Leader's Podcast Episode 3

A Council Leader's Perspective

The 3rd episode of a new series of podcasts bringing together leaders from local authorities and LATCo's engaging in conversation, sharing and learning good practice which could help others facing similar challenges.

This episode involves Farooq Mohammed speaking with and Mark Ingall, Council Leader, as he tells us about himself and his leadership role at Harlow Council.

Be sure to subscribe on our Soundcloud channels for future episodes.

Episode Transcript 

Some episode timings are approximate.

[00:00:33.300]

Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to this latest episode of our series of podcasts with leaders from within and around the LATCo sector. My name is Farooq Mohammed and I'm going to be speaking with a leader of a local authority. A real coup. We've got Mark Ingall, who is elected leader of Harlow District Council. And I'll be inviting him to share some of his thoughts and introduce himself shortly. What we're going to be doing this morning is very much focusing around leaders' perspectives. I'd be very interested to talk to Mark in terms of his role as a leader and how he approaches that and balances that with his day job. And I'll be looking forward to hearing a little bit more about the day job, but also talking to him about being a local authority that owns a very successful LATCo, a shareholder, and understanding what that journey looks like as well. So, without further ado, let me welcome Mark. Mark, welcome to this podcast.

 

[00:01:52.530]

Thank you Farooq.

 

[00:01:54.450]

Really delighted that you can make the time to join me. I know you're a very, extremely busy individual. So, I'd like to kick off by inviting you to tell us a little bit about yourself. Mark Ingall, leader of Harlow District Council by night. And, you know, I understand you're a schoolteacher by day. So, tell us a little bit about yourself.

 

[00:02:17.330]

Well, that's right. I'm just starting my fifth year as a councillor for Bush Fair in Harlow. I became the leader just over two years ago now. And as you say, three days a week. I'm a secondary school teacher in a comprehensive not far from here. And two days a week and most evenings and some weekends. I'm the leader of the council as well. In addition to that, I've got three children under the age of 10. So, life is very, very busy.

 

[00:02:49.610]

I can imagine. Well, that's very, very topical right now, Mark. And I'm sure we'll kind of come on to that in terms of talking about COVID-19 and coronavirus generally, because I know schools and teachers are very much part of the national debate and discussion, but we won't kind of get into that right now. So, can I ask you for the benefit of those that are listening to this podcast who don't know where Harlow is, can you tell us a little bit about Harlow and give us a bit of context?

 

[00:03:20.260]

Well Harlow is one of a ring of new towns around London just outside the M25. You can drive to Red Bridge, which is the first part of London that you come to in about 20, 25 minutes down the M11, or you can get into London on our train system in about 15, 20 minutes. So, we're very much influenced by being close to London. We suffer, I think, from the fact that Harlow was built seventy-five years ago, almost as one piece. And some of it's getting quite tired now and in need of renovation and regeneration. It's an area that I chose to move to some 10 years ago. It has many of the benefits of new towns, an awful lot of green space. It's a well-planned community with excellent cycle track infrastructure, for example, although there are other cycle tracks that are in desperate need of renovation.

 

[00:04:24.000]

Yeah. And could you tell us a little bit about the size of the town, population?

 

[00:04:30.660]

We have some 83,000 residents at the moment. And as part of our local plan working with Essex and East Hertfordshire, we are planning a significant growth over the next 15, 20 years as we become the Harlow and Gilston Garden Town with a population of about 130,000 projected.

 

[00:04:59.860]

Wow, that's very, very impressive. Quite clearly, quite a lot of work looking ahead for the local authority. So, talking about the local authority itself, could you tell us a little bit about the structure of the council and how it's actually made up in terms of the elected membership and the council as well in terms of officers?

 

[00:05:22.430]

Well, we have 33 elected councillors at the moment. Twenty are my party, the Labour Party and 13 are the Conservative opposition. We try and work cooperatively wherever we can as a council. I operate a cabinet system where I have a cabinet of seven councillors who take on different areas of responsibility and we work with a team of officers led by chief executive Brian Keane. And again, responsibilities devolve through senior officers and different tiers of responsibility. And I think we work quite well together; I think we're a successful council.

