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INTERVIEW: Cambridgeshire chief executive on his first anniversary

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Cambridgeshire police have an idiosyncratic phrase- ‘we can’t be everywhere but could be anywhere”.

I thought of that on sitting down in my local coffee shop with Stephen Moir, celebrating on February 21 his first anniversary as chief executive of Cambridgeshire County Council.

He didn’t actually use the words “I can’t be everywhere, but could be anywhere,” but he does leave that distinct feeling that it is, in a way, how he operates.

LGBT+ history month and Mr Moir shows the council’s public support. With council chair Cllr Stephen Ferguson they raised the flag outside New Shire Hall “to show our support for our LGBT+ colleagues and residents across the communities of Cambridgeshire”.

LGBT+ history month and Mr Moir shows the council’s public support. With council chair Cllr Stephen Ferguson they raised the flag outside New Shire Hall “to show our support for our LGBT+ colleagues and residents across the communities of Cambridgeshire”.

Most definitely proactive, Mr Moir has seamlessly integrated back into Cambridgeshire (he was once ‘let go’ by the council before heading to other jobs across the country including that of executive director of corporate services for the City of Edinburgh Council)

Mr Moir was corporate director, people, policy, and law at Cambridgeshire County Council until the job ended as part of a restructure.

Mr Moir took voluntary redundancy and moved to roles such as chief people officer at NHS England and deputy chief executive at the Yorkshire Ambulance Service NHS Trust and, of course, Edinburgh.

He has always been enthusiastic about the public sector and public service.

He had previously told me: “I tried the private sector for a while and just didn’t get it.

On a visit to the Whittlesford Highways Depot last October to “hear about our winter maintenance plans and preparedness from members of our hardworking team. Not sure I’ve got a career as a gritter driver beckoning though”.

On a visit to the Whittlesford Highways Depot last October to “hear about our winter maintenance plans and preparedness from members of our hardworking team. Not sure I’ve got a career as a gritter driver beckoning though”.

“Being part of a business that exists to create profit or increased shareholder returns just didn’t float my boat.”

A characteristic of his latest tenure at Shire Hall (New Shire Hall of course – we will return later to the original Shire Hall) is his presence on social media, mainly if not exclusively on Twitter.

‘Public Servant, CEO, No response unless bio, photo & name. My tweets & my personal views only’ is how he describes himself to his 4,057 followers.

He uses the account mainly to offer an insight into work such as this on the day after we met:

Day in the life of a #LocalGov CEx:

Meetings with Political Leaders

Time out to attend a funeral

Working from New Shire Hall

Catch up with one of the directors

Meeting with District CEx colleague

Emails and correspondence

Evening meal

By Election count.

If you follow him regularly, you will also know he has two delightful cats – Alfie and Cooper – since he put both into his Twitter ‘mix’ in recent days.

Pleasantries exchanged I began by remarking that he looked “very jolly after your baptism of fire as chief executive”.

He smiled.

“It was a warm bath at times, quite fraught on some things,” he said.

“The big advantage was knowing the place and the reality is knowing the community a lot makes a big difference.”

We began by tackling what I termed the ‘divorce from Peterborough’ which has seen the era of shared just about everything reduced massively.

“I wouldn’t call it a divorce I’d call it conscious uncoupling,” he said.

“We both decided to do it and its making a big difference for us to be focused on Cambridgeshire,” he said.

Shared services rapidly becoming a memory

Some shared services remains (IT, emergency planning, fostering and adoption) but the quasi amalgamation of recent years is rapidly becoming a memory.

“Both parties agreed it was the right thing to do at the time though,” I pressed him.

“And the same parties agreed it.”

He replied succinctly.

“Were they the same parties?” he said.

Moir 5: Mr Moir says it was “a pleasure and very humbling to commit Cambridgeshire County Council to becoming an Anti-Racist organisation, in partnership with Unison by signing the Anti-Racism Charter. Very grateful to our IDEAL network to help us take this first & crucial step”.

Moir 5: Mr Moir says it was “a pleasure and very humbling to commit Cambridgeshire County Council to becoming an Anti-Racist organisation, in partnership with Unison by signing the Anti-Racism Charter. Very grateful to our IDEAL network to help us take this first & crucial step”.

We moved on; his buoyant approach evident as he talked about the “new senior management team that was needed” for Cambridgeshire County Council.

