Interview: Hull council chief executive Darryl Stephenson on cuts, services and the city's future
The Mail's Angus Young talks to Hull City Council's interim chief executive Darryl Stephenson about his return to the Guildhall after two decades following the sudden exit of his predecessor Nicola Yates earlier this year.
Q How is Hull City Council facing up the continued squeeze on its budgets?
A Nobody works in local government to preside over a decline in services or the decline of a city but the fact remains that if you have a large amount of money taken out of your budget, you have got to re-engineer your services.
In Hull's case, we are talking about a figure of about £100m over a four-year period.
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Hull is no different to any other council, it's happening across local government.
It's not Hull's issue but it's an issue Hull has to deal with. That's why we are reviewing what the council has to do at the moment, how our budgets can support that and what we might like to be doing if there were no financial restraints.
Separating the two is key to the way forward.
Q What are the priorities facing Hull at the moment?
A When I came here I looked at the main issues facing the council and the city.
It's an obvious one – jobs.
When Siemens comes it will be great for jobs, perhaps up to 3,000 if you factor in the supply chain companies.
But when you analyse the statistics, to get the national employment average the city needs 20,000 new jobs.
Just to reach the tipping point where the number of new jobs starts to make a real impact on the economy we need about 7,500 new jobs.
If we get these jobs there is more money coming into the economy, more money being spent in the shops and health standards improve.
In that scenario, it makes no sense for the city council to be embarking on a large-scale redundancy programme at a time when we are trying to attract new jobs to the city.
That is why what we are doing now in reviewing terms and conditions is looking at ways of achieving substantial savings without the need for making big job cuts.
Q How do you rate the council and the services it provides?
A The city council's services are good. The services we deliver compare well with any other local authority in the area and, in some cases, are much better than some.
Q What are your thoughts on the council's voluntary redundancy programme last year?
A It's not an exercise I would seek to repeat in the same way.
We need a far more structured approach to make sure the people who are leaving are in areas where the services are not a priority, rather than having a blanket approach where you just have volunteers going from anywhere.
There seemed to be a degree of undue haste about what happened last year
Q What was your first priority after returning to the Guildhall after 20 years?
A My first job was to settle the organisation down and provide some stability. I was also brought in to look at the previous senior management structure proposals.
I was concerned that it took out too much senior management capacity from the council. It meant there would be no one to drive the changes that needed to be made.
It also downgraded economic development, which made no sense when one of the council's priorities is jobs.
It also downgraded health which again made no sense in a city with such huge health inequalities.
In re-jigging the structure, both economic development and health are two priority services.
My hope is that by developing a structure that pushes down responsibility for services throughout the organisation, it gives people more of a buy-in to being involved in the governance of the city.
Q Do you see the post of chief executive being scrapped in the future?
A What I did in the new structure was put the post of chief executive in a department of one.
That will give elected members the choice of whether they want a full-time chief executive or not in the future.
My personal view is that council chief executives will disappear over the next ten years because of the strong council leader model.
It's already happening in some local authorities.
If you want something doing, you do not go to the chief executive, you go to the council leader.
In my view, that's quite right because they are democratically elected representatives of the public.
It's been the policy of successive governments to promote the idea of a strong leader, whether it's a city mayor or a council leader.
Is the current Labour administration ready to ditch the post of chief executive?
It's not my decision, it's up to them. My job is to highlight the fact they have a choice and they need to make their minds up.
If they do go for a new chief executive they need to make sure they attract someone with the right credentials but you cannot get away from the fact that the number of available chief executives is shrinking and that Hull has, for a variety of reasons, a certain reputation because of the number of chief executives it has had in recent years.
In that context, the council will need to convince someone they are serious about the post by, for example, offering a competitive salary.
My gut feeling is they will either appoint someone on a three-year fixed term or they will perhaps opt for a cabinet-led management model.
Q How can Hull's economy be revived?
A We do need some kind of positive statements on the ground to move the city forward.
The KC Stadium was a good example of that and I think the next big regeneration investment should be in the Fruit Market area.
There is a new development brief for the area.
People need to see something concrete going on if they are thinking of investing in the city.
Q Will Siemens sign on the dotted line and come to Hull?
A When I arrived here I wanted to assure myself the city council had done absolutely everything it could have done to ensure Siemens comes here and that all the supply chain company jobs that will go with it come here, too.
I can tell you the city council has done that and it's a view Siemens also shares. The issues now are national ones about energy policy and the Government needs to sort it out quickly.
It seems ministers are more preoccupied about changing planning rules for house extensions than the needs of the energy industry.
They need to focus more on the potential of creating thousands of jobs in areas like Hull where they are desperately needed.
If there is anything more the city council can do, it will, because losing Siemens would not be good for the future of the city.
Q What are your plans after you leave the city council?
A Taking the dog out for a lot more walks.