Boston's future is bright - and the strategic alliance will help ensure that, says council chief executive

Since Boston became part of a Strategic Alliance with East Lindsey District Council in July this year, the two authorities have shared a boss in chief executive Rob Barlow.

Rob at the Boston Quadrant development
Rob at the Boston Quadrant development

He was already chief executive of ELDC, but the alliance saw the streamlining of a number of senior management posts, which meant Mr Barlow took over the role for both councils, with Boston Chief Executive Phil Drury stepping down.

The alliance is ultimately intended to save £15m for both authorities over the next ten years, but after a troubled birth – with Boston Council at one stage set to delay the scheme for six months, and it had to get underway in the unprecedented national situation caused by the pandemic – it has had to navigate some choppy waters.

But Mr Barlow, the man tasked with ensuring the alliance successfully charts those turbulent waves, believes the changes will ultimately prove successful – and will help to herald in a bright future for Boston and its people.

The Standard spoke to him about those hopes, and how he intends to manage the two councils to ensure they come to fruition.

Mr Barlow has been involved in local government for close to 30 years, working for authorities in Lincolnshire and Norfolk during that period, and he became chief executive of East Lindsay, were he was deputy chief executive at the time, at the end of 2018.

A dad of two boys, he describes his background as ‘working class’. “I’m proud of that and my parents taught me you get out of life what you put in and that’s a good perspective to have,” he said.

“I’ve been a Type 1 diabetic since the age of 18 but it doesn’t stop me doing anything. I also have two young boys, Max and Elliot, who offer me the alternative to work.”

Asked about how the Strategic Alliance had changed the structure and hierarchy of both Boston Borough Council and East Lindsey Council, he said both now operate with a single team of staff below him.

In terms of how that structure was managed, he said: “Much of my role is about helping others make things happen. People often highlight things that are different between the Councils, however, the majority of what they do is the same.

“So, for me, it’s much better to focus on that, as both Councils will still require a degree of independence. I meet lots of our partners and find the conversation can be had once for two Councils and the opportunities and outcomes benefit both Councils at the same time. This allows me to essentially be full time for both Councils.”

Addressing concerns people may have about whether not having its own chief executive could weaken Boston’s position, Mr Barlow said the idea of councils sharing such a role was now commonplace.

“Each council has its own history and identity; however, they are only lines on a map which seemed to be the best plan back in 1974 and in reality places have grown and lifestyles are now very different, meaning people routinely live, work and play across borders.

“Certainly, in business, education, health and economic terms there is huge overlap. Coming together gives us a louder voice for our area, as we’re able to represent more people and often have a unified view. It also allows me to combine the staffing talents we have and bring expertise and skills to one council’s benefit that previously wouldn’t have been possible; the aim is to have the best of both for both.”

This was already manifesting itself even within the first few weeks of the alliance. “We’ve seen skills such as heritage and conservation, tourism and marketing, ICT and property skills help out at the other Council,” he said.

“This, along with the larger workforce, means that more things are getting done more quickly, and to a higher standard. We’re not perfect, and never will be, but as people’s expectation rise then Councils need to respond.

But he accepted there were areas, such as bidding for money or attracting a business to invest, that would be competitive.

“In theory these types of things do have the potential to create conflicted interests, as do different policies and approaches being agreed by two separate councils,” he said.

But he believed “good corporate governance” both authorities have would allow them to transparently deal with such issues through due process and with professional advice. He stressed that in most cases decisions are taken by councillors and his role was to offer that advice.

He accepted that the cost of setting up the alliance, which was capped at £750,000 (Mr Barlow said the actual figure would be less than that), might seem a lot of money, particularly at a time when finances were stretched more than they had ever been.

“Putting it into context though, the two councils spend over £100m each year and around £23m on employees,” he said.

“The cost of setting the Alliance up is recovered in six months and I expect we will deliver more than the £600,000 savings target for 20/21 and we’ve already identified a further £1m for next financial year (21/22).”

He said the savings would mostly be a result of removing around 30 posts from our workforce – something he said was possible as some roles can be done by one person for both authorities.

“It’s a straightforward efficiency if you can do a piece of work for two Councils rather than one. We’ll do this over time as people naturally retire or leave though to ensure we avoid redundancy,” he said.

Mr Barlow has previously refused to comment on claims in the satirical magazine Private Eye that outgoing Boston chief executive Mr Drury received a redundancy package of more than £440,000, but a spokesperson for both authorities denied he had received that sum.

Speaking in general terms about the payouts that had been made, Mr Barlow said: “In terms of exit packages for staff, these are mostly agreed by the full council.

“They are limited to what may be included and are mostly based on redundancy pay that is based on length of employment and an upfront payment into the pension fund if that employee is over a certain age.

“Usually Councillors support these decisions if there’s a financial benefit for the taxpayer which was the case with the strategic alliance.”

He was keen to praise the contribution of the staff who had left the authorities, particularly that of Mr Drury.

“I had the pleasure of working with Phil and his personal commitment to the borough was there for all to see. I recall his leadership during 2013 floods and remember thinking how lucky the people of Boston were to have such a great guy coordinating the recovery of the town.

“Anyone who met Phil will know he paid his dues to Boston many times over.”

He stressed that the Strategic Alliance wasn’t just about saving money, and would improve the way the authorities were able to deal with a number of areas, including social issues.

“ In Boston the expectations of the public are rightly increasing and the responsibilities given by Central Government are ever increasing. This creates a real shortage of people to do the work so Councillors have spoken about the efficiency savings being reinvested back into new jobs to pick up areas of work which otherwise might get left,” he said.

“This could include things like tackling housing deprivation, helping people with life skills, educational attainment and healthy lifestyles. This in turn helps our colleagues like the county council. I think at times Bostonians have accepted the limited opportunities people have locally as being representative as the rest of the UK.

“It really isn’t like this in other parts of the country and Boston deserves more, so my message is to set the bar high as the statistics show it’s needed.”

The challenges of coronavirus had made the already difficult task of setting up the alliance much harder – but it would also give the authorities more cover and more resilience going forward, Mr Barlow said.

“The pandemic has made 2020 a year like none of us expected and obviously not being able to meet new work colleagues and councillors face to face does mean you have to work harder at relationships,” he said.

“That said, and to their credit, staff have settled into a way of working remotely, with a reliance on video conferencing, very quickly and we’ve also learned a lot as an organisation about how we can improve some areas of what we do.

“We’ve put a lot of focus on our staff recently and rightly so. Better ICT tools to do their job and an understanding of their wellbeing has been a top priority for me.

“Thankfully, the Strategic Alliance has given us more cover and resilience than ever before and I’m hugely grateful for what we’ve achieved against a backdrop of a year none of us ever expected.”

Looking forward, he was keen to encourage people to be positive, and is convinced the future is very bright for the town.

“The investment going in at the moment is phenomenal. Looking at the Quadrant development with the new stadium, the Boston Barrier (which is over £100m alone), the great new buildings going up at Boston College and the general level of house building; these are all brilliant for the town.

“This looks like continuing with the opportunity to bid through the Towns Fund for £25m towards further great projects, such as leisure, education, heritage and health assets. There won’t be many towns the size of Boston receiving this level of investment at the current time.

“All in all, Boston has a bright future and the Strategic Alliance will help further its success. My vision is for our residents, businesses and partners to have a unified voice to say how great Boston is to tackle some of the long-term wicked issues we face in a positive way.”