Wrexham.com yesterday had an opportunity to meet and put a few questions to Ian Bancroft, Wrexham Council’s new chief executive, on what was his fourth day in his new job.
We opened by referring to the initial press release from Wrexham Council that noted he had been “leading on changes to a number of big, strategic programmes” over in Flintshire, so we enquired how Wrexham would benefit from that experience.
“One thing I have said early on, and said at interview, is that it is really really important that Wrexham acts as one council,” explained Mr Bancroft.
“So that with Members and Officers we have a clear set of core priorities we want to achieve. The starting point of big programmes of change is that we are all agreed what they are, and that we put all our resources in to deliver those.
“When we say we will do major programmes of change, we have agreed that as a Council politically, and Officers, and have put the resources in. We do that work with residents and communities, and we deliver against the promises we make.”
Mr Bancroft added: “It is too early to give practical examples of ‘this is what we are going to do’ “, but did point to the budget process later in the year as a point where the ‘key priorities’ could emerge.
Talking about budgets, we contrasted the climate of when his predecessor joined to now in 2018 where the formal austerity programme from Westminster has seen further and more significant budget cuts for local authorities.
We asked Mr Bancroft for his thoughts on balancing books now while providing services, and several years into the future where the finances are projected to be even tighter.
“The line I would often quote is I am an absolutely committed public servant. It is a calling to do this sort of a job, because it is an honour and privilege to work on behalf of local residents, even more in an area where I live and where I call my home.”
“I don’t think public servants would necessarily choose this time to be a public servant as it has lots of challenges. But, along side that there are a lot of opportunities, and we need to make the most of those.
“The difference to my predecessor is we are reaching a tipping point in terms of the level of cuts we have had to make as public services and as local authorities. It is really important in the future that we get a balance between being prudent and efficient as a council and protecting services that are of value to local residents.”
“What we must not be doing is making cuts to services that are critical for local communities and residents and ultimately means we are not meeting the local need. Clearly obvious areas are education, children social care, adult social care, the absolutely critical services.
“On the other hand there are key preventative services, that help peoples public health are also critical, and the danger is we eat into those discretionary services and create bigger problems in education and social care. I think we need to look really long and hard at any budgetary impacts on our services.”
“In light of that we need to be lobbying nationally to get a fair funding deal. We are low funded as a council if you look at the per head funding that we get. We need to be articulating that back to Welsh Government and saying it is critical we get our fair share of funding.
“There are substantial amounts of consequential funding coming from the UK Government to the Welsh Government in terms of health funding, so there is the ability to make a budget allocation in this years settlement.
“We need a balanced approach to our budget. Again, to achieve that we need to make sure as a Council, as residents, as different political groupings we are absolutely united in what are the right things to do. None of these things are easy, and it is really really critical we do the things that are right for the residents of Wrexham.”
Council Leader Mark Pritchard said: “Ian and I are on the same page, we both believe in protecting frontline and public services.”
He added: “Ian mentioned a tipping point, I believe we are at that tipping point. I feel the next few years will be the most difficult time in history of this council through the austerity measures.
“I will make this plea today, it can’t continue. It needs to stop. Westminster and Cardiff need to understand that whatever we do across Wales now with the settlement will be reducing or stopping services. We are at that point. We have no option.”
Cllr Pritchard also spoke on the language used, bluntly saying that it was ‘no longer about making savings, it is cuts’.
Mr Bancroft agreed: “Being a public servant, our moral responsibility now is even greater. If we were not articulating the risk to local services for local residents back nationally, and the implications, we would be failing the moral obligation and moral duty.”
We had heard on the grapevine that Mr Bancroft had experience with alternative delivery models, council-speak that covers outsourcing services to social enterprises, third sector providers, or even creating trading companies themselves (like Wrexham has already) or even getting private companies to run services. With the experience in Flintshire we were keen to know what could be copied over in this area.
“Context is important, Wrexham is unique as a place, it is different to anywhere else in the world. I think it is an absolutely magical place. We have many of the components of a city in terms of the institutions we have got, for me to be thinking you apply templates or best practice to a unique place would be the wrong approach,” he explained.