 

[00:06:11.960]

Fantastic, so talking about leadership. It's the first time we've had an elected member on this podcast series. And I'm very interested to understand how leadership looks from an elected members perspective as opposed to an officer perspective. So, let me begin by asking, what was your calling to become an elected member going right back to the beginning? And you know, what insights can you share with us once you became an elected member?

 

[00:06:46.760]

Well, that's quite a question, Farooq.

 

[00:06:49.520]

That's my job.

 

[00:06:51.400]

I've always taken an interest in politics, but very much as an armchair commentator. I think back in my student days, I was quite involved in protests around the miners' strike, for example. But I'm very busy, have brought up a family and have travelled to various parts of the world and worked in different parts of the world as well. When I came to Harlow, this was my, if you like, destination home, my destination town. This is where I wanted to be. This is where I wanted to see out my days. And it's a town I really love, to be honest. And I suppose the trigger to get more actively involved, having been a Labour Party member for a very, very long time, was the 2010 election, where I saw the defeat for my party and felt that commenting from the side-lines was no longer good enough. I felt that successful governments are formed when they build from the grassroots up. I've got no political ambition to ever travel down the M11 to Westminster. But I wanted to be part of the grassroots of showing what my party could deliver on a community level and use that as an argument to try and persuade people to re-elect my party to government eventually.

 

[00:08:32.530]

You mentioned the miners' strike, as part of your journey and that really resonates with me, and then obviously, your role as an elected member, you said in the introduction, changed again from being an elected member to becoming the leader of the council. I'm assuming the leader of your party as well. That would be the case. At the same time, how did that kind of impact on you as a leader in terms of that kind of change in role?

 

[00:09:10.800]

Well, time became even more of an issue as a bench councillor. I tried to embed myself as much as possible within within the community and meet regularly with residents’ associations, try to get out, meet people. I Spent a lot of time developing community events to try and bring the community together and reclaim some spaces that the community had lost really, to anti-social behaviour. Now, clearly, being the leader of the council and a leader that has responsibility, I've taken on response ability for the green agenda, is an extra time commitment, it's a huge extra time commitment. And I wouldn't have been able to do it actually without the extreme patience and hard work of my wife, who's taken over some of the responsibilities at home that I should be doing more of. I'm fortunate that I'm in a position where I can only work three days and I can manage on three days a week as a teacher. And I have two other very good ward councillors, Eugenie Harvey and Jodi Dunne, who take on a lot of the casework. But nonetheless, I still try because I think if you lose contact with the residents that you're supposed to represent, then you're no longer doing the job. I guess really, it's about finding the time and organizing yourself so you can do it, do it all.

 

[00:10:47.170]

I think that's a huge challenge that leaders in any guise struggle within terms of prioritizing and managing time and as you've articulated eloquently. You know, it's very clear that you've depended on your wife, for example, in terms of the support that she's kind of giving you to enable you and empower you to do the job that you need to do, as well as the other board councillors, your colleagues in your board. Just developing that a little bit further, I'm interested in hearing about relationships and how you've managed your relationships as a leader, looking outwards, say, with a minister of parliament. How does that kind of dynamic work and equally with officers of the council? If I had a pound for every time, I've had a conversation with officers complaining about elected members and vice versa, elected members complaining about officers up and down the country, any local authority, I'd be a very rich person. So, could you just kind of share some insights in terms of that? I think I'm more interested in your relationship with officers and how that kind of leadership dynamic kind of changes and what some of the challenges are, if I can use that term, you know, in terms of governing and leading through officers, and how does that work? I mean, you kind of see it played out at a national level. We're currently seeing get played out when the prime minister and one of his advisors, although not necessarily a civil servant. So maybe not necessarily quite a valid example, but I'm just interested in kind of hearing your thoughts about, you know, leadership in that context.

 

[00:12:47.340]

Well, I think leadership is about building strong seats. And I am fortunate, but politically, I have a very strong team of councillors. My job of last month was to select my cabinet and the difficulty I had with that wasn't who do I bring in, but who do I leave out? It's that strong of a team. And I have a strong team of council officers as well. I think the relationship is going to work. The relationship between elected representatives and officers has to be one of the elected representatives being clear about where they want to go. But being very open to the routes to get there, it's the council officers and we are going to talk about our LATCo soon.

