This is the last article I will ever publish on this blog.

It’s a goodbye article…not because I’m fed up of blogging. Far from it.

It’s because – after six enjoyable and exciting years at Wrexham – I’m leaving to take up the role of chief executive at Walsall Council.

When I first started this blog four years ago, I was a bit nervous.

I wanted to write about some of the good things happening in Wrexham. And the challenges and opportunities faced by public sector leaders across the UK.

But putting my thoughts and ideas ‘out there’ was something I hadn’t done before, so it felt a bit strange.

But it’s been a really rewarding experience.

And when I look back at the various articles I’ve posted, it reminds me of the deep bond I’ve formed with this place.

A deep impression

When I came to Wrexham I was a stranger. I didn’t know anybody, and nobody knew me.

As I leave the council, and eventually we move as a family, I feel like I belong – like I’m part of the place – and it’s because of the people I’ve worked with.

Their commitment to Wrexham, and the way we’ve worked together despite the intense financial challenges, has made a deep impression on me.

I’m really excited about my new role in Walsall, but I’m also sad to leave Wrexham Council and ultimately Wrexham County Borough.

It’s been my privilege to work with colleagues, partners and councillors, and to serve local people. I really think Wrexham is a wonderful place.

And if you’ve enjoyed reading this blog, and learning about some of the good things going on here, you should keep tabs on Wrexham Council News.

I won’t forget about Wrexham. I hope you won’t either.

My top six articles…

If you’ve got five minutes to spare and fancy another read, here are my six favourite articles on this blog…

A year ago I posted an article about art and urban regeneration.

We looked at how art can play a role in helping town centres and high-streets stay relevant in the face of changing consumer habits, and disruptive technologies like e-commerce.

And I mentioned an idea we were looking at in Wrexham – a project that would transform one of our indoor markets and multi-storey car-parks into a buzzing cultural centre.

So how’s it going? Well, the idea is close to becoming reality.

For everyone

Work on the site is taking shape nicely, and the building is being transformed from the inside-out by contractors and council staff.

What’s more, we have a name.

It’s no longer just a ‘project.’ It’s called Tŷ Pawb. Which is Welsh for ‘everyone’s house.’

Now there are a couple of things I really like about that name.

Firstly, it was voted for by the public. Three names were put on the table, and this one came back as the winner.

So it was the people’s choice.

Secondly, it sums-up the ethos of the place.

The building will offer space for touring exhibitions, work-shops, creative start-up businesses, events and performances.

And the market will continue to trade in the building, with stall-holders embracing the challenge of being part of something new.

But the key point is that Tŷ Pawb will be there for everyone.

Not just for artists. Not just for shoppers. Not just for the young or the elderly. It’ll be there for everyone, and I hope people from across our community feel its benefit.

I think it’s a really exciting project and can’t wait for the doors to open next spring.

To read more, take a look at our news blog…Wrexham Council News.

In all large organisations, myths grow.

For example, did you know that because I’m a chief executive of a local authority, I don’t pay council tax?

No. Neither did I.

Of course I do pay council tax, but the myth that council workers don’t have to pay is more prevalent than you might think.

I’ve even heard of people getting a job at a council and being genuinely surprised they wouldn’t get a discount!

It sounds bizarre, but it’s just one example of how a common misunderstanding can become embedded in how people perceive large organisations.

Of course, there’s a reason myths take hold.

Sometimes we want to believe them – because they’re exciting or inspiring, or because we want to believe in something or someone…or blame someone.

Sometimes, we just don’t know any different.

For example, when it comes to public services it isn’t always easy to know whose responsible for what – what councils do, and where their involvement and responsibilities start and end. It’s confusing.

A lot of people think councils control business rates – deciding how much local businesses should pay.

But the rates are set by the Valuation Office, and in Wales the councils just collect the money and pay it into a central pool, which is then shared back out by central government to pay for public services.

But if you didn’t know that, you’d be totally justified in thinking your local council controlled business rates – especially when they collect the money.

Some of these common myths about local government recently spawned an interesting little article on Wrexham Council News (our news blog).

Have a read…

Life is complicated and uncertain, and sometimes we face challenges that have a profound affect on us.