“We want to look at what is the right approach for individual services, in their individual situation. As Officers we ought to be bringing back recommendations to members saying ‘the best way to protect a service moving forward is this’.
“If that is in-house delivery or alternative model, an efficiency approach, or cutting of service. My starting point is always what is right for the residents for this area, and provide the best service, and the model that can do that is what we as Officers should be recommending to politicians to make the decisions.
We had looked back at the praise given to Mr Bancroft’s predecessor when she left Wrexham, that saw improvements to ‘governance and standards’ widely applauded as a legacy, and despite being very important they might seem not that relevant to the person in the street. We apologised to be thinking about his valedictory meetings on day four of his new job, but we enquired what he would hope to see as his goals and achievements.
“To use one word, it would be relationships, which is a word that is contrasting to governance.”
“My starting priority is to ensure we have a common purpose for what we want to achieve in Wrexham.
“That is a common purpose as Officers, with politicians, as a Council as a whole. It is not just as a council, it is working with the hospital, it is working with other public services, the voluntary sector, our social enterprises that we have a number of really strong ones in the area, and our communities.
“Being able to articulate what we want to achieve in Wrexham in the future, getting collective agreement on that, and then actually then delivering that together with those constituent parts of Wrexham is really critical.
“For me, signs of success will be when we have that united approach to what we want to achieve in the area.”
“There are so many constituent parts of Wrexham, and being able to unite them, and delivering things that are city like in what we do is really critical, and we can’t do that without that united approach.”
With limited time, we thought we should ask about his other new job – that of Returning Officer for Wrexham. The Returning Officer has a key place in the proper execution of democracy locally, with the most public part of that being making the formal declarations of the winners and losers of the elections.
As readers will know Wrexham.com has covered several elections locally, but also helped out with Deeside.com’s coverage – so with the formal job title being fixed, yet different styles evident we asked his overview thoughts, as there is no election (yet) on the horizon.
“There are very few definitions on what the role of a Chief Executive is actually, Head of Paid Service is one, and the other is the role of Returning Officer. It has a level of statutory definition, as you say in terms of style that can be done in very very different ways.” said Mr Bancroft.
“It is about recognising it is a civic role, announcements at elections are high profile with a high level of interest from a number of people, and we ought to be increasing the interest in democracy.
“It is something that is really important, and I really respect the role that politicians play, it is never easy. We need to be encouraging people to think about taking on those roles in the future.
“My style as Returning Officer is about making sure it is being seen in a civic light, and it is seen in an open an accessible way that encourages people to be part of the democratic process.”
With Cllr Pritchard in the room, we could not resist revisiting comments he made last year during the recruitment process where he defended criticism on the advertising, saying Wrexham Council had to ‘cast our net as wide as we can’. We noted the net has landed about six miles away in Ruabon, and asked if headhunting could be better in the future.
Cllr Pritchard told us: “I think it has been a very successful process. I will be careful about what I say, as I think last time what I said was misunderstood and became political. What I said at the time and will say again, we should cast our net as wide as we can hopefully to get the best individual, and what is right for Wrexham.”
“On this occasion we went through two processes, on the first intake we didn’t make a decision and voted to go back out. On the second process we had a fantastic field, and were fortunate to get the group of individuals who applied, and had an excellent outcome because we have Ian today.
“I do believe it was unfair how it was portrayed in the press, if anyone who knows me knows how much passion and pride and love I have for this town, and if we can get someone from Wrexham who lives in Wrexham for me that is a bonus, however I couldn’t say anything at the time because it was going through due process.”
Mr Bancroft added a comment on the process, “It is all about timing, you can’t control time, and I feel it is a joint choosing. It is a choosing of a council by a person, and a choosing of a person by a council.
“For me it feels that the time is right.”
(We also have spotted Mr Bancroft tweeting from the Racecourse, so enquired if he thought the reds were going up – he said he is ‘optimistic’ and was looking forward to the game later!)