His lineup is nearly complete with a new finance director, Michael Hudson, a new legal director Emma Duncan and a new place and sustainability director in Frank Jordan who will also oversees highways.

https://twitter.com/SSMoir/status/1626387506781425668

Completing the revamped ‘top table’ will be Simon Parker, new director of policy and communities whose oversight will include that of libraries, skills and the ‘think community’ teams.

(Simon, incidentally, was named last year as one of the UK’s 100 most influential people in local government by the Local Government Chronicle).

Mr Moir concedes it has been a bit of tumultuous time inside New Shire Hall.

Mr Moir, again with council chair Cllr Stephen Ferguson, observing Holocaust Memorial Day by raising the memorial flag. “The theme is ordinary people. The victims of genocide are ordinary, the perpetuators of genocide are ordinary & the bystanders are ordinary. We mustn’t be ordinary,” Mr Moir said.

Mr Moir, again with council chair Cllr Stephen Ferguson, observing Holocaust Memorial Day by raising the memorial flag. “The theme is ordinary people. The victims of genocide are ordinary, the perpetuators of genocide are ordinary & the bystanders are ordinary. We mustn’t be ordinary,” Mr Moir said.

“Internal re organization is never easy, I have been subject to these re structures a number of times myself,” he said.

“When I joined the county council last year there was only myself and one other on our management team focused on Cambridgeshire and not giving us leadership or focus to meet the needs of Cambridgeshire residents.

“The re structure was necessary and it has in fact reduced the number of directors we have.”

Mr Moir said he had thought carefully about the job needed to be done in Cambridgeshire.

He considered the priorities of the new administration, studied past inspection reports but of particular note was the peer challenge review. This had been carried out through the Local Government Association and had highlighted shared services as an issue and challenged what was needed to deliver the priorities for Cambridgeshire.

And networking among other chief executives had helped formulate his thinking.

“People called me over the years for advice and it was nice to be able to tap into them too from time to time,” he said.

Well you’re not the messiah, who are you?

I suggested that a chief executive was not necessarily the messiah and there were surely going to be moments of hesitation or doubt.

“And you must have had some,” I put to him.

Mr Moir said his role was that of ensuring how well services are managed and looking always for better results and better outcomes.

He pointed specifically to challenges faced by the county on two issues: vulnerable adults and highways.

“There is a lot of work to do- I want leaders to be able to make these happen,” he said.

But had improvements/change begun?

“In some areas we are seeing an impact and already starting to see changes among children’s social care,” he said.

“It is always an area of challenge to recruit, but we are seeing a change in internal culture quite a lot because of leadership changes. Social workers are happier not just to join us and stay with us, but we are getting valuable feedback too from apprentice social workers.

“Another good example is the way the budget went through council- sensible political discussion.

“Officers worked really hard to bring the budget into balance; the gap we had from April onwards had doubled because of inflation. We did a lot to bring that gap down and create a balanced budget.”

Looking back, I ask if This Land Ltd (the council’s own property company) would have been a tenable option had he been in place.

He was not going to sidelined into an answer, instead pointing out that “definitely there is a need for councils to find ways of generating income and not necessarily traditional routes such as taxes, or fees and charges.

Considering risk – remember Thurrock

“But we have to look at how widespread the risk is.”

Mr Moir said he had looked at other councils “Thurrock sticks out”.

He was anxious Cambridgeshire “would not want to expose public funds to risk and council services to risk”.

On a visit to Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge: “A fantastic, innovative business in Cambridgeshire, with a deep commitment to skills, employment & working with communities & partners alike,” said Mr Moir.

On a visit to Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge: “A fantastic, innovative business in Cambridgeshire, with a deep commitment to skills, employment & working with communities & partners alike,” said Mr Moir.

This Land Ltd needed to be well governed and managed “and this has been tightened up considerably in past 10 months”.

He offered the well reported mantra of the housing market being volatile at the moment and the outstanding loan to This Land, due for repayment by 2027.

So, was it fair I asked, to invite you to express that confidence on a scale of 1 to 10, low to high?

“My confidence (markets are difficult to predict) I would give you a 6.5,” he said.

“But that is a helluva lot better than 12 months ago.”

And so to Shire Hall, Cambridge, which has been vacated by the county council but a lease to a property company for a hotel is yet to come to fruition.

“I used to work in Shire Hall – a lovely building, nice location and with a great deal of historic connotations but it was no longer fit for purpose costing a fortune to maintain.

