Many people have memories of Southend – the blinking arcades, the sea spray whipping up on the shingle beaches and long walks down the pier. To that end, most people think they know Southend.
But the council’s new chief executive, Alison Griffin, makes clear there is much more to it than that. People tend to have ‘fossilised memories’ of the coastal Essex town, she says, but Southend is very different today to how it was a few decades ago.
Alison admits she herself didn’t know Southend well before she arrived at the council some three months ago, but she is using that to her advantage. ‘I didn’t want to come in with a plan other than to learn, to discover, to listen to people and to understand and appreciate that I don’t know everything and I am not going to.’
A first time chief executive, Alison wasted little time climbing the ladder. She was most recently Bexley LBC’s director of finance and corporate services. But, in an attempt to ‘build credibility’ as a leader, she ricocheted between a range of roles in Camden and Bexley, from support and community safety roles, to economic development and policy positions.
Chief executives’ first days in office tend to rush by in a blur; go off without a hitch; or become lodged in the memory because, for instance, an unexploded bomb washes up on the shore. The latter was Ms Griffin’s experience, anyway. It later transpired this happens on a regular basis in Southend, and the public services rushed into action and ‘blew it up’ without issue.
‘What is great about things like this is how it just runs like clockwork. We cannot be complacent about that,’ she says.
But while local public services are able to avert a bomb crisis easily, Southend has its challenges, too. ‘We are blessed but also challenged by the fact we have wealth and poverty in close proximity. How do we challenge those health and income inequality gaps? Getting jobs here is critical, but also the access to the skills [residents need] to be able to participate in the future economy, not just the one we have today.’
As such, a comprehensive approach to growth is one of Alison’s priorities. ‘The growth question is not just about numbers. It has got to be about skills, the cultural offer and creating places where people want to work, have friends and families and live life.’
But growth is also about putting the council on a sustainable footing – something Alison believes is entirely possible. ‘There are two schools of thought on that: the optimists and those who say “that’s it, we’ve had it”. If you hadn’t guessed, I’m not in that second camp. There are opportunities. We can be the masters and mistresses of our own destiny.’
She says local government should spend ‘a lot more time thinking about the money we do have than the money we do not have’.
Like everywhere, Southend’s budget is reducing, with RSG ‘hardly worth getting out of bed for’ by 2020/21. But Alison points to the fact the council has a £200m revenue budget a year – nearer £300m if you include capital spend. ‘What impact are we making with that?’ asks Alison. ‘We need to be more focused and encourage officers, partners, members about what we want to achieve with that.
‘Local government has always said it was under the cosh about money. They have never had enough resource so I think it’s a mindset.’
Alison says that, historically, councils have always been active in the commercial property market. ‘Let’s not forget our roots in some of that commercial space. If [the Government] is going to reduce and take away, we are human beings; we are going to find ways of filling that.’
‘If we are smart about it, our [commercial ventures] will also link to our growth strategy so you ensure your residents have a stake in how growth develops.’
Being a convenor of partnerships in Southend is one of the council’s primary roles. Alison takes this seriously, and believes it is not the role of local government to solve everything. ‘We need to recognise when we need to step back. Others are sometimes better placed to intervene – or not intervene but enable people to be resilient and find their own solutions. Councils can no longer provide everthing and I think actually we shouldn’t.’
But one of the issues that Alison believes requires a stronger focus is the ‘pressure homelessness is having on local authorities’ finances’, particularly in unitaries and urban areas. In Southend people living on the street is becoming an increasing isssue. ‘We are not alone in this,’ Alison says. ‘It is becoming a concerted pressure rather than one that is manageable.’
Services for homeless people are particularly good in Southend, but the flipside to that is the borough becomes more attractive to people in need. ‘That is fine while they are in services, but when they fall out of services they are effectively straight into begging on the high street. There is the impact on them, residents and local businesses. It’s about balancing that.
The other concern for Alison is children’s services. Southend’s early help services are ‘really beginning to show some good work,’ she says. But with all the attention on adults social care, she argues there is not enough attention on children’s services – a problem she describes as ‘more significant than adult’s’.
‘Demand is still increasing overall. We are trying to understand what is driving that.’ She says the level of complexity of some cases the council is dealing is escalating. ‘The full range of challenges and emotional difficulties [children are presenting with] is what is making it feel out of control,’ she says. ‘There is something about how we tackle that more collectively. Look at the budget; how much is going on the hardest cases?’
While Alison didn’t come to Southend knowing everything, she appears to be very quickly learning a lot.