 

[00:13:41.890]

It's to deliver on the decisions we make. And they can't do that unless we are clear about our direction of travel. I try to go into a meeting, whoever it's with, knowing where I want to get to, but not being dogmatic about the route to achieving that And accepting that, everybody, every tier of responsibility, both on the political side and on the administrative side have capable brains, good ideas that they want to contribute if only you give them an opportunity to contribute. So, it's about being as open as possible, as collaborative as possible, and really, really finding the time. When I've spoken to other council leaders, they've said when I first started out on this journey. The one thing that they've always regretted as they look back is that they didn't find enough time to listen to other people. And as much as 24 hours in a day, seven days a week will allow, I'm determined to listen.

 

[00:15:00.690]

Right. And I think what you say certainly makes a lot of sense to me in terms of being clear about your vision and what you want to achieve and being collaborative both with cabinet members and chief officers. And I liked, what you said about not necessarily being concerned with the how you know, how you're going to achieve something or the roots that will get you there. But being more concerned with the outcomes or the kind of outputs, which is the vision, which clearly is critical. How does that work in respect of other kind of key stakeholders, such as the minister of Parliament? How does that kind of impact on your leadership role?

 

[00:15:55.890]

We are a Labour administration and our MP is a conservative. And it's important that most at times publicly. We will disagree about the direction of travel and the policy decisions. You mentioned the government's present difficulties with a senior advisor, our MP, initially defended that advisor. I initially and continue to feel that the man's position is untenable. But nonetheless, we both represent the residents of Harlow. And there are many, many areas where presenting a united front is to the benefit of the town. We are looking for funding from the government for a new hospital. Now, we may have differences of opinion of quite how that is funded and where it should be sited and what we mean by a new hospital. But the important thing is Harlow needs a new hospital. So, we maintain open channels of communication all time so that we can approach the relevant minister on any issue to get the change that we need. It's not always easy, but it's important that we are able to do it and we do. And there's been numerous issues from the hospital, from committee development, which has afflicted our town, particularly where the health law and I have managed to thrash out a common position so we can approach government ministers and show that regardless of political persuasion, this is an issue that affects residents of the town and they must do something about it, with some success.

 

[00:17:54.790]

But you also kind of touch on another important point, and that's values. And I think for leaders, by virtue of being leaders and being in your case, in the public eye, values are a very important part, you know, that people look at in terms of behaviours. And I'm interested in kind of understanding what your thoughts are on values. I mean, in my mind, I think integrity is is a key value. It's a core value that you would expect to be integral with any leader in any role. You know, be they an elected member or be they an officer of the council or a leader in a private organisation. You know, having that integrity, doing the right thing in the context of your job is absolutely vital. Otherwise, as you said, your role can become untenable. How do you ensure that those values are permeated through the organisation so that they actually reflect and characterise their leadership collectively as a whole, as well as individuals who are in responsible positions?

 

[00:19:14.190]

Well, I think you're right to say that having values and staying true to those values matters. I spent most of my life teaching and one of the great sadness’s, I think, for all teachers is that you can see children arriving at a secondary school, at age eleven, who are disadvantaged. And very often the system doesn't allow for that disadvantage be challenged sufficiently so that they make the outcomes that they are capable of. And so, fairness, addressing inequality and striving to offer opportunity to all is at the very core of my belief system. And I think we make that clear through the council's mission statement, our aims. I think we make it clear through every debate that is held in the council. And I think we make it clear through our policy implementation. And our chief executive is accountable to us to make sure that his senior officers and their teams are delivering on those values. It's about clarity, isn't it?

 

[00:20:27.770]

Yes, it is. Right, well, I'm going to move the conversation on and I'm very interested to hear your thoughts about the kind of current situation that we're all facing as a country with this pandemic and COVID-19, and lots of people have got lots of views from different perspectives on how well it is or isn't being managed. But I think that's more a kind of political issue. But we'll park that. I'd like to focus on Harlow and get your insights and your perspective as a leader as to how you think Harlow has handled the whole lockdown of the last nine stroke ten weeks. And if you were to roll it back, is there anything that you would do differently if you were to replay it again from a Harlow perspective?

