We need to be trusted more

By Ann McGauran | 13 June 2023

The new president of ADEPT (the Association of Directors of Environment, Economy, Planning & Transport) Anthony Payne says he had a ‘really weird’ career. His time on the oil rigs after doing a degree in geology may not seem like an obvious stage on his trajectory towards his current role as strategic director for place at Plymouth City Council.

He grew up in Plymouth. Having settled at the city council for the last 14 years, he calls an earlier eight-year stint running a network of cities all over Europe from Brussels focused on sustainable development ‘a stroke of good fortune’. He then moved to Nottinghamshire where he took on a Regional Development Agency (RDA) role as director of regeneration, before moving to the Plymouth job.

Sustainable development is his passion, he tells The MJ – ‘that balance between economy, environment and communities, and the challenge of it, because you can’t please everyone’.

He emphasises that everything councils are doing ‘is against a really complex backdrop at the moment, whether it be global uncertainty and security, whether it be national challenges with the economy, and all the local challenges we constantly face’.

‘It’s climate change against economic growth, against overall wellbeing, and the cost of living crisis. The marginalised part of our society is really struggling.’

He continues: ‘Trying to get a balance between all of the things is at the centre of what we do and is challenging and sometimes you have to make difficult decisions. Equally, I think this hasn’t gone away. The backdrop of the squeeze on public spending is still there.’

In the wake of recent financial failures and risky investments at Woking, Thurrock, Croydon and Slough, the Government is consulting on the metrics to use for identifying councils at financial risk. As an austerity era veteran, the ADEPT president says there is ‘no magic money tree’. But he adds: ‘We need to be trusted more I think to be creative, and don’t let the bad examples – for example the district council buying a half a billion pound shopping centre – queer the pitch for the vast majority of local authorities who can manage asset investment and be really sensible about how they invest in things. That isn’t a Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities issue. It’s a Treasury issue.’ He says the tendency of government is to look at the councils where investment hasn’t worked rather than at where it has. ‘Why let a few bad apples?…’

In Plymouth the decimated budget has been ‘substituted with income and commerciality, which is great because government wants you to be more entrepreneurial, but equally they then tie you up with all sorts of things you can and can’t do’.

If starting from scratch, what system for delivering place leadership would he advise authorities to set up? He says: ‘I moved into an organisation which was a newish unitary authority. It had been in existence for about 11 years. But it had been in a right mess’.

He adds: ‘I almost created a mini RDA within the city council. I knew what drove economic regeneration and place shaping because I’d seen it through the RDA experience. I created a directorate with my service directors that looked at the join-up across agendas, looked at how you matrix work, looked at the integration of policy, and setting strategic frameworks to drive the growth agenda for example.’

Moving on to the climate emergency, in his view a 2030 net zero target, ‘while ambitious, is open to question in terms of deliverability’. He believes the green growth agenda, including green jobs, is a policy area that is massively underplayed by the Government. He adds: ‘The Americans are investing billions in this. In the UK we are brilliant at policy and thinking. We’re less good at delivery.’

He poses the question of how public and private finance can be better used to deliver growth and the green agenda, putting forward the example of the greening of pension funds. ‘Local authorities have huge pension funds, but have very little influence over what pension funds are used for’.

Finally, does he feel that directors of place are generally well-enough supported by their chief executives? He says that in Plymouth ‘politically by and large and certainly from the chief executive’s perspective we recognise that driving growth is good for the city’.

He adds: ‘It’s that growth priority. If chief execs don’t get this they need to get it. We’ve maintained capacity and capability as a local authority, hence I’ve been able to increase all my income streams.

‘If you hollow out the place departments and you end up with just core services or statutory functions you lose that creativity. You lose the ability to create income or to win money. You end up with the ever decreasing spiral of decline.’

While ADEPT is not a political organisation, it is clear this energetic president is a force to be reckoned with, who will be working hard alongside the membership to shape the manifesto of the incoming Government, whatever its colour.

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Local economies Finance Economic growth ADEPT Austerity climate emergency Cost of living