.
He will manage a budget of around £130m and must navigate the political landscape of decision making, juggling the whims and wishes of councillors to whom he reports, while providing non-political, expert advice on all matters from bin collection to commercial investment.
“It is a large budget and you rely on a team of very good officers," he said. "I think it is about asking the right questions more often than not and having the knowledge to know where to look for the problems. There is a really good senior team here.
“The previous chief exec left the council in a very good place and I have the opportunity to make it from a good council to a great one. It has all the tools in the box for that. That’s what excited me about the job.”
Aside from navigating the post pandemic ‘level up’ – there may be trouble ahead.
Two of the UK's biggest unions have rejected a 1.75 per cent pay rise for council staff in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, calling the offer "pathetic".
Unite and the GMB warned of potential industrial action, after their members voted overwhelmingly against what their leaders called a real-terms salary cut.
Councils across the UK want to build on their enhanced role during the pandemic and lead the charge in addressing key issues across local economies, social care, and climate change.
However, yearly increases in people needing local services, and rising costs of delivering those services, will mean councils will be required to spend an extra £15.9bn annually by 2030.
“There are financial problems in education and adult social care (ASC),” he said. “If either of those sneeze we catch a cold as the figures are so large. The pressure on those services are high. With ASC, we have to continually balance the books and those two areas will be always pressured.
“The £86,000 cap on self funding of care will have a dramatic impact on us. It is less of an issue in poorer areas of the country. We are talking with the Government about those issues and how those can be addressed. It is a big worry for us.”
In West Berkshire, £37 of every £100 the council receives in funding currently goes on adult social care.
Governments have increasingly recognised the problems in ASC but none has been able to combine a clear vision for social care with the practical reforms and funding required to bring it to life.
In children and family services (CFS), the forecast over-spend is £0.8m. In adult social care, the forecast over spend is £0.4m.
West Berkshire Council is also wrestling with the prospect of addressing the systemic problems associated with providing children’s and adult social care services, unless the sustainability of its funding model is secured and funding moves away from the use of different funding pots.
Furthermore, another revenue stream is under pressure. Many businesses in West Berkshire are still struggling with Covid-related matters.
So far this year 826 reminders to pay business rates have been issued.
The council says it is about to issue 491 summonses.
Councillors have yet to decide if council tax rises are on the horizon. Two thirds of English councils look set to go for a rise.
“My style is to walk the floor and get to see people in their places of work"
Nigel has been on the job for four months now, so still on probation – and still making friends. Although Covid restrictions are cramping his walk the floor style.
“My style is to walk the floor and get to see people in their places of work," he said. "I am not an office kind of guy. So its been quite hard to do that in my first few months here.
“I like to know what the temperature of the organisation is and understand the problems on the ground.”
Much of what he says resonates with what big management consultants say about both leadership style and local government.
Pricewaterhouse Coopers' (PwC) report on the future of local government puts the ability to create and grow collaborative partnerships as playing an essential role. Nigel echoes this in his wish to get to know wider stakeholders in the district.
PwC further says that local government needs to consider how to stay relevant to the communities it serves, prioritising the most important outcomes and pivoting resources rapidly as needed.
“For me the agenda is around the digital transformation to enable a 24/7 contact with people who don’t need to spend time with us," he said. "We don’t meet the bank manager like we used to, so for most people interacting with the council will be like this.
“There will also be those who need more face to face help so if we can free up resource by being more digital in their communications with us we can spend more time with those who need to talk to us face to face. It will take time and effort to transform to this, but this is the thing we need to look at.”
So he talks the talk of those who purport to know what the talk is.
He sits neatly in line with a Harvard Business Review report which says it is clear there is a collective ambition to have more effective engagement with communities, attract and develop a more flexible and adaptable workforce and maximise the use of technology.
“One of the things the peer review of 2019 showed was that communications and public engagement needed to improve. Also improving areas of health inequalities and deprivation,” said Nigel.
“Public consultation has not always been that successful. We want to speak to people but we need to do things in a different way maybe. Not just so we hear from a vociferous few. We may not be as well informed as we might be. Community facilities could be used. But this is something we need to improve.”
According to PwC, councils must see themselves, and be seen by others, as leaders in their localities.
Without the local knowledge, vision, and expertise of local government, it is unlikely the levelling up agenda will be addressed successfully.
As many organisations move to hybrid working and assess what skills are going to be most in demand in future, it is important that an attractive ‘deal’ is established with the workforce in order to remain competitive in the employment market and recruit and retain the best possible talent.
"People want to do a good job in local government. If you give people the freedoms they will do the best job they can,” he added.
He said the council is undergoing a workforce review to address its recruitment and retention issues.
“I want this council to be great, and for people to feel proud to work here,” he said. “I would like that ambition to be recognised in the people who work for us, that they can do a great job here and feel proud.”
With 17 years in local government leadership under his belt, Nigel reckons he has the chops to make West Berkshire Council both more efficient, and proud of its achievements.
“Working with political groups is certainly a skill you develop over the years," he said. "Political colours are of no relevance, it is about how you work with them. Members also want to do a good job for the community too.
“I just want to do a good job and I want to enable those I work with to do a good job too.”