 

[00:21:30.310]

We acted quickly Farooq, while the government was advising people not to go to pubs, while the government was advising people not to go to places of entertainment. Those council facilities that we owned, and we had the authority to take action with, we closed them. When the advice came out overnight, I closed our playgrounds. And then there were some significant debate around that, but I think we did the right thing by acting quickly. But I honestly believe when you look at the evidence that's now coming to light about the football match in Liverpool, wasn't it a football match in Liverpool, and the Cheltenham Festival, and the clusters of infection that have arisen out of those events going forward. I'm pleased and proud that we were brave enough to say, actually, the advice is not to go, then we have a responsibility to shut down, to stop people going. We were early closing our car parks and we were early in preparing our staff to be able to work from home. You know getting all the I.T. sorted out. That was a considerable challenge. So that when we came to March 23rd, and the formal lockdown began. We were in a position to protect our staff, Ninety percent of our staff were able from that day to work from home and protect our residents because much work had already been done in terms of closing places where people would congregate and the virus could spread. We reduced our services to key services and emergency services. And that was, a decision, again that I think played very well because almost immediately the government made it very clear that they were going to rely on local councils for the delivery of the emergency services that they were not even at the

 

[00:23:51.880]

time clear were going to exist, but they were going to rely on us. I had a letter from Robert Jenrick saying that councils would be at the forefront of delivery and by reducing our services to key services, we were in a position to have capacity to, for example, set up a hub, a community hub, which meant that we could, from really early doors of this shut down, start delivering food and prescriptions to those people that didn't have families to do that for them and who were sheltering and were shielded and so couldn't even attend shops and couldn't get home deliveries. We were in a position to, for example, disperse the small business grants and within a week, I think we delivered the vast majority of the money that come to Harlow, to small businesses to keep them going. So, creating that capacity in very short order was an important step. I'm pleased with Harlow's response.

 

[00:25:00.750]

That certainly sounds like a very comprehensive response from Harlow and congratulations to you and the other elected members and senior officers and the council as a whole in terms of responding. One word that's been used in respect to this virus quite repeatedly now and it's kind of becoming a little tired, is unprecedented in terms of this this virus and a lot of organizations, both public and private sector, who have plans in place to deal with eventualities that are unforeseen, to maintain service or business continuity, have found that in some respects their plans have fallen short because as I say this is unprecedented, nobody's ever envisaged the kind of things that we've seen happen over the last 9, 10 weeks. In your thoughts. Do you think, Harlow Council's plans were resilient enough? Is that something that you're going to be looking at as a leader and looking for an increase in capacity and resilience, given the lessons have been learned of the last few weeks?

 

[00:26:24.100]

So, we had a number of things that will be going for us. The first is that we did have an emergency plan, although this was unprecedented, nobody could have foreseen it, there were plans for an emergency. And we enabled that very, very quickly. So, for example, our chief executive officer took over emergency powers to make decisions. Now, you know, he was very careful, very careful to get agreement from myself as a leader of the administration, but also for the leader of the opposition to say this is what he's doing and this is why he's able to do it and to talk through the sorts of decision making that he could be doing reflecting the makeup of the council because that was a Democratic decision of the people of Harlow. But also, not taking any overtly political decisions, but enabling decisions to carry on being made, without the need for the council cabinet meetings, because those couldn't take place. And again, his success in doing that was all about communication and I meet with the chief executive once a week, I say face to face, a distance of some three metres, and we speak on the telephone daily. So, we had a plan in place. Of course, there are unforeseen things. The need to exercise, say, socially distant has meant that we've had to, to a degree, might make it up as we go along. So, we have grass cutting, the areas that need to be grass cut throughout the town, including our town park. Do we cut the grass when people are not supposed to congregate together? Our town park is phenomenally popular with our residents and with the weather we've had we would have had many, many people picnicking. So, the decision was made to not cut

 

[00:28:39.660]

the grass. It's angered some people, but then people need exercise. So, we will cut the grass, but three-metre-wide strips to allow people to pass in different directions to exercise, but not encouraging them to stop. So, we've had to be, we had a plan

 

[00:28:59.020]

You've had to be innovative.

