After 16 years in the hot seat, Nick Carter retired from the role of Chief Executive Officer of West Berkshire Council in August 2021. This seemed like a good chance to ask him to explain what the job involves, what he’s accomplished (and wished he had), what he would change about the world and, of course, the all-important questions of what piece of music, book and luxury object he’d want to have with him on a desert island.
When did you first become West Berkshire Council’s CEO?
What were the main jobs you’d done before then?
Corporate Director and Head of Corporate Policy at West Berkshire and, prior to that, Head of Policy, Economist, Research Manager and Taxonomist in various other local authorities. (A taxonomist identifies plants and does not stuff animals, which is what most people think when I mention it.) I also spent a short time in what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
A lot of wildlife verges and similar habitats have been created in West Berkshire and I understand more are planned. Do I detect the hand of a CEO with an interest in plants in this?
I have been very supportive but the hard graft has been done by our Countryside Team and that’s where the credit should go. If I were staying on I would be pushing hard on tree planting, wildlife corridors and getting more established long walking trails in place so that more people can appreciate the great countryside that West Berkshire has and hopefully do more to protect and enhance it.
How would you describe the role of the CEO of a unitary authority?
Probably not dissimilar to the role of a CEO elsewhere – helping shape policy and strategy with the elected members, providing leadership to the workforce and helping develop effective partnerships both locally and further afield. And, of course, dealing with anything else that ‘comes across the desk’. There’s quite a lot of that…
How would you describe WBC’s response to the pandemic?
I think we have responded well. Our emphasis has been on enabling communities to support themselves but, where we have had to respond ourselves or step in, I think we have been very effective. The feedback that I have received has certainly been positive.
If there was one thing you would have liked the government to have done differently regarding Covid, what would it have been?
Spend more time preventing those leaving hospital with Covid-19 being admitted into care homes.
The last few years have seen some major (to put it mildly) cuts to local-council funding. Do you think the funding current system is working?
I think it is widely accepted that it is not. Adult social care is perhaps the most obvious example of where it is not working but there are a number of flaws.
If you could make one change to this system, what would it be?
There is no easy solution to local government funding. In my view the most helpful thing the government could do is give local government a rolling three- or five-year financial settlement. We would then have something – for better or worse – to plan to.
Covid and finances aside, what has been the most challenging issue with which you’ve had to deal in your time at WBC?
A difficult one. I think responding to the 2007 floods. There were around 1,500 homes that were affected and a great deal of support and recovery was needed. Thatcham was particularly badly hit and I can vividly recall visiting a bungalow with the then MP Richard Benyon where an elderly lady had lost everything including all her photographs – it had all been washed away. London at the weekend and Europe a few weeks ago are salutary reminders that the challenge has not gone away but I am proud of the flood defence work that we have done since then.
What would you say has been your biggest single achievement in this role?
Getting through years of austerity and to a place where the authority is financially stable and performing well.
Is there anything about which you can say “I really wish that I had managed to get that sorted?
Delivering more affordable housing.
How many different administrations have you worked with?
As Chief Executive at West Berkshire I think it’s five – all Conservative. Over my career I have lost count but it has included Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative administrations.
Are there any difficulties in the handover from one administration to another?
At West Berkshire no. One of the defining features at West Berkshire is its excellent member/officer relationships so changes at the helm, whether officer or member, have in my experience been relatively seamless. For the Chief Executive, the key relationship that has to work is the one with the Council Leader.
WBC is a unitary authority: just to the north, the Vale of White Horse – very similar to WBC in area, population and demographics – is a district council with a county council above it. Do you think there’s an argument for these kind of variations to be rationalised?
Yes I do and I think it is widely accepted that we will eventually see unitary (single-council) government across England. Four new unitary councils were created last week. It is taking rather a long time to complete. When West Berkshire was created in 1998, alongside other new unitary authorities under the so called Banham Reorganisation, community interest – not size – was the overriding driver. Rutland Council, for instance, was created at the same time as West Berkshire Council. This has a population less than the town of Newbury but there was a very strong sense in Rutland that they should have their own Council. I don’t think any one factor should dominate but what emerges should be a council that local people feel can best serve and represent their interests. In my view, a single authority for Berkshire cannot do that.
Specifically, would you agree with the suggestion that WBC and the other Berkshire councils should be replaced by one county-wide unitary authority?
No. I don’t think size matters when it comes to unitary authorities. If you study the reasons why some local authorities have got into financial difficulty it is nothing to do with how big or small they were. Perhaps more importantly, and as I mentioned earlier, I don’t think a single Berkshire unitary can represent the interests of its wide range of very diverse communities.
Imagine for a moment that I’m Sue Lawley and that this is Desert Island Discs. What would be the one piece of music you wouldn’t want to be without?
These are the most difficult questions! I’m torn between two. Stevie Wonder and his album Songs in the Key of Life is the first. I am a major fan and the album was a classic during my teenage years. The alternative would be Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto. My father gave me a recording of it when I was in my early 20s and said “I think you might like this.” He was absolutely right. If pushed I’d go for the Rachmaninov. Are you going to push…?
No one’s looking so I’ll slip them both in. And the book?
I am not a great reader but my head would say Plants of the World. I would be able to spend time brushing up on my botanical knowledge. My heart, however, would go for Managing Millennials for Dummies, an amusing read that would bring back fond memories of the children (and some of the younger characters at the Council). I have a great deal still to learn…
As before, I’ll let you get away with both. And the luxury object?
You may rule out such an extravagance but a simple solar powered single-seat aircraft – not to escape but to help keep up the hours on my pilot’s licence.
Not a chance, I’m afraid. Sue Lawley would never permit that so I can’t either.
Fair enough…in that case, a shade tunnel to germinate and nurture my tropical plants.
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Interview with former Chair of Aldermaston Parish Council Dave Shirt.