“New Shire Hall is much more suitable post pandemic -and saving us money.”

But how close is the council to resolving the lease of the old Shire Hall?

'Old' Shire Hall

‘Old’ Shire Hall

“We are at an advanced stage – and it depends on when commercial negotiations conclude.”

Expect an announcement soon but he was not going to put those commercial negotiations risk by explaining the detail.

“Not something I am going to comment on, someone could walk away at the11th hour,” was how he left it.

We moved on, with me speculating there were several sides to the chief executive, on the one hand giving an impression of being laid back but like anyone he surely must have got hot under the collar on occasion.

Irritations explored

“So, what things really irritate you?” I quizzed, not for a moment speculating journalists would be anywhere near his lips.

Waste, insubordination, bad time keeping, schemes running out of control? I touted my suggestions. What would make Mr Moir a little cross?

“For a start I try not to get angry, it is not good for others and not for me; stay calm,” he said.

“But there are things that irritate me. One thing irritates me most is when someone deals with a complaint and then we think about that as a process and not the person at the end of it.”

He expanded on it.

“When a complaint reaches me, it means it has gone through other stages and may go to the local government ombudsman after me if an individual wants to do that,” he said.

“My first check, test if you like, is this. I say would you have wanted your mum, your dad, your brother, your sister or your child to get that letter from us?.

“Are you proud that letter represents the organization we want to be?” is how his team can expect him to challenge and consider a complaint and the council’s response.

“Lack of courtesy and lack of thought irritates me,” he said.

Mr Moir explained that sometimes he finds out about complaints when they have been escalated to him, on other occasions “I just sample some of the complaints – there is no substitute for checking things out yourself and asking for evidence which is why I like to get out of the office and talk to councilors and our partners”

At Harston and Newton school to join celebrations for Mrs Siobhan Rouse, 25 years a head teacher. Mr Moir joined the assembly in the company of Anthony Browne (MP) and county councillor Maria King.

At Harston and Newton school to join celebrations for Mrs Siobhan Rouse, 25 years a head teacher. Mr Moir joined the assembly in the company of Anthony Browne (MP) and county councillor Maria King.

His frequent travels across Cambridgeshire has made him, he says, acutely aware of the need for improved public transport and  whilst the Combined Authority may have a larger responsibility and share of the available funds, the county council still manages highways.

“There are communities that could be better served – public transport needs to be a lot better,” he said.

And whilst he’s not ready to pronounce on the suggested congestion charge for Cambridge, he ponders whether the Greater Cambridge Partnership has got its strategy properly focused. Much work needs to be done.

Time to show pride

Mr Moir says of the issues of which he is most proud, there are announcements in education and special needs education coming soon which will make a difference.

The improvement plan at the Combined Authority also, he feels, is for the better and he complimented acting chief executive Gordon Mitchell on his work: Mr Moir was one of those involved in that appointment.

Of other ‘highs’ in his first year, Mr Moir turns to the county’s response to providing homes for those forced to leave Ukraine.

And he’s particularly pleased with the work at New Shire Hall “helping to change the culture a bit and becoming more caring and compassionate”.

Management changes have helped and closure of the #Farmgate issue is another he’s pleased to have seen resolved.

“Bringing the #Farmgate investigation to a close was important – it was a sore, but most of that sore happened prior to my arrival,” he said.

Key changes such as the whistleblower policies being strengthened are part of the important outcomes.

And whilst he remains slightly frustrated at the pace of change –“some things have not happened as fast as I might have liked” – he sees challenges ahead that include managing the cost of living issue, and pressures on home to school transport and social care.

Mr Moir will also, he says, be looking at South Cambridgeshire District Council to evaluate the outcome of their experimental four day week for some staff.

“I will wait to see the evidence before we consider anything like that,” he said.

“I think it is going well and if it reduces dependency on agency staff and such things as sickness, of course we will look at it.”

On ‘work from home’ Mr Moir is adamant that not everyone needs to be in the office every day but he also appreciates “we have some fantastic front line staff who can’t work from home.

“That also means making sure there is not an ‘us and them’ attitude; you can’t have everyone working from home,” adding that New Shire Hall “is very busy”.

Challenges for the coming year include highways improvements, children’s care and “thirdly we need to take significant steps to improve our waste service which means recycling and dispersal”.

And with that we were done.

Same time, same place next year?

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