Things like stress, ill-health, bereavement, low self-esteem. The world closes-in and we feel frightened, and – worst of all – alone.

Having someone to talk to can make all the difference. So each year at Wrexham Council, we take part in a national initiative called Time to Talk.

It encourages people to think about mental health and recognise that the simple act of talking can help.

To bring the issue into focus this year, we shared some personal stories with employees. The stories were written by colleagues and based on their own experiences.

It takes real courage to write about something like that, and I can’t thank those people enough.

Because those stories have inspired a lot of us to think about mental health and the importance of making time for ourselves and others – whether that means having a cup of tea together, going for a walk or just listening to someone explain how they feel.

Talking helps. It’s as simple as that.

looking out for each other

According to a report by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the total number of working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2015-16 was 11.7 million days.

And that’s just ‘work-related.’ Many people can find themselves unable to work because of things outside of work that affect their mental wellbeing (bereavement for example).

So it’s a huge issue affecting a lot of people.

There’s a very practical reason why large organisations should support the mental health of employees. It helps people remain – or get – well enough to do their job and make a valuable contribution.

But there’s a better reason. It’s the right thing to do.

We provide lots of support for staff affected by things like stress, anxiety and loss – from occupational health to phased return-to-work practices.

But more importantly, we’re encouraging colleagues to look out for each other and look out for themselves. That’s what Time to Talk is all about.

And let’s face it. Whether it’s in work, in our communities or at home, we should all look after each other as best we can.

A problem shared might not always be a problem halved, but it helps to have someone in your corner.

The following story was written by a Wrexham Council employee and shared with colleagues as part of Time to Talk.

bereavement


One day my sister was here, the next she was gone – her death was sudden.

To me, at the time, I felt like my world had ended, that my heart would literally break in two and that I would never be able to smile or live the life that she had lost.

I remember hearing the world still going on around me and couldn’t believe that not everyone felt like me and could still function.

I would sit for hours staring into space and within the first year there was not a day that went past without tears streaming – in the car, over dinner with my partner, at night or most of the time in the toilet (trying to hide it from family, friends or work colleagues).

The nights were the hardest because I couldn’t sleep, if I closed my eyes I would see her face coming out of the darkness to haunt me showing the pain that she was in.

But, as the years went by I also learnt how to cope with the pain.

I learnt how to put it in a box so that I could get up in the morning, I could get dressed, drive and do my job. Whilst I grew stronger and stronger and stronger, I kept wanting to try and get back to the person I was before she died.

It wasn’t until I saw a counsellor that she told me I wouldn’t ever be that person. I was shocked and horrified at how horrible and blunt the counsellor was being – didn’t she know the pain I was in?

But this was the best thing that she could have ever told me because it was true, I wouldn’t be that person as I was a different person now. This pain would be there forever, there was no magic cure.

Life did get better, I remember the day that I genuinely laughed, I remember the day I didn’t cry, I remember the time I wanted to go out for dinner or for drinks, I remember the day that I did more than just ‘function’ at work, I remember the time that I remembered my beautiful sister and could smile that I was lucky to have had her for the time I did.

What helped? My partner, my friends and my counsellor. One support that really surprised me was coming back to work which gave me my routine back, it forced me to get up in the morning.

I had a phased return for two weeks and my manager agreed that the last week of the phased return could be used over the next few months for as and when I needed it.

This slight adjustment made a difference because some days I could cope and others I just knew I was sitting there staring at the screen.

Going back to work it also reminded me what fantastic work colleagues were there waiting for me. I know that they found it hard to see me, to say the right things, to try and not mention their own siblings in case it hurt me.

It made a difference just knowing they were there, that they would encourage me to go home, they would take me for a walk / coffee / drink and they were just THERE.

Some days I still find it hard, I have flashbacks to the first few weeks after she died, I have panic attacks in the car on the way to work, I have time in the toilet crying but these are rarer than they used to be and I use my work life balance to help manage this as my life goes on.

Helen Paterson - Wrexham Council

Some council services are more obvious than others.

Bin collections. Road repairs. Schools. We notice these things because they touch our lives on a daily basis.

