Kirklees MBC’s chief executive Jacqui Gedman views herself as a ‘poster child’ for the council.
She lives in Kirklees and had three children there. She first joined the council as a senior highways engineer in the early 2000s and worked her way up to chief executive, having just celebrated three years in the role.
Speaking to The MJ earlier this month – before the scale and speed of the coronavirus threat escalated – she emphasised that she stayed here despite many opportunities to leave. ‘I just love the place and care passionately about local people. People come to Kirklees and don’t leave – like me.’
Returning to her for a view on how the council will rise to the challenge of tackling the worst public health emergency since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, she says that responding to the spread of coronavirus is ‘an unprecedented situation for us all’.
She continues: ‘In times like these, the role of local government is even more important than ever and we are up to the challenge in Kirklees. This is much bigger than the council though – it’s a real community effort. The dedication, empathy and selflessness already shown, not just by our staff but from everyone across our communities, has been inspiring. We are doing what we do best – pulling together and helping those that need us most.’
Ms Gedman describes local government as ‘the fourth emergency service and we have a duty to care for our most vulnerable residents’. She adds: ‘We’re working closely alongside volunteers in our communities to make sure no one is alone and that we keep vital services running through this challenging period.’
Ms Gedman clearly sees herself as a Kirklees resident – but it’s quite unusual for most residents to identify as being from Kirklees. The enormous council area, which stretches from the south of Leeds to the north of Greater Manchester, is the third biggest metropolitan borough in the country.
But the very diverse people of Kirklees, which could have just as easily been called Upper Agbrigg, Brigantia or Wooldale, tend to identify with the town they are from – the likes of Huddersfield, Batley and Dewsbury.
On the lack of a Kirklees identity, Ms Gedman says: ‘We’ve had to work that through. The one-size-fits-all approach that we started off with became more of a problem than a solution.’
Ms Gedman was director of place when the council’s children’s services went into intervention in 2016 and she admits to being shocked by the scale of the inadequacy.
The children’s services inspection was viewed by the council as a judgement on everything it did and, crucially, the whole authority got behind the improvement journey.
‘That was our big, pivotal moment where we thought we have to do something different,’ says Ms Gedman, who has particular praise for ‘brilliant’ children’s commissioner Eleanor Brazil. Ms Gedman says Ms Brazil found an organisation ‘open to learning’ and not defensive.
Austerity had brought a lot of fear, had made the council risk-averse and the community had become disconnected from the council. Ms Gedman continues: ‘When we went to austerity we didn’t really focus on investment in the way we should have done. Austerity had definitely left an impact and we began to be more ambitious than we could cope with.’
This led a Local Government Association peer challenge team last year to recommend that the council should invest more into its corporate centre ‘if it is to deliver on its ambition and priorities’. Kirklees has responded, with more jobs in its corporate centre, including in communications, performance and data.
Crucially, today’s council is a bit more confident. Rather than closing libraries, half the workforce is now made up of volunteers. The council is also now strategically acquiring key sites, such as a shopping centre as part of a 10-year, £250m vision to turn Huddersfield into a thriving, modern-day town centre – a risk it would not have taken a few years ago.
When Ms Gedman took over in February 2017, the budget featured £54m of savings and reserves had been raided. Since then, there has been a focus on shoring up the council’s finances and the council has put children ‘at the heart of everything we do’. The council is still fairly near the start of its improvement path, but the work it is doing is starting to bear fruit.
Her concluding message is she doesn’t think we sell local government enough. ‘The breadth of opportunity that’s there, you would never get that anywhere else. I just think we need to sell it better.’
And there’s no reason why Ms Gedman can’t be the poster child for that too.