In her first interview since becoming Brighton and Hove City Council’s new chief executive, Penny Thompson speaks to TIM RIDGWAY about her hopes and ambitions for the city
Looking out on to Hove Lawns with crashing waves and a setting sun in the distance, it is clear why people are attracted to Brighton and Hove.
But as the latest Londoner to move south, Penny Thompson has slightly more pressure than most.
In arguably the most important position in the city, the former social worker is the head of an organisation with more than 8,000 employees and a budget of about £750 million.
What’s more, she has to be mediator in perhaps the country’s only genuine three-party council.
Yet, Ms Thompson, who will earn £150,000 a year, is under no illusions at the task ahead of her.
Speaking from her office at the council’s Kings House headquarters, she said: “I’m here because of the place. It’s such a fantastic place which I have known all my life as anyone living in London would do.
“I guess I was appointed as they were looking for somebody who had experience and was interested in leading a high-performing authority.
“I think the political diversity and the diversity of the city are really interesting and I want to work with both.”
Ms Thompson joins the authority at a key time.
Budgets are shrinking, the population is getting older and state benefits being reduced – all of which means more and more people are turning to the council for help.
Yet, the local authority must shed staff so it can balance the books.
But Ms Thompson is firm that despite the obvious challenges, the city council will not become stale or stagnant.
She said: “It’s a fabulous, vibrant city with a tremendous amount going for it.
“What has really struck me from within the council is the amount of commitment and talent there is here.
“It is quite phenomenal. To see that shows how much they love Brighton and Hove and how much they want to improve it.”
Including temporary replacements, there have been five chief executives in the past four years.
Speaking to those around the city, it is clear that stability was on the wish list when candidates were interviewed in October.
As one of only two on the shortlist to have credentials of leading a local authority, it is clear she is familiar with having to deal with politicians and the baggage that manifesto commitments bring.
This is heightened by the fierce nature of politicking in Brighton and Hove where, at times, even Sir Humphrey would have his work cut out.
With the country’s first Green council still getting used to the privileges of power, and Conservative and Labour opposition councillors eagerly snapping at their heels whenever they can, it’s a tough task.
Ms Thompson said: “When I came here for the interview I said I would only take it if all the political leaders and their groups wanted me. I’m pleased that was the case.
“I have their confidence of each of them and their groups and I hope that means we can work together as well as is possible.
She added: “Part of the role of a chief executive is to help mediate, negotiate and support all of the leaders of the groups as far as I can.
“In order to be a well-run council, I’m conscious that decisions have to be taken.
“I’m also aware that while I am head of paid services for the whole of the city council, councillors are representatives of all the views in the city, not just those that voted for them.”
The first immediate challenge will be the budget in February.
Last year’s meeting saw the opposition parties unite and overturn the minority Green administration’s plans of a 3.5% council tax rise.
However, 99% of the Greens’ budget was left untouched.
The result left no-one really happy.
This year the local authority must find about £25 million before knowing how much money it will receive from Whitehall in funding for 2013/14.
When asked directly about what this year’s crunch talks will hold, Ms Thompson said: “We will have to see what happens in February.”
It is clear there will be many behind-closed-door talks with the politicians before decisions are made in public.
When pushed, she admits: “I’m not really a banging heads together person.”
Since starting the job unofficially six weeks ago, Ms Thompson has been touring the city speaking to key figures and groups.
She praised those who have been temporarily overseeing the running of the council in recent months.
Ms Thompson admitted there will be some changes to the senior management of the council, which will include the appointment of an assistant chief executive.
No extra costs
However, unlike her predecessor John Barradell, who signed off on the creation of four £125,000-a-year strategic directors, this will not lead to additional costs to the taxpayer.
Three of the quartet have since left.
Ms Thompson said: “I’m wanting to take [the temporary structure] forward and build on the progress in the next few months.
“I really do not want to be overly focused on structure. I really want to be looking at purpose, ambition, priorities and values.”
For those both inside and outside the council this will be a refreshing change.
Mr Barradell’s tenure as chief executive before he left to join the City of London Corporation was dominated by two words – “intelligent commissioning”.
While looking good on paper and in PowerPoint presentations, no one was really clear on what it actually meant.
Ms Thompson said: “My ambition is to be a really high-performing authority.
“Whether that means drawing on the best practice anywhere then I will.
“One of the things that has also really struck me is that the relationships with other organisations, whether it’s public sector, businesses or the community and voluntary sector, are really strong.
“That’s a major strength that I really want to focus on.
“With the economic challenges and we look forward, we really have to make best of our resources.
“One of the ways we can do that is by working well with others.”
Ms Thompson added: “At the moment, we’re doing pretty well on investment.
“We’re among the top cities in the country when it comes to people investing so there’s something to build on.
“While I can take no credit for it, the broadband bid is proof that we’re attractive.
“We want to be as successful as we possibly can be. The council is not going to do that but by working with the Local Economic Partnership, public services and others in the city we can certainly help create the conditions.”
There is no timeframe to improve, just a pledge to look again at things every year.
A realistic and pragmatic ambition? Perhaps.
But if she delivers on making Brighton and Hove a better place to live, work and play, it will be clear Ms Thompson will be worth every penny of her six-figure salary.
WHAT OTHER’S SAY
Council leader Jason Kitcat: “I’m extremely excited by Penny’s appointment and I’m delighted there was unanimous cross-party agreement.
“She will be a welcome addition to the senior management team at the council.”
Conservative group leader Geoffrey Theobald: “With the changes in chief executive we’ve had, I’m sure the staff will appreciate someone who is prepared to listen and be clear on the direction of the council.”
Labour group leader Gill Mitchell: “I think she has got off to a good start and she has been covering a lot of ground meeting not just people within the council but also groups and individuals outside it. She has the enviable ability to connect with people on a number of levels.”
Tony Mernagh, chief executive of Brighton and Hove Business Forum, said: “I have had the opportunity to meet Penny and I got the opinion that she was quite genuinely listening and open to opinions and suggestions.
“That really was encouraging. This is the sixth chief executive I have worked with and I can’t say that about all of them.”
- March 2010 to October 2012: General Social Care Council, chief executive – Led a staff of 200 and budget of £50 million until the body, which oversees the professional regulation of social workers, closed in September.
- 2008 to 2009: NHS Haringey, deputy chief executive – Led on the Board on Safeguarding a year after the death of “Baby P”
- January 2005 to May 2007:London Borough of Hackney, chief executive
- 1998 to December 2004: Sheffield City Council, executive director of social services
- Awarded CBE for services to Social Care in Queen’s Birthday Honours on June 16, 2012
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