 

[00:29:00.100]

We had a plan of how the administration would work but because of the specifics of this crisis, we've had to be flexible about the detail of how it's been implemented. Clearly, in the light of this, we will review our plan and see and learn lessons from it. We're also quite fortunate that we've kept some financial reserves. In 2013, the then minister, I think it was Eric Pickles was saying that councils had too much in the way of reserves and they needed to be running them down. We didn't. And it's been fortunate that it's allowed us to maintain financial liquidity at a time when we are spending more and getting less income. The government's promised that councils will be reimbursed for all the extra costs of COVID. But we need sufficient liquidity to make it all work before we are reimbursed, we were in a fortunate position financially that we had those reserves. And I think reflecting on this, when eventually it's over, the need to keep financial reserves in place because you just literally don't know what's around the corner, will be an argument that's won.

 

[00:30:26.220]

Makes a lot of sense. Very, very impressive, Mark. You talked about emergency powers and governance and again, very much thinking about this from a leadership perspective, those delegated powers to the chief executive. I know a lot of local authorities have, like the rest of the country and the rest of society, moved to online video calls and video meetings like we are doing right now, even though this is a podcast. How has that kind of worked, from your kind of perspective, has that shift in communication and how you communicate, albeit within this emergency power context, has that worked for you, and do you think this is something that you might continue with in respect of a lot of people talk about the new normal going forward and how now it's in some respects, it's given wider society an opportunity to evaluate different models and different ways of working. Of course, it's equally applicable to leadership and governance, what are your insights and thoughts on that?

 

[00:31:36.050]

Well, it's certainly moved us forward in terms of being able to work from home. And I see a significant shift, I think, in allowing our council officers to work from home. And one of my personal interests is preserving the environment and one of the very few benefits to have arisen out of this crisis is the cleaner air that we're all breathing as a result. And noticeable effects that many people working from home have had in terms of pollution and that's a benefit that we need to acknowledge and think about how we can maintain. So, I'd like to see more working from home. I think, on a personal basis, I like to see people's faces and their expressions when I'm talking and on a one-to-one like this, it's fine, I can see you very, very well. But when you're talking to a room full of people, I'm not sure that the technology allows you to interpret how what you're saying is going down and take stock of that as you go along. We had our first full council meeting at our AGM last Thursday. I have to say, it wasn't without the occasional I.T. glitch. Not least of which that half an hour before it was due to start my Internet failed completely. I managed to get it up and running again for some five minutes before we kicked off. So, I started somewhat flustered and a little bit sweaty, I'll be honest. But we did it. And actually, there was some benefits. It's like the prime minister's questions time, I actually think he's better now that one person at a time can speak and only one person. And you don't have the the wall of sound, the noises of people trying to interrupt a good point. So there are some benefits. I can certainly see that it allows for more involvement, councillors are sometimes away from the town when a meeting is on and they have lives they have to live. They could still take part in meetings. Councillors are sometimes unwell, they can still now take part in meetings if we can get a hybrid between being present, which I'd like, and contributing from home. But there are some important lessons to be learnt about how effective people have been in working from home and how productive they've been. You know in my other life as a teacher, I've not stopped teaching, I've been delivering lessons online. And I think for some children that have disaffected with the traditional classroom based education, and some of whom have quite poor attendance, there's something in being able to deliver the curriculum that you would deliver in class, online, that is worth exploring, and I would hope the government would think about putting some resources into that.

 

[00:35:01.110]

One of the things that you talked about in the context of Harlow council's response to the virus was, I think you used the words preparing our staff to work from home and respond to this and having, you know, been in touch with leaders up and down the country from other organizations, including the private sector, where staff have been working from home or even furloughed. One of the big challenges, and it's quite apt, given that we've just come to the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, last week, leaders are now thinking about the welfare and the kind of mental health impact on staff and how they actually support them through that. What are your thoughts around that side effect, given that Harlow is a significant employer in the town, and the area and this seems to be a broader issue for organizations and leaders to deal with?

 

[00:36:10.420]

As the crisis unfolded and during the lockdown. It's been communication, communication, communication. We produce a weekly newsletter which goes out to all the staff saying: this is the situation in Harlow; this is what we're doing; highlighting what different individuals are doing and signposting support. I think there are going to be consequences for this, far reaching consequences when it comes to people's mental health. Members of our staff will have lost relatives and they were lost in circumstances that are appalling or awful, they never had a chance to say the goodbye that they would have wanted to do. Some of them not able to attend the funerals of the closest people to the to them. And that's going to have a traumatic effect which has the potential to resurface over over a longer period. We have a mental health champion and we are going to have to be receptive to dealing with people's ongoing problems here.

