Fringe Box



Insight: Guildford Needs You to Succeed

Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
Updated on: 9 May, 2024

Bernard Quoroll

An open letter from former local authority CEO Bernard Quoroll to the new joint CEO for Guildford and Waverley, Pedro Wrobel.

Dear Pedro Wrobel,

Welcome to Guildford (and Waverley). I was pleased to see in your interviews with The Dragon that you have high ambitions for Guildford (and no doubt Waverley) in your first job as a Chief Executive.

See: Meet the New Joint CEO: ‘I’m Here To Make Guildford and Waverley Brilliant Places’

You already know that local government is quite different from the Civil Service, or even Westminster, where you worked before.

The editor has offered me an opportunity to write this open letter. I write with some caution because you are your own man and will make your own judgements. But having lived in Guildford for nearly 30 years, done your job three times (in a district council, a London Borough, and a unitary county), and acted in retirement as one of GBC’s Independent Persons, I hope to offer you some useful thoughts.

GBC’s new CEO, Pedro Wrobel

Guildford needs you to succeed.

My generation of lawyer-trained chief executives is nearly extinct. New managers bring new talents but perhaps with less opportunity to reflect on learned experience.

Older generations often have too rosy a view of their time at work. There was never a golden age in public service, only a continuing struggle to match needs with resources and to help build flourishing communities in a growingly intolerant world – one in which local government faces bankruptcy and further centralisation.

Guildford is an attractive place for a first-time chief executive. It has a good balance of town and country, cultural assets, and superb countryside. It has an ambitious, science-based university, fine schools, a major hospital, a substantial tax base and many other assets on the shopping list of any chief executive.

It also has a well-educated and articulate population, not yet wholly soured by social media.

In short, Guildford is a place where it is still possible to be optimistic about the future. But it is also a place which in my view has failed to capitalise on its opportunities.

My ambition for Guilford as a resident, and as a passionate enthusiast for all things local, is therefore, to live in an area which has the best local authority in the land.

Guildford does not in my view yet meet that ambition. It has not developed sufficient self-knowledge to make real progress along the journey of improvement. It does deliver basic service respectably well, in comparison with many of its peers.

It has also demonstrated that it is able to rise to the challenge on things like Covid. But it seems to me to have been over-confident of its abilities and to lack basic humility. Being able to tick boxes is not the measure of a good local authority.

Picking the right values and living them in the daily conduct of business, everywhere and at every level is (always assuming basic competence in managing affairs).

Nowhere is this more apparent than in this council’s lack of transparency. As the editor of The Dragon succinctly put it, GBC talks the talk but does not always walk the walk.

I live in a community where the council does things to me rather than with me.

Your role as chief executive is unique. You must speak truth unto power, sometimes publicly – a challenging task in the light of Guildford’s history during almost all the time I have lived here. You must interpret political thinking to officers (at times short term, confrontational, economical with truth).

And in the reverse, managerial thinking to members (hopefully rational, rules-based, driven by need but at times lacking in public sensitivity).

Local government is a body contact sport – between tribal political parties, political and managerial ambition, and not least public and individual needs. Managing it requires self-awareness, sensitivity, and empathy but most of all, courage, and a willingness to speak out.

One test of your leadership will be when officers are heard to say, “What would Pedro do in these circumstances?” Another would be, “My party did not want to hear what you had to say, but we have to acknowledge that you said it for the right reasons.”

Finally, I need to mention Waverley, which poses additional challenges even for an experienced chief executive. Firstly, I suspect that Guildford has benefited from an influx of new senior talent and fresh thinking as well as reducing its back-office costs. Hopefully, Waverley’s experience has been similar.

There are, however, already signs of political instability in the current arrangements.

Guildford and Waverley, just like any council, needs to keep and recruit good staff. That was challenging, even before the latest arrangements.

This matters because success depends not only on political cohesion and leadership but also on staff thinking they have a future under current arrangements.

The need for those arrangements has of course been driven by a need to reduce back-office costs in the current grim financial climate. Partnership arrangements for service delivery are not new but they
differ now in being extended to top teams in the unrelenting quest to save money.

But one chief executive and management team can easily become spread too thinly across two
organisations, particularly at times of crisis. It goes much deeper. Different organisations have different priorities and cultures.

Being a chief executive is more than managing service delivery across two organisations. It means being at the heart of one organisation and being identifiable with it.

The current arrangement is in my view not sustainable in the long term, even if unavoidable in current financial circumstances.

But there is another rub. Guildford and Waverley individually are not viable unitary authorities. (My
yardstick is a population of around 300,000).

Unitary government has advantages over two-tier local government, as I know from experience. It permits economies of scale, although not as many as you might think; it stitches together related services; it removes duplication and sometimes competition between tiers of politicians and managers.

Most of all, it provides an opportunity to create coherent, cost-effective value driven leadership, based on recognisable communities.

Growth in size is nearly always accompanied by a reduction in sensitivity to local needs and aspirations. This is harder to measure but for me, it is the most important issue.

Councils are, or should be, much more than vehicles for service delivery. They should form the
beating heart of a community. I cannot imagine that a unitary county the size of Surrey would or could come close to fulfilling that need, unless your attitude is that you just want the bloody bins collected.

The local debate about a unitary county has slackened for the moment but has not gone away. Having been caught up twice in wasteful major restructuring exercises, I can say several things. Firstly, they are driven by political ambition and expedience more than quantitative and qualitative information.

Second, and with respect to you as a former civil servant, central government is profoundly ignorant about what matters locally.

Third, public opinion counts for very little. Opinion surveys have been found to be too inconvenient, too expensive, and not to deliver the ‘right answers’ politically. Recent reorganisations have been
achieved less directly against a background of devolution agreements and one-off announcements, effectively bribing councils to cooperate by offering back some of the resources taken away since austerity began. It is profoundly undemocratic.

Against that background, I do not envy you your task in helping both councils navigate the future.

In Part 2, I will return to what I believe are some of Guildford’s managerial challenges. Meanwhile, I wish you every success in your new role and offer only one piece of immediate advice, not to ‘under promise and over perform’ which is managerially suspect nowadays. Rather, be aware that Guildford with Waverley will be a hard nut to crack, for reasons I will explore further.

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