But there are lots of other things that slip beneath the radar – and yet impact on our lives just as much.

I’ve written a few ‘back to the floor’ articles on this blog, and after spending a day with Trading Standards recently, I felt compelled to write another.

I was fascinated by the range of activities carried out by this team, and it was a real eye-opener.

For starters, I spent much of the morning on Operation Harbour – working with Ceri and Lynne, as well as officers from North Wales Police, and Milo the tobacco detection dog (he’s a very clever dog).

We were checking for illegal tobacco at self-storage locations around the county borough.

Dogs like Milo – provided by WagtailUK – are used to sniff-out tobacco on premises, and it really made me think about the consequences of the illegal trade. It makes it easier for children to get cigarettes, harder for smokers to quit, results in lost tax revenue and harms legitimate businesses.

I also learnt a lot about the other work the team does – like tackling counterfeit clothing and unsafe electrical items being offered for sale around town and over the internet (particularly social media).

The team also talked passionately about protecting vulnerable people from criminals who target them in their own homes – intimidating them into spending huge amounts of money on unnecessary and ineffective property repairs.

Some of the cases the team has dealt with are really harrowing, but it was great to hear about the success stories too – where criminals have been stopped in their tracks, preventing further heartache and distress for victims.

I only spent a brief time with the team, but it’s clear they’re very much among the ‘unsung heroes’ of the council.

Their work goes largely unnoticed by the general public, but they strive behind the scenes to make Wrexham a fairer, healthier and safer place – both for residents and businesses.

My resolution this year is to read more books. At least one a month. So far, so good.

I still love a real book. You can’t beat a good second-hand bargain from a charity shop – with real pages, well-thumbed (and well-loved?) by previous owners.

But it is 2017, and I like to read on my tablet too. It’s convenient.

So like a lot of people, when it comes to reading, I’m a little bit old school and a little bit new school. Part analogue, part digital.

Which brings me to the point of this article. A lot of public services are trying to let their customers do more online.

It’s not always about saving money. Sometimes, it’s about meeting expectations.

And there’s often a balance between holding onto the more traditional parts of a service that people still value, while developing the new things that people expect. Providing services that are part analogue, part digital.

Libraries are a good example of that.

a social responsibility?

Most of us have used our local library at some point. I used mine the most when my children were young.

We’d spend ages picking our books, and it was a lovely weekly ritual. All those stories. Endless possibilities and adventures. It was great.

These days, you can do a lot in a library. Watch archived TV footage (we’ve got a fabulous British Film Institute resource in Wrexham).

Use the internet. Listen to music. Take part in workshops

But if you’re over 40, you can probably remember when libraries were all about the books. No computers. No films. No wi-fi.

You went there for the books. That was it.

Or was it?

For a lot of people, the physical act of going and choosing a book was part of the enjoyment. A quiet activity. But a social one all the same.

I think that’s still true. A lot of people still value the experience of going to the library, and they remain important physical spaces.

They fulfil a social need – not just an informational one.

For a lot of customers, it’s not just about finding something to read. It’s about going to the library to find something to read.

Libraries also provide lots of group activities – workshops, courses and clubs (we have a really popular coding club at Wrexham Library for example).

Again, a lot of people really enjoy the experience of going to the library to learn. It’s an important social thing.

the digital customer

But that doesn’t mean customers don’t expect to access library services online as well. They do. And libraries have worked hard to oblige.

For example, you can do a lot of things through the libraries section of our website – wrexham.gov.uk

You can:

  • Find books and check their availability across Wrexham and the rest of North Wales.
  • Renew or reserve books.
  • Get recommendations using the ‘who else writes like this?’ tool (great if you’ve read all the books by your favourite author) or the ‘who next?’ tool (useful if your child needs to progress to the next level).
  • Download e-books via services like Borrowbox and Welsh Libraries.
  • Download e-magazines and comics (this can save you an awful lot of money over time – see what the Welsh Libraries website has to say).
  • View extracts from over 10 million research and academic articles.
  • Find information on family history and ancestry – without having to pay a subscription.

That’s pretty good. And the kind of service that a lot of customers – who do their shopping, banking and other daily tasks online – would expect.

