A life to outlast us

By Heather Jameson | 12 April 2023
  • Heather Jameson

What is legacy? It means all sorts of things to different people. For a politician, it is the impact they have made on a place and its people. For a chief executive of a local authority, it may be how they have taken forward their organisation.

For a regeneration specialist, it may be the buildings or public realm they helped create. For any employee, it may just be harking back to the days before a big transformation of their workplace. All this is outlined by Sally Wilson, principal of executive interim at GatenbySanderson, as we gather for a joint round table with The MJ on legacy.

Our first speaker, Rotherham MBC chief executive Sharon Kemp, opens with a quote: ‘The past is a place for reference, not residence.’

The legacy at Rotherham, with its history of failure on child sexual exploitation and a subsequent Government intervention, has left the council with a lifelong duty to people and their families that runs to the core of the organisation. Budget decisions now have to be made ‘in a way that doesn’t have an impact on the people we have a lifelong debt to’, she says.

The council now has world class practice around child sexual exploitation as a reflection of its past. Rotherham is now creating a Children’s Capital of Culture for 2025, funded by the UK Shared Prosperity Fund and imagined by the children of Rotherham.

For her, there are three things that permeate through everything: the circumstances you face; the need to be authentic; and finally, Ms Kemp says: ‘Never forget the impact on people.’

When it comes to organisational culture, there is a lot to learn. Ms Kemp describes a mural that greets staff as they leave the building at Rotherham. It says: ‘Thank you, you make a difference every day.’ It is a far cry from the previous organisational culture. She explains: ‘There used to be a poster saying “please take off your badge before you leave”.’

The culture change at Rotherham needed to happen at pace. Part of the change programme involved staff awards and a series of events across the organisation. ‘We asked [the staff]: “When you were brilliant, what did you do?”’ she explains. ‘Once we started celebrating the small things… we got more of it.’

Nalin Seneviratne is a regeneration specialist who has worked across the public and private sectors – including a role as director of city development at Sheffield City Council. He is up next and for him legacy is a far more concrete concept.

After a career as a surveyor and covering private sector building and construction, he says: ‘The public sector was something I had never dreamed of getting involved in.’ But he did. When he arrived at Sheffield in 2013, he says: ‘Legacy was not on my mind.’ But there was a retail development that had been stalled for years and it became his mission.

He wanted to create developments with a community, banning investors from taking tenancies and building a real living wage into tenancy agreements. He convinced HSBC to take a risk on backing the council to invest.

He asks the round table: ‘How can you lead and do things better?’ The investment became about building growth and creating jobs, about purposeful regeneration, co-designed with the people of the city. ‘Leadership now is about leaving a legacy – what is the difference you made to that organisation,’ he explains.

Our final speaker, Martin Cresswell, has spent a career in and around local government – including 16 years at consultant IMPOWER. For him, he says: ‘A lot of great legacy comes from a sense of purpose.’

Like Sharon Kemp, Mr Cresswell has a quote: ‘The greatest use of a life is to spend it on something that will outlast it.’

In the early part of his career, he saw the impact of taking kids to an education centre in Snowdonia after he was sent to do a financial appraisal on four centres for Sandwell MBC. Seeing the awe on the faces of a coach-load of children arriving from Tipton made him realise it needed to be saved.

Twenty years later, as part of IMPOWER, he was sent back to do virtually the same calculation. Keeping the centres open is his legacy. He says: ‘It is not just the physical infrastructure; it is about social infrastructure for me.’

If you want to create change, to transform, you have to get buy-in, he claims. And, one size does not fit all. Currently working as an interim at Halton MBC, he says small things have a far bigger impact – and, adds: ‘What is important to me is creating the conditions for success.’

It is, he claims, much harder in local government than it was two or five years ago as the sector fights for survival amid cuts and rising pressures. Local government does not ask itself enough if the right conditions are in place, if there is clearly defined purpose or ambition.

‘Everywhere is different. We have to be purposeful about what is important,’ he says. And with so many councils teetering on the edge of collapse, Mr Cresswell asks: ‘Are we really at a point where just survival is a legacy in itself?’

This article is sponsored content for The MJ

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