Nigel Lynn took up the position of CEO of West Berkshire Council (WBC) in October 2021, replacing Nick Carter who had previously occupied the hot seat for 16 years. In January 2022 we caught up with Nigel between meetings to ask him about the role, his background, his hopes and plans and his desert-island choices. So, without further ado…
What jobs did you have before taking over at West Berkshire Council?
Most recently, I was CEO at Arun District Council (on the south coast) for ten years, and, before that, Deputy CEO at Spelthorne Borough Council (Staines upon Thames). I have also worked for a range of other councils as I worked my way up to CEO (Dagenham & Barking, Inner London Education Authority in Westminster, Tower Hamlets, Lea Valley Regional Park Authority, Maldon District Council and Bridgend Unitary Council).
How would you define the role of CEO of a district council?
The main aim is to continue to deliver high quality services to our residents. My role is to work closely with councillors to ensure that their vision for the council is being achieved. It is the excellent staff we have that deliver this vision. Working with about 1,500 staff is a bit like being a conductor of an orchestra. All the musicians are skilled in playing their own part, but the conductor helps to bring it all together to make the very best music.
One obvious difference between Arun and WBC is that Arun is a district council, with a county council above it, whereas WBC is a unitary authority. What do you think are the main advantages and drawbacks of each system?
Having worked in both systems, I have no doubt that a unitary approach is best. If the government were starting afresh with local government, I don’t think it would create a tier system that involves parishes, towns, districts, counties and unitary councils. Now that public health is linked with local government at county and unitary level, there is even more synergy between how we work with communities. Districts don’t always understand the county council issues (education and adult social care) and county ouncils don’t always understand district council issues (leisure, culture, environmental health and planning). A unitary approach combines it all – but with that comes the difficulty of balancing the budget for all residents.
That aside, are there any particular differences, or similarities, that you’ve so far noticed between how Arun and West Berkshire Councils operate?
WBC has spent a lot of time and money to improve its communications and engagement with people. Arun was very good at bringing in external funding to support its projects. Each could learn from the other.
After having had a Conservative majority since it was created in the 1970s, the 2019 elections in Arun resulted in no overall control. How did that affect your job as CEO?
Firstly, my role is politically neutral and I have worked under the leadership of the three main national parties at one time or another. Whatever political group is in control, it needs control to be able to deliver good outcomes for people. Without that control, it is difficult to achieve anything, which is what both councillors and officers want to do – achieve things. Regardless of political parties, councils need a range of experienced councillors to help them deliver the services for people, something WBC has in abundance.
Inevitably, there will be some pieces of unfinished business or work in progress which you’ll have inherited. What would you say the main ones are?
The peer review (an external assessment of WBC) in 2019 recommended more engagement with communities. WBC has done a lot, but there is still more to do, especially around hearing from people who live in areas of deprivation and “hard to reach” groups of people whom the council need to hear from.
For this reason, we’ve recently put aside funding to help us to involve these groups, which we have used to commission a BAMER advocacy service and to invest in our Consultation Team. I look forward to seeing our engagement with communities enhanced as a result.
Aside from seeing the end of Covid, what do you see as your main priorities over the next couple of years?
The pandemic has driven the digital agenda forward for everyone, with more and more being done online. Who would have thought two years ago that we could all work in such a flexible way? The broadcast of our public meetings has also been a success, with engagement in local democracy stronger than ever before. We need to continue to progress this, to enable those that want to do transactions with us electronically can do so, at any time of the day, whilst ensuring we can continue to help those who need help, face to face.
Also, all councils need a sound local plan to prevent speculative planning growth by developers in places where we don’t want it, and to ensure that the housing and infrastructure needs of local people can be met. Progressing this plan will be essential for the council and engaging with all our communities will be key to enabling this to happen.
Based on your first three months, what things do you think WBC does particularly well?
It has excellent front-line services and communicates well with residents. Its councillors and officers are dedicated, ambitious and want to continue to improve what they do, to become the very best.
And – you knew this one was coming – what things do you think it does less well and which you’d like to see improved?
The pandemic has shown that there is a huge voluntary community in our district, with literally thousands of people across West Berkshire offering their time to help others over the past two years. Although there are some really good examples of joint working with voluntary partnerships, such as Berkshire Youth, Greenham Trust and Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, there is much more we could be doing to involve the “third sector” more. I think that by strengthening our links, we might be able to offer even greater local services, by locally committed volunteers who really want to get involved in changing their areas for the better.
If there was one thing you could change about how local government was organised in England, what would it be?
That all areas had unitary councils and the government trusted councils more to make decisions for themselves locally. The pandemic has shown everybody how local government can be flexible and innovative in delivering services in extremely difficult conditions. Now let us do more. The virtual public meetings have worked well for the public, councillors and staff and it would be great if the law were changed to enable this to continue.
How well do you think local councils generally have coped with the unprecedented demands of the pandemic?
It has been an achievement that every council worker, in every authority, should be immensely proud of. Remember, that we all had another “day job” before the pandemic, yet council staff kept our services going at the same time as sorting out a myriad of Covid issues as well. West Berkshire was asked to step forward to help. It did, and helped so many people to cope during the pandemic.
Imagine, if you can, that I’m Lauren Laverne and that this is Desert Island Discs. What would be the one piece of music that you’d want to save from the waves?
Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon.
And the book?
Dan Brown’s compendium as I can always re-read his books. But, if I had to choose just one of his, then Angels and Demons.
And the luxury object?
An endless supply of liquorice.
I grant you all of these – just make sure you don’t get any of that sticky liquorice on the book or the record…
Interview with former West Berkshire Council CEO Nick Carter.
Interview with West Berkshire Council Leader Lynne Doherty.
Interview with Marlborough Town Clerk Richard Spencer-Williams.
Interview with former Chair of Aldermaston Parish Council Dave Shirt.