In future, you’ll probably see more creative digital skills being taught and practiced at libraries. Coding clubs, gaming, 3D printing and so on.

So as well as accessing library services digitally, more people will go to libraries to collaborate and get creative with digital technologies.

giving people what they want

So the point I’m trying to make, is that libraries are doing a great job of retaining the traditional things that customers value (e.g. the experience of going to the library), while developing the new things that customers expect (e.g. online services).

There’s probably a lesson here for all public services.

An analogy might be the iPhone. The basic concept hasn’t changed that much since its launch in 2007. It’s retained the things that Apple customers love (design, build quality, beautiful interface).

But it’s also continually evolved to make innovative use of technology and keep pace (or even shape) consumer expectations – introducing features like Siri, pressure-sensitive touch technology and so on.

It might seem odd to compare a library to a mobile phone. But their success boils down to the same thing: understanding customers.

taking the bevan principles beyond health-care

edwards-boyce-429x300

Recently I spent the day with these legends of men at an event for the Bevan Commission.

Now you might think this post is just an excuse to share the photograph! But it really isn’t.

Rugby icon Gareth Edwards and the one-and-only Max Boyce were putting their ‘legendaryness’ (new word?) behind The Prudent Approach – specifically in terms of health care.

They were helping us focus on the four Bevan Principles of:

1. Achieving health and well-being with the public, patients and professionals as equal partners through co-production.

2. Caring for those with the greatest need first, making the most effective use of skills and resources.

3. Doing only what is needed and doing no harm – no more, no less.

4. Reducing inappropriate variation using evidence-based practices consistently and transparently.

Now. I think these principles – in essence – can apply across all our public services, and not just health.

together in wrexham

One of the key themes behind these principles is the idea of enabling people and communities to be more self-reliant. In our own small way, we’re already doing this in Wrexham.

Last year I wrote about something called Together in Wrexham – a drive to encourage more individuals, communities and groups to come together to make a difference.

We’re helping residents willing to volunteer some time, knowledge or resources link-up with like-minded people to make things happen.

We’re also offering financial help through grants and loans.

Recent examples include The Gwerin y Coed Forest Group.

The group used a grant of £5,000 to expand its team of volunteers, who run weekly outdoor sessions for families of children with ADHD or autism.

The drug and alcohol support agency CAIS was also given a grant of £5,000 to support clean-up days.

Volunteers work with community councils to identify areas that need a bit of ‘TLC’, carrying out litter-picks, weeding, painting and other work.

And the Vic Studios – a social enterprise which provides recording and rehearsal space for young performers – was also given £4,995 to help it grow.

Did it make a difference?

Mike Corcoran, a volunteer at the studio, says: “At the point of applying for Together in Wrexham funding, Vic Studios was just opening its doors as a newly formed, independent social enterprise.

“The funds were essential to support our organisational development, growth and the re-launch of the studios, having previously been operated as a local authority service until 2015.

“Since then, we’ve seen our young beneficiaries perform to huge crowds in Wrexham town centre as part of the Focus Wales music festival, provided specialist support to over 130 individuals with a variety of complex needs, and welcomed almost 1,000 people back into Vic Studios to record, rehearse and get creative.”

Yes. I think it did.

We have lots of other examples of Together in Wrexham helping people and communities become more self-reliant.

We’re not changing the world, but we’re putting some of the Bevan Principles into practice – across many walks of life.

It feels like we’re starting to help people and communities take ownership of the things they want to own.

That’s a good thing.

To find out more, visit the Together in Wrexham website.

Think about your home. Is it safe, warm and weatherproof?

Somewhere you can return to at the end of the day and feel happy and comfortable?

I hope the answer is ‘yes.’ It should be. Because everyone should be able to live in a good quality home. It’s a basic need, and a basic right.

So whose job is it to make that happen?

To some extent, it’s ours. The public sector.

For starters, we have a role to play in making sure the conditions are right for commercial developers.

We need builders to build houses (albeit in the right places and to the right spec) so we can meet the needs of people looking to get on the property ladder, move to the area and so on.

But we have an even bigger role to play in providing social housing. Homes for people who aren’t in a position to buy their own property, or prefer not to.