 

[00:37:31.720]

Is that something you think you might be beefing up in terms of resources, in terms of that mental health kind of support and champions?

 

[00:37:41.520]

I think it's something we're going to have to do as a country.

 

[00:37:44.490]

Yeah. Well, that's been really insightful in terms of getting some insights into you as a leader of the council and as an individual and your kind of approach. I'd like to kind of bring it closer to our audience now in terms of the LATCo, the LATCo model and, of course, the LATCo network. And what we do know is that Harlow has a very successful LATCo in HTS Group. Could you just kind of begin by sharing the council journey in going down the LATCo route and your thoughts on how successful this model has proved for Harlow, including the benefits?

 

[00:38:34.630]

Well, I can't claim credit for this. The embarkation point of this journey came before I was a councillor and HTS was coming into existence when I was first elected in 2016. But looking back, it wasn't an easy journey. The decision to take back services that had been privatized, been put out to private companies to do or tender was bitterly opposed. It was argued with at every opportunity. It was even sent to our calling committee when the opposition failed a decision, although it's been democratically made because even more scrutiny. I'm pleased to say that actually they, the opposition, are now big supporters of HTS. They've seen the success. So, it wasn't an easy journey. I think that one of the things that we got right and one of the reasons that HTS is such a success is that we started with something that had real clarity. HTS Group, sitting underneath is the first company that we set up, which is HTS P&E (Property and Environment), and they're responsible for our property maintenance and Harlow has some 8000 council properties and environmental works. Now, that as a package was delivered by a private company, Kier. So, it was relatively straightforward in terms of what we expected the company to do, from the outset. The Kier contract could be replicated fairly straightforwardly with our own company. The costs of delivering that contract were already approximately none. What we had to do was then to look at how. We wanted our own company to improve on the existing contract over a period of years until we have a better value for money over a period of years. But that clarity of what the job was and how it would be measured and what it would cost. Made what was a difficult

 

[00:41:20.670]

process, as smooth as it possibly could be

 

[00:41:25.360]

Right

 

[00:41:26.760]

And, you know, if there are other local authorities who are thinking about, should we go down the route, I would recommend that they looked at clearly defined areas of council delivery as a starting point. I think, you know, going forward, we can be more ambitious, and we look at things that the council traditionally hasn't done. But that's even more complicated and getting the company up and running and proving to be successful, was important.

 

[00:42:03.680]

That embarkation point that you refer to and the journey from what was already an outsourced service to a private contractor being transitioned into a local authority trading company and being relatively straightforward in terms of being clear about what the LATCo was going to do, which was going to be what the private company was doing before. I think, listening to you, it seems to me that it is quite important, it's quite critical. Especially when I think about conversations with local authorities that are setting up a local authority trading company and their embarkation point is very different, where they are looking to effectively move a service that's already internal within the council into this local authority trading company. And almost immediately, overnight, expects it to develop this commerciality, you know, it's in the name, local authority trading company, but actually struggling to develop that commerciality and almost beginning to think that the model doesn't work. What are your kind of thoughts or messages to those local authorities are on that journey where they're looking to take a service out from within the council and put it into a local authority trading company?

 

[00:43:33.940]

Well, again, I think you've got to expect opposition and you've got to be absolutely clear what you want this company to achieve. And you've got to be clear in your mind why using a local authority trading company rather than the private sector rather than a straight in-house council provision, why there is an advantage? What advantage does it offer the residents of your authority? If you're clear on that, then you can communicate that message and overcome the opposition. And it also helps you to find the right people to staff that new organization so that it could be successful. It's a journey that's not without inherent dangers and pitfalls. And if you're taking from the private sector back into an arm's length company of the council then you are assuming some responsibility that you could have essentially passed on to the private sector provider. If you're moving a company from the local authority, direct control, into an arm’s length private company. And it doesn't work. It was your decision. And there are there's political capital that you will lose as a result. So be very careful. Be very certain. Make sure that it will succeed.

