Talk with the Chief: Geoff Rivers, St Edmundsbury BC

This is the first e-news column featuring talks with Chief Executives from HTF Local Authority Members. The aim is to discover how they are coping in a difficult economic climate and how they are preparing for the Localism Bill, without losing sight of the value of the historic environment.

Geoff Rivers joined St Edmundsbury in 2008 after serving South Norfolk District Council as Chief Executive for 9 years. He brought with him to St Edmundsbury a strong track record of improving council services.

His view is that to serve the community well a good understanding of the area is needed at all levels of the Council.  Clear communication with the residents is equally important.

In anticipation of the Localism Bill, St Edmundsbury has created a relatively new post: the Head of Neighbourhood Development will engage with the community and third sectors. In addition to this, three area committees have been set up, one for Bury, one for Haverhill and one for the rural area for which Geoff, and his two Corporate Directors, have taken on geographic responsibilities. These measures have made a good start to engaging the community and, as they develop, it is possible that more powers and responsibilities will be devolved to them.  “We will be testing the notion of subsidiarity [which service fits best at what level of local government] in St Edmundsbury Borough Council,” Geoff explained, “this principle of involving communities in the decision-making process is the right thing to do – those people who live, work and play in the community have to be involved.”  However, Geoff stressed that the ‘nanny to nudge’ approach is too simplistic, and policies for engagement should be even handed as the ‘community’ is not as diverse as we might think and can encompass lots of different communities.”

“Getting the offer right for all parts of the community is like completing the Rubik’s cube,” he said, “you have to attend to all the faces (not just the front facing one) to get it right and ensure excellent services for all.”

A useful example of partnership working can currently be found at ONE Haverhill where Borough, Town and County Councillors, residents, voluntary organisations, and representatives from the Police, health services and education look at the town’s development in regards to education, skills, social and economic development and many other current issues.

Geoff feels that now the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) are in place it is important for them to look at the historic environment as an essential asset to the local economy.  When Neville Reyner, Chair of Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough LEP, was invited to Bury recently, he was ‘bowled over by the town – and had not realised what a gem it is.’

Geoff pointed out, that from a marketing and PR point of view, heritage is a terrific resource and would advise other Local Authorities to make sure their own LEP boards are made aware that the historic environment is an essential part of the local economy.

What works particularly well in Bury is the fusion between the historic core and the recently developed Cattle Market.  Geoff puts the success of this down to “taking all opportunities when they arise, doing simple things well, providing good signage, putting on excellent Civic occasions, Regimental homecomings and other events to encourage public ownership of the public spaces.”

Bury St Edmunds is a wonderful place; to be surrounded by history and historic buildings makes the town. “Those towns that will endure,” he said, “are those that are full of surprises; wonderful old buildings that are accessible to the public with information at hand, good bus drop-off points and places to sit, good music, lively entertainment and community events and so on.”

These are not easy times and Geoff appreciates that having less money to work with is understandable but disappointing. However, this authority has not had to reduce staffing in planning or conservation, due to some innovative thinking around frontline services.  To deal with the added pressures they have joined forces with neighbouring Forest Heath and between them they are reviewing the Development Control and Conservation section with a view to more cohesive working. This pattern of sharing resources can be seen across Suffolk.  At St Edmundsbury they are exploring more web based and self service approaches, such as the planning portal which gives the client more individual control.

At West Suffolk House in Bury, both Borough and County Councils have their offices.  Planners, transportation staff and highway engineers are on one floor which has resulted in staff having a better understanding of the different authorities' roles, and aids both time and physical savings. Housing and Adult Social Care are another example of closer working between the two authorities.  This close working has proved a great success and Geoff would like to see it extended to include public health, safety and policing, heading back to the model of a large village, which is the ethos of Localism after all.

Helen Johnson
HTF Marketing & Communications
August 2011

Talk with the Chief articles:
Kersten England, City of York Council

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