The coronavirus pandemic may be all-consuming, but newly anointed Solace president Joanne Roney is keen to raise her head above the immediate crisis and think about the future – and top of the agenda is tackling the inequality created by the pandemic.
‘Primarily, our challenge is around addressing the inequality that will come,’ Ms Roney, who is also Manchester City Council chief executive, tells The MJ.
The legacy of the COVID crisis could be one of deprivation – or it could be stepping up to address inequality, of ‘levelling up’ and reforming the health and social care agenda.
‘How do we do that at scale and pace, how do we level up life chances through skills…how will we put our values at the forefront of policy reshaping around people?’ she asks.
Levelling up is not just for the Northern Powerhouse or the Red Wall, she says. It is about improving the life chances of everyone. So far, it is a phrase that has been used as a catch-all, but she wants to put Solace at the heart of discussions about what it really means to people and communities.
Ms Roney’s story – growing up on a deprived council estate, she started work as a 16-year-old at Birmingham City Council – is well known, but she laughs when asked if it is what has made her determined to tackle inequality. ‘Well, I don’t think you could be a successful chief executive in local government if you haven’t got a passion for doing the best you can for the people that you’re a public servant of,’ she says.
‘The legacy of that [the start of her career] is that I genuinely know local government saves lives and transforms lives. And that’s at the heart of what we should be driving in our organisations.
‘I carry that with me every day. I feel so, so grateful that local government created those opportunities. I just feel massively indebted to it as a sector for the life I’ve had.
‘There is not a day that I do this job without being grateful for the privilege,’ she says, adding that it will sound like a cliché written down, but it is true.
The next part of the puzzle is to ‘turbo-charge’ the economic recovery of places, rethinking high streets and place-making post-COVID, considering how people will live in future.
Again, it is in Ms Roney’s DNA. Starting her career in the housing department, she has risen through the ranks of housing, regeneration and economic growth before her first post as a chief executive of Wakefield MDC.
And the third strand of her agenda is ‘making sure we are the voice around the future shape of our own organisations’.
She says the crisis has probably put local government ‘at its highest point in terms of its reputation with Government, and its relationship with Government’, which brings an opportunity to shape the policy agenda.
She would like to see an agenda that ‘really reforms how we deliver public service, public expenditure into communities, in a way that is far more joined-up and far more flexible, devolved to us to be able to make a real difference’.
The example of integrated health and social care – already a reality in her own patch of Greater Manchester – is one where reform could really make a difference. But she says the arguments over structure and form are a distraction from the real issue of outcomes, of getting people to live longer, healthier lives.
‘The pandemic has shown us that where we get the best results fastest is where we’re working together in partnership,’ she says, adding: ‘How we build on that to the normal way of working, not the crisis way of working.’
Ms Roney says she is ‘really thrilled’ to be taking over for a two-year stint as president but adds: ‘I’m just part of a really talented group of people.’
She is optimistic about the future working with central Government, following the pandemic which was a ‘game-changer’ for the central/local government relationship.
‘I think we’re at the highest point of our influence with Government… I don’t see how we retreat back from that. I think those relationships have been formed,’ she says. ‘And that doesn’t necessarily equate to, “it’s all been great”.’
It has been ‘patchy’, she suggests, with different departments and on different policies, but she has sympathy for civil servants through the pandemic.
‘As Solace president, I would like to be in a place where we get to a more formal agreement around the role of local government through MHCLG [the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government], working cross-government to give opinions and to help shape policy.
‘I think that would be a win for all really, if it was recognised that chief executives have something to add to the policy formulation.’