 

[00:45:08.150]

We've talked about the embarkation, I'd like now just to talk about the benefits a little bit and if we stay with the Harlow example, I think in my mind, one of the biggest benefits, bringing an outsourced contract back into an arm's length, is in essence, all of that profit, if you like, in the private company that was effectively going out of Harlow can now effectively stay within Harlow and in essence, keeping the Harlow pound in Harlow. Can you talk about benefits? I mean, that's one, you know, what are your thoughts around some of the kind of benefits that come with a local authority trading company?

 

[00:45:52.290]

Well, the financial one is a very, very big one. A million and a half pounds, which is a huge sum for a small authority like us. A huge sum. A million and a half pounds that would have gone out of Harlow to the shareholders of the private company has stayed in Harlow and has been paid in dividends and payments for services to Harlow Council, and we've been able to maintain services and keep council tax rises down to a minimum, despite losing 60 percent or so of government support and largely that's down to that million and a half that we've had from HTS. So, you know, that's the obvious benefit. It's a huge one. The other benefits are a flexibility that the private company didn't offer. So if there was something additional or a change it needed to be made, rather than having to refer to the contract, the fact that the HTS management and staff see themselves as an arm of the council, a remote arm but an arm of the council, means that they're much more amenable to talk about variations within the contract without being too dogmatic about the contract stipulates. So that's been a huge benefit. And going forward. Oh, let's talk about service delivery as well. Again, and again and again, our feedback from residents is that service delivery has improved hugely since HTS took over our property environment services. And we have a whole suite of key performance indicators, which last year for the first time ever in the history of the council, to my knowledge, we met every single one over a sustained period and where we have missed out on occasion key performance indicators, HTS are very, very quick to come back to us with why it was missed and

 

[00:48:17.200]

how they intend to hit that target the next time. And that's put us in a position where we've been able to review the services HTS provide and look at well, what comes next.

 

[00:48:32.210]

I think just the fact that you've financial benefits aside, managed to achieve unprecedented performance levels in terms of hitting all the kind of KPI's speaks volumes in terms of some of the benefits and the value that the LATCo has bought. I'd like to ask you a macro question. And, you know, having my own career started within local government and having seen going back to the early 90s, you know, compulsory competitive tendering, which effectively was the start, the beginning of the journey of outsourcing public sector contracts into the private sector. Do you think we've now gone in almost a complete circle in terms of, you know, the LATCo model now being the one that local authorities are pursuing if they're not looking to retain services in-house? What are your thoughts on commercial outsourcing generally, do you think as a leader, it still has a future within the public sector?

 

[00:49:40.890]

Oh, I think so. I think there is a mixed model approach which works best. One of of the tragedies, I suppose, of a compulsory tendering and the outsourcing of council services was a deskilling of the council workforce. So many councils no longer have the personnel available, which would allow them to bring the services back. Though inevitably, I think there will be some services that remain privatised. We recently renewed our waste collection contract and we went with a private contractor. We considered bringing it either back in house or creating a company to sit under the HTS umbrella to do it, but we didn't have the capacity as a council to make it work. And that's the important message. Don't overreach. Make it successful. And so, we use, as Harlow, private sector provision, where we have to. We have our LATCo, which is successful and growing., and we have plans to make that grow further. And we have our in-house provision, all of which have a part to play.

 

[00:51:12.330]

Great. So I think a key message there is that there is still a place for a mixed economy in terms of understanding the drivers around what it is that you need to deliver and how best placed to deliver it, whether it's capacity or not necessarily having the skills in-house to deliver that or recognizing that those skills sit better elsewhere in terms of delivering those services. So, you know, we've heard how successful your LATCo at Harlow. As the leader of Harlow Council, what is your future ambition for the LATCo model going beyond P&E (Property and Environmental) that you've got there, and how do you think that could support Harlow's strategic priorities?

 

[00:52:11.830]

One of our strategic priorities, which is the first on our list, is more and better housing. Now the better housing, the property and environment company have been able to help us deliver. The more housing, we've a way to go on that. So, we're setting up a subsidiary company under the HTS group to sit alongside P&E, which we're going to call HTS Housing and Regeneration. And we're going to look to them to use their private sector flexibility, to move quickly, to build and to buy property, which we will rent out on a mixed 10-year basis. Some at full market rent in order to pay for as much as possible, the true council affordable rents, not the affordable rents that are 80 percent of the market which are unaffordable for so many but truly affordable council rents at council rent levels to increase the supply and meet our housing needs, which currently stands at four thousand.

