‘I don’t believe anything is unfixable,’ Jo Miller states. That was her unshakeable belief when she arrived as chief executive of Doncaster MBC in 2011 – appointed by the then secretary of state Eric Pickles to an authority under intervention.
The council had been dogged by Donnygate – the 1990s corruption scandal that saw councillors jailed – and children’s services failures in the 2000s before the Government stepped in.
Despite possessing all the ingredients for economic growth, the former mining town was struggling. The failures of the authority pervaded the place itself and the council had been branded a ‘toxic’ partner. The politics were broken and senior officers were focused internally, serving the town hall and not the people.
‘My handover on day one said: “Children’s, almost out of intervention. Budget, done. Staff terms and conditions, all sorted. You don’t need to worry your head about it”,’ Ms Miller says.
But the reality was not quite so stable. ‘On the Sunday before I started, David Cameron was saying: “Doncaster is about to take loads of money out of people’s pay packets. I think that’s a really good idea, councils choosing to do that”. So I arrived on day one to Sky trucks outside the building. It was quite a baptism, but at least I knew what I was letting myself in for,’ she laughs. Her staff’s ‘endless sense of pragmatic optimism’ and finding some ‘pockets of brilliance’ saw her through the early days.
Since then, there has been a new link road off the motorway. The economy has grown by £1.2bn in the past eight years – a 29% rise and the biggest in Yorkshire. There is a high speed rail college and the town centre has been revitalised – and even food critic Jay Rayner is full of praise for Donny’s culinary renaissance.
But as Ms Miller departs for a new post as chief executive of Hutt City Council in New Zealand, these are not the achievements she dwells on. When she arrived, the place felt ‘overwhelmed by what it couldn’t do,’ she explains. Her biggest achievement was to turn that around. ‘Now it knows it can be the very best of itself, and it knows it isn’t there yet.’
‘I’m hugely proud of the economic turnaround. While that’s not down to the council there is no doubt that we have facilitated some of that.’
On top of the economic growth figures, the borough has seen employment grow by 16,000 jobs in five years, wage rates are on the increase and education and skills levels are rising. And despite being named as one of the hardest hit councils in terms of the cuts, 80% of the council’s performance indicators have improved.
‘That’s a fantastic achievement that this workforce, and their partners, and the community have achieved together,’ she says. Doncaster is a work in progress. ‘It is regenerating and the benefits of that regeneration are being felt by more of the population, but skill levels still have a long way to go.’
She would have liked city status – and a university – but if they haven’t quite got the gong, Ms Miller claims: ‘We are just living the city standard.’
For now, director of children’s and adults’ services, Damian Allen, will take on the role of interim chief executive of the quasi-city, with the recruitment of a permanent replacement expected early next year.
‘This is an amazing canvas,’ Ms Miller says. ‘It’s not a care and maintenance job, it’s taking Doncaster to the next level.’
When it comes to cohesion, the national climate has taken its toll. ‘I don’t think the UK is making people feel they are welcome,’ she says. ‘People make their home here. They have the right to feel safe, to work and to achieve no matter what. Cohesion is something that has to be paid great attention to here.
‘We can’t change the national mood music, but we can pay attention to it locally,’ the chief executive says.
Born and brought up in a council house in Liverpool, in a single parent family on a low income, Ms Miller is grounded by her roots. She admits local government may be ‘unfashionable,’ but a private sector career was not for her – despite the option to earn more.
‘My passion and purpose is to pioneer leading for people and place so they can be the very best version of themselves. That’s hugely exhilarating.’ But she admits there is a real issue with the profession that goes well beyond pay packets and popularity.
‘The vilification of public servants on social media or the buffoonery of the Taxpayer’s Alliance stuff, coupled with the removal to the rights that everyone else has because you are in the public sector, I’d say, at the moment, public servants are being treated like second class citizens and you can only go into it if you are prepared to put up with that,’ Ms Miller says.
As a former Solace president, she was fiercely defensive of her colleagues, but it was the defence of people that marked her tenure. While she brought diversity to the fore at the chief executives’ society, it was her focus on the ‘disgraceful effects’ of welfare reform that hit the headlines.
‘It drives me insane that we have social mobility commissions when, actually, if you give people a decent home and a decent income and you enable them to create social capital in their communities, they will get on just as well as everybody else.’
She used the voice of the Solace membership to bring the problems with universal credit onto the agenda. ‘I used members’ voices well,’ she says. ‘Did we engage well with the DCLG (now the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government)? Let’s just say there was room for improvement.’
While some of the membership may have been reticent about her forthright style, she had a lot of support from colleagues who recognised her efforts to defend them.
Her ‘interventions’ – culminating in a debate with Jeremy Vine and a Politics Show interview both on the state of local government finances – were always calculated.
‘Just because they were in homespun style – deliberately – they were deliberate and intended and had something important to say. And I hope that people continue to talk about the important stuff, because if we don’t, we do the people we serve a disservice,’ she says.
In Doncaster, she has been vocal about devolution. ‘Yorkshire has a right to have devolution to it at the level that its public service leaders, the businesses and the institutions in the area want.’
She describes the ‘absolute scandal’ that has seen councils and schools funding rise in Scotland and Wales, from £200 per person per year more than England at the start of austerity to £800 now.
‘While Westminster pontificates about all other things, why is nobody asking what that means?’
The disparity is not about the Barnett formula – the system that skews funding towards the devolved nations – it is the political decisions that have protected services.
‘In Yorkshire, we don’t have the right to make those decisions, despite being the same size as Scotland, because they are all made in Westminster.’
As a nation, we are not having the right conversation about what kind of country we want to be, how we fund it and how we support people to get on, Ms Miller says. Instead, the news has become ‘gamified’, with politicians claiming councils and schools have more money than ever before when it is not the frontline reality, while the public sees their council tax rising and their pay stagnating.
‘It is a discourse about public life and we have got to talk openly and honestly, with kindness. If we don’t, we are meeting populism with populism and it is the rocky road to ruin.’
While people voted Brexit for a variety of reasons, the economic arguments failed because all the talk of billions and GPD figures mean nothing to ordinary people who are struggling to find the money for the gas meter.
‘When I’ve tried to tell the story of austerity here, I’ve said: “Imagine trying to run your house with half the amount of money you had last week, with two extra mouths to feed and your grandma is living for ten years longer”.
‘That’s what austerity is, and when you put things in those terms, people can understand it,’ she says.
‘When you don’t have that conversation and when you have those gamified lies, whether that’s £350m a week for the NHS, or councils have more money than ever before, each of those lies chips away at trust and people say “it doesn’t feel like that for me. I can’t see anyone getting on”.
‘And I think that’s how you have a breakdown in cohesion and a breakdown in society.’
‘We have broken the social contract with people. Going to work does not mean that you can put a roof over your head and feed your family.’
New Zealand is, she says, around 15 years behind the UK when it comes to inequality, and there is a chance to do things differently.
‘They are having a conversation about the state of the state, and I want to use my skills to be part of that,’ she says. ‘I have the chance to be part of public service reform. In contrast, in the UK we are still not having the conversation about funding, we are still not having the conversation about how we look after our elderly people.
‘But we can bemoan the national leadership vacuum or seize the opportunity it presents. Now is the time like never before for leadership across all places, and all sectors, to be even more brave, bold and fearless in pursuit of the betterment of their places and people.’
Local government, Ms Miller says, needs to be a bit more ‘sassy’, defending itself, fighting for funding and standing up for its people and places. ‘It can be more demanding. If nobody else can work out the state of the state, then why don’t we tell them? Why don’t we just crack on with it?’