In 2015 Kersten England took on a major role as Bradford Council’s new Chief Executive, with responsibility for over 17,000 staff and a multi-million pound budget across one of the largest local authorities in the country.
One of the biggest officer jobs in local government comes with plenty of scrutiny and pressures. But having left a similar role in York to take up the post, and with over 25 years local government experience, she came well equipped for the task at hand.
Despite the Edinburgh accent she regards herself as a bona fide Bradfordian, having lived and worked here for most of her adult life as well as bringing up her children in the city. We caught up with her earlier this summer to find out what it’s like to be in this challenging role and to learn more about her vision for Bradford.
What does a council chief executive do?
I have a number of different roles. Firstly I’m responsible for good governance and support to the elected leadership of the district. That’s a very specific role to ensure our councillors are well-supported and that they take their decisions in a ‘proper’ manner. If there are any issues with conduct among councillors it’s also my responsibility to deal with that.
There’s a particular responsibility to be a strategic advisor to the leader of the council. It’s their job to set the priorities of the council and it’s my job to oversee the delivery of those priorities. So I work very closely with the leader to do the best we can for Bradford.
I am also what they call Head of the Paid Service, which means I’m responsible for the lawful recruitment, safe employment and ongoing development of council workers – around 17,000 people.
The final major role is to be a representative of the organisation and the district in wider arenas. That includes working with partners and communities within the region and further afield.
What are the biggest challenges that you face in this role and what are the biggest challenges facing Bradford at the moment?
It would be easy just to focus on the challenge of the cuts, which are nonetheless very significant, with the revenue budget of the council falling from over 500m in 2010 to circa 300m by 2020. This level of continuous reduction will require the council to make more difficult and controversial decisions. And I will spend a lot of my time handling implementation of those decisions and working to keep people in the organisation in the best shape possible so that they can do a good job even in the face of uncertainty.
But the real challenge is to keep focussed on the big issues for Bradford – giving kids the best start in life, ensuring that there are enough, good jobs, decent affordable homes and helping people to stay well and live independently in safe and friendly communities. My particular task is to help the organisation think differently about how we can tackle these issues with less direct resources – which means using our influence, building partnerships around shared objectives, encouraging investment and activity by others. That’s why our involvement in the Leeds city region is so important and our partnerships with businesses, voluntary and community groups and our public sector partners such as health, West Yorkshire police, the University and colleges are vital.
I also think it’s about making the most of what we have going for us rather than just focussing on deficits or gaps that we have to fix. For example we are the youngest city in the UK. A quarter of us are under 16, most of whom are pretty ‘digitally savvy’ and many come from entrepreneurial families and are globally connected. That’s a very attractive proposition to sell to a potential investor or employer. We need to promote this more and we need to back that proposition by making sure that through school, college and/or university our young people receive great support to enter employment or to create the businesses of the future.
How do public sector cuts affect the way you lead, does it mean you have to lower your ambitions?
We were used to being an organisation that received large amounts of money, we had things we wanted to do, we employed people to do them and the theory was that made the difference. This moment where we’re having to make severe cutbacks is a moment where we have to remind ourselves about the core purpose of local government. And that is is to do what it takes to create prosperity. Local Government has been around for a lot longer than it has had money, so the challenge is to get our staff to find new ways to serve that purpose.
It’s as much about working with other people, brokering deals and supporting other people to do things as it is about directly doing it ourselves. We also need to keep people’s morale up, to keep their motivation sharp and appreciate people for the work they do. People really work hard in local government.
How do you assess recent regeneration efforts and what needs to come next?
The big shift has been the investment of around £1 billion around the city centre in the last six or seven years. I think that is huge and all credit to the private sector bodies and the council for what’s been done there. What we have now is a functioning city centre again. You’ve got the footfall now and that’s boosted by retail, a good learning campus, cultural assets and a strengthening picture around independent shops and eateries.
Having seen around the Sunbridge Wells development recently I am very excited about its imminent opening. It’s an extraordinary and unique development – I am not sure that there’s anything quite like it anywhere – and will provide a huge additional draw to the city centre for residents and visitors from much further afield.
Clearly there’s the future of Bradford Live to sort and we’re working really hard alongside the Bradford Live team to ensure that happens. There’s an ongoing need to develop more sites for grade-A office accommodation, which will again bring people to the city centre with money to spend. There are other facilities that we would like to provide which need further work, including a swimming pool project.
There’s also the future transport connectivity for the city centre. We’ve released plans around Forster Square and are working on improvements to the Interchange. To link into that there are ongoing talks around the HS3 rail link to ensure there’s a stop between Manchester and Leeds, in Bradford. To be part of a major national transport network is incredibly important for the future of our economy.
I think there’s quite an ambitious, exciting and coherent plan around the city centre, although I have to be clear that whilst the city centre will develop the most momentum for growth, we’re also planning for the town and village centres.
How do you feel Bradford is performing as a cultural hub and what can and is being done on that front?
We’re having this conversation not long after the Bradford Literature Festival and I think that has been extraordinary for Bradford. To have an event rated as one of the three most inspiring literature festivals in the UK in only its second year is pretty awesome. All credit to the organisers and the people and organisations that backed them. I think that exemplifies the way we have to go forward, through backing the energy and ideas of people from Bradford.
We have a huge cultural asset base that is still not as effectively brought together as it might be. Therefore I don’t think it’s always presented to the market as well as it might be. I know because I live here that all the options are here, but you sometimes have to dig it out. I actually think that the tourism sector and the cultural sector could do with working a bit more closely together. We also need more capital investment in our facilities. But when you look at the festival lineup this summer it’s really inspiring.
What do you enjoy doing away from work? Do you have the time for hobbies?
You have to have other things to keep you sane and grounded. Mostly for me that’s about physical activities, so when I’m able to do so I really enjoy walking, fell running, gardening, getting on my bike. We have a big extended family – with elderly parents and young adult children and lots of nieces and nephews – so there’s always something going on!’
Those are the things that keep me grounded and give me a sense of perspective. I do a lot of reading and I like to keep track of international politics to see what’s happening in different societies across the world.
What’s the most rewarding part of the job?
Hearing about people’s commitment to taking this place forward. I have never known a place where individuals and communities are so committed and tenacious. Often the best things happen not because of management structures and business plans but because people get together and create something of their own.
And what is the biggest frustration?
When we sabotage ourselves, when we knock ourselves, when we write ourselves down or rue our bad luck. That’s the thing I find the most frustrating because it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you could achieve any single ambition in this role, what would it be?
If I could ensure that every person in this district leaves school with confidence in their future, the skills needed to navigate adult life and choices in front of them then I could die happy. That would be the most transformative thing that could be achieved in Bradford at the moment.