It’s that social housing role I want to focus on in this article.

homes fit for heroes

Council housing has played a massive part in improving the quality of life in the UK since the end of the First World War, when then Prime Minister Lloyd George famously talked about ‘homes fit for heroes.’

The country was facing an acute housing shortage, and a lot of responsibility fell on councils – acting with guidance from central government – to build new homes that provided better conditions for working people.

After the Second World War, the housing shortage – exacerbated by bombing – was at its worst point in our history.

Again, councils helped lead the way, providing new housing and improving existing homes to meet the needs and expectations of post-war Britain.

That responsibility still sits with local councils and housing authorities today. And I’m very proud of that.

By helping to provide good homes, we make a lot of difference to a lot of lives.

what we’re doing in wrexham

Council housing in Wrexham

In Wrexham, we’re spending £54m on improving our council housing this financial year alone (2016/17).

This includes a £7.5m Major Repairs Allowance grant, which the Welsh Government awards to local authorities to help them achieve the Welsh Housing Quality Standard.

If you haven’t heard about the standard, it’s designed to make sure social housing landlords (like us) provide homes that meet the current and future needs of Wales’s residents.

All of our properties will need to achieve the standard by 2020, and with 11,300 homes to look after, that’s a big job.

So we’re getting stuck in.

As well as new kitchens and bathrooms, other improvements to electrical wiring, central heating and external wall insulation are being carried out on properties that need them.

Here’s some figures. By the end of March 2017, we hope to have…

• Offered new kitchens and bathrooms to 2,500 properties.
• Offered new heating systems to 600 properties.
• Re-wired around 900 properties.
• Re-roofed over 750 properties.
• Fitted external insulation to 187 properties.

We’re also supporting more specific housing needs. For example, First Choice Housing Association has opened a new facility in Wrexham for armed services veterans.

Called Ty Dewr (which means ‘Brave House’), it aims to help people who’ve left the armed forces, who are at risk of homelessness, adapt to civilian life – sometimes against a backdrop of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), disability and other challenges.

The centre provides accommodation, training and therapy in a peaceful setting on the edge of town.

It’s an inspiring place.

First Choice is also about to start a self-build project for veterans on land gifted to the project by the council.

building new homes

Like most local authorities, we haven’t been in a position to build new social housing for a long time.

We’ve been focused on managing our existing stock. And supporting other providers – like housing associations.

But for the first time in decades, we hope we’ll soon be in a position to consider building new council housing here in Wrexham.

It’ll depend on various factors, including funding. But if we can do it, it’ll be really exciting.

One thing is certain though. Councils are still at the centre of housing provision – through supporting private sector development and other social housing providers, and managing our own stock.

We can’t do it all by ourselves, and we don’t get it right all of the time, but we’re still striving to provide homes fit for heroes.

Because in some small way, nearly everybody is a hero.

And everybody deserves a good home.

wrexham arts and cultural hub

Town and city centres all over the UK are facing huge challenges.

Shopping habits have changed. Disruptive technologies like e-commerce have emerged. And the role of our high-streets is less certain than ever.

Putting life and purpose back into these places – which are suffering from fewer shoppers and fewer shops – will be hard.

But it’s something we need to figure out.

A lot of towns and cities are trying to find an answer, and one idea in the mix is the arts.

In other words, there’s a belief that arts and culture can have a real impact on urban regeneration.

Now that might sound very light and fluffy (and public sector). But there are some huge success stories out there. Read on…

 

from liverpool to bristol…

Governments and councils have supported arts projects for a long time with a view to encouraging economic and social improvement.

Famous examples include the Festival of Britain in 1951. The Millennium Dome. And the cultural aspect of London 2012.

Did they make a difference? Well, it’s much-debated. But you don’t have to look too hard to find solid examples of return-on-investment.

Take the Albert Docks in Liverpool.

Built for sailing ships, the docks struggled to stay relevant in the 20th Century and fell into decline. Abandoned buildings, silted-up beds and job-losses to boot.

But in the 1980s Liverpool turned things around and created a cultural hub – with the Tate Liverpool arts centre at its heart.