 

[00:53:37.160]

So that's a lot of families.

 

[00:53:39.870]

It's a lot of families in desperate need.

 

[00:53:42.180]

Yeah. And it sounds certainly a good way forward in terms of creating this mixed tenure model, this blended model to deliver housing and I think the ambition to deliver homes at a council rent, a social rent, is one a lot of local authorities up and down the country, harbour a desire to achieve that, you know, in many respects kind of challenge. Will this model be financially self-sustaining and viable in terms of delivering those homes that you're looking for Harlow?

 

[00:54:22.120]

Well, without a massive injection of government funds, which I think is a strong case for that, you know, the lesson of the years after the Second World War is that a country that was near bankruptcy invested massively in the provision of housing. And I think we are at that point again now. But until that happens. The model of providing social housing from our LATCo will have to be self-supporting. But it does offer other benefits as well. If they provide a proportion of housing at full market rent in order to subsidize as much possible housing at true social rents, even those properties that we're providing at full market rent will be provided by a landlord that's doing all the right things by the tenants, that they will be properly maintained, the boilers will be properly serviced. It will be, HTS will aspire to be the exemplar landlord in Harlow.

 

[00:55:47.030]

Raises the standards doesn't it really.

 

[00:55:49.320]

It raises the standards across the board. And part of their agreement where, for example, they might be buying properties is that they buy properties that are in need of renovation so they can cross fertilize eventually with our property and environment company, perhaps, to have them renovated. But also improving the general feeling of a neighbourhood and taking that property, which is derelict and an eyesore or unkempt and an eyesore and improving the lives of the existing residents as well.

 

[00:56:21.630]

Makes it makes a lot of sense to me, Mark. And very exciting news, I'm sure, for Harlow residents to hear that you have these plans in place to move forward and deliver new homes for the Harlow area. Well, I have to say, as much as I've really enjoyed this conversation, speaking with you and I'd quite happily carry on speaking with you, Father time has kind of caught up with us. I do want to ask you one more question before we kind of wrap things up. And that is just around, you know, some key lessons, one or two key lessons that you may want to share with other local authorities. And to be fair to you. You have been doing that as you've been going along. But I'm still going to ask the question in terms of are there one or two or even three, if you like, some kind of key messages that you'd like to share with our audience in respect of, you know, wherever they are on the journey with either looking to set up a LATCo or they may have just set up a LATCo, but still very much in the early days or have actually progressed quite a way, like yourselves with HTS and looking to kick on with delivering wider council strategic priorities. Do you have some kind of key lessons to share?

 

[00:57:43.430]

Well, I would say. Whether you're moving services from a private sector provider into a LATCo or from a local authority controlling to LATCo, whichever way you're moving. Being absolutely clear what the company's going to provide; being absolutely clear how much it's going to cost and being absolutely clear how you will measure performance is key to dealing with the inevitable opposition that you will have on the journey to setting it up and the need to justify that decision going forward into the future.

 

[00:58:28.920]

That's very sage advice. Mark, thank you so much for joining me on this podcast. As I say, I've really enjoyed the conversation, how have you found the podcast from your perspective?

 

[00:58:44.630]

It's always a pleasure Farooq.

 

[00:58:47.840]

Hopefully it's not been too taxing for you. Well, thank you.

 

[00:58:52.230]

Forty-five minutes has turned into an hour and fifteen, so there you go.

 

[00:58:55.340]

Oh, has it really? Well, we're gonna have to edit this down a little bit for our for our audience and our listeners. But thank you again for giving up your valuable time.

 

[00:59:04.380]

Please keep all the good bits.

 

[00:59:06.520]

I certainly will. Well, that was Mark Ingall, leader of Harlow District Council, sharing his thoughts and his insights as a leader, as an individual, but also as a leader of a local authority and sharing some valuable insights around leading a large organization and what some of the challenges and what some of the lessons have been on that journey in doing that. My name's been Farooq Mohammed, I'm commercial partner to the LATCo network. We will be coming up with a new podcast in two weeks’ time. So, thank you very much for tuning in and listening. And I look forward to sharing another podcast with you in due course.

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