It rejuvenated the docks (very few people will argue otherwise), helping to stimulate economic growth and create community and educational benefits for the city.

The Arnolfini arts centre is another example. It set up shop on Bristol’s waterfront in 1975, in an area that was a wasteland of disused warehouses (left over from when it was a thriving commercial port).

Again, it’s generally accepted that the Arnolfini played a key part in turning the harbour into a buzzing cultural hub. An economically important part of the city, full of cool cafes and trendy start-ups.

And Hull is in the news right now.

Chosen as 2017 UK City of Culture, Hull is hoping to reap big economic benefits – including inward investment (and they’re already doing brilliantly), jobs, tourism and skills opportunities for local people.

And if the experiences of Derry-Londonderry (City of Culture in 2013) are anything to go by, there’s no reason to think it won’t happen.

 

…to wrexham

Here in Wrexham, we’re also looking to the arts to help us manage the impact of economic challenges.

Welsh Government, Arts Council of Wales and Wrexham Council have committed £5m to help transform one of our indoor markets and multi-storey car-parks into a buzzing cultural centre.

Work on the People’s Market Arts and Cultural Space is set to begin in 2017. The building will offer space for touring exhibitions, work-shops, creative start-up businesses, events and performances.

And as the name suggests, it won’t just be an arts centre.

The market will continue to trade in the building, with stall-holders embracing the challenge of being part of something new. The market will feed-off and compliment the cultural offer – blending the life and vibrancy of stallholders with the creativity of artists. How good is that?

The reason we’re doing this is simple. Like everywhere else, we have fewer shops and fewer shoppers. And unless the internet breaks, there’s not much chance of winding the clock back to the noughties and 90s, when high streets were all about shopping.

So we need to find new ways to keep our town centres relevant. And we think arts and culture is part of the solution.

As well as providing a home for creative entrepreneurs and start-ups, our new arts centre will help us attract tourists and other leisure users.

In other words, it’ll help us attract more people for different reasons, helping to prolong their stay and increase what they spend in the town centre – supporting the businesses that remain.

wrexham arts hub

An artist’s impression of the People’s Market Arts and Cultural Space.

 

not all about money

And there’s another benefit we’re hoping to reap.

Projects like this usually bring big social and educational opportunities – helping people experience new things and grow their confidence.

Engaging local people in the arts – particularly the young – can really open doors. And that doesn’t have to mean creating art.

There’s all the other stuff that goes on around it – the curation, venue-management, event-management, marketing and so on. Lots of opportunities to develop skills and get experience.

The facilities will also be available to local groups for activities like dance, providing an inspiring rehearsal space.

Of course, our project is nowhere near the scale of the Albert Docks – or the Bristol docks.

But the People’s Market Arts and Cultural Space is a massive project for Wrexham. It’s huge.

We’re not expecting art to solve all of our town centre problems. But it’s going to be a really important – and really exciting – part of the solution.

I don’t often write a blog about individual people. I mainly write about events, leadership and organisational topics.

But today, I’m inspired to write about an inspiring man.

I had the privilege to attend his funeral recently in the village where I live in Wrexham.

I write ‘privilege’ because that’s what it was to have known him over the past five years – and to share in the celebration of his life with other friends and his family.

Three words summed this man up – ’family’, ‘giving’ and ‘community.’

And listening to his family’s eulogies, it’s clear these words summed him up throughout his life – from his early years through to his business escapades and his building projects, and latterly his commitment to our church and the fundraising for its much-needed roof repairs.

These three words shone out in everything that people said about him. Both throughout the service, and through conversations later in the day – as we took time to reflect on his life and how we had known him.

I recall the very first time I met him when I went to the church, having recently moved to the area. He said: “Hello…you are most welcome.” And he meant it.

And that was how he was. Friendly, supportive and always ready to use his skills and talents to help others.

It made me think, as I sat reflecting during the service, what three words would people say about me?

How would my contributions to my family, work and community be remembered? Would they be so clear ?

So my challenge to myself – and to you – is how will we be remembered?

And through this blog, I can recognise and thank this inspiring man who gave – and continues to give through his legacies – so much. And who will always be remembered so fondly.

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