Following a 43-year career in local government, Terry Collins retired as Chief Executive of Durham Council in December 2020. APSE Direct interviewed Terry about his accomplishments as council chief and what he will miss the most about working in local government.
Terry, you joined Durham Council in February 2009 as Corporate Director for Neighbourhoods – two months prior to the new unitary authority being established – before becoming Chief Executive for the past five years. As Chief Executive, what has been your greatest achievement?
Its difficult to name just one achievement as fortunately there have been quite a few.
I think managing our budget well (gross budget of £1.4b) and keeping savings on track has been a significant achievement, especially as funding has reduced whilst costs and demand for services such as children’s and adults have massively increased. It’s been extremely challenging although I think the Council is in a solid position financially which is a good place to be at any time.
Bringing £3.8b of development to the county in recent years including some big players such as Amazon and Hitachi whilst working with world class organisations such as Durham University are something that I’m really proud of delivering. These developments have helped to create more than 3,000 jobs which is incredibly important. The development of a comprehensive Culture, Sports, Arts and Tourism offer has helped to raise the profile of the county particularly with events such as Lumiere which is the UK’s largest outside lighting festival attracting 250,000 people to Durham over four nights in November every other year. The developments of Beamish Outdoor Museum, Bowes Museum and Bishop Auckland with the amazing Kynren, History of England outdoor event have also all helped to increase footfall and visitor numbers to the county increasing income and creating more jobs.
I’m really proud of my work with children’s services which needed a lot of improvement when I took over. It’s been fantastic working with frontline staff to understand their roles and to experience the very sensitive issues that they have to face each day. They are all amazing and we are performing well now.
We have also undertaken lots of great work integrating Adult Services with Health which has had a massive benefit to our community. Lastly the transformation programme within the council has saved more than £40m and has changed the way we all work, whilst putting us in a strong position to respond to the COVID emergency. Obviously we weren’t aware that this was going to happen, although we were very fortunate that we had changed many work practices including moving to flexible and modern ways of working. This meant that the changes that have been needed to keep the organisation going have been easier to implement and have been supported by our team.
Everyone at the Council has contributed to how we have responded to austerity and more recently the COVID emergency. We have had to do far more with far less people; having had more than £250m withdrawn from our budget. It’s been incredibly challenging although the staff have been magnificent.
Overall, I have loved every minute being Chief Executive despite the significant demands of leading one of the largest unitary councils in the UK. It’s been ‘full on’ but I feel privileged to have been able to lead the organisation and help the people of our county.
In your 11 years at the Council, what change has been most dramatic?
Recently COVID has seen the way we operate change dramatically although I would say there are many positives that we will take forward when we return to the new normal…hoping that this will be sooner rather than later!
We have also had to change the way the council operates to generate savings and we have lost many vital services such as the community support workers who once worked with young people in the community on evenings and weekends. Some of the problems faced in communities now are a result of these service reductions and even relatively small changes like removing floral displays have had an impact on people and how they feel about themselves and their area. Councils are the glue that hold the community together and help others. The COVID emergency has demonstrated that councils know how to contact hard to reach groups and know to provide a community based approach to tackle key issues.
I think the role of Chief Executive has intensified since I started and, whilst it’s always been busy, it’s now 24/7, 365 days a year. I have commented sometimes that there should be a health warning given to those who undertake these roles. That said, I have generally found the work to be extremely rewarding and working with the staff and the members at the Council has always been a fantastic experience.
What has been your biggest challenge as Chief Executive?
I think the biggest challenge of the role is keep focused on council priorities and to keep the organisation moving forward whilst still keeping close to issues happening on the ground and the staff who do an amazing job. I think it’s easy to be incredibly busy and still not achieve a great deal. Focusing on priorities and what is important to the organisation is really key as is remembering to have downtime as you do need a break even if you do think you do not! I went from March to Christmas without taking any leave due to the COVID emergency which was a mistake in hindsight - although everyone has been under such great pressure. Downtime and diversionary activities are essential as its important to stay fresh as the next challenge might be the greatest!
I don’t really have any regrets as its easy to manage in hindsight. I strongly believe on using your energy to focus on how you can influence what’s ahead of you though you can always learn from what’s happened in the past. Learning is really important but don’t beat yourself up as things won’t always go well. Just reflect, learn and then take that forward trying your best to do better next time giving 110%.
What will you miss most about the role?
I will miss our fantastic staff, members and meeting colleagues in similar roles across the country including my friends at APSE who have been amazing throughout my career. I have always spent time meeting and seeing what our staff do and this has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the role. Our staff have been incredible, and I have total admiration for their work. Whether it’s collecting the bins in the rain and snow, working with very vulnerable people, providing services that improve our people’s health or the vast array of other services we provide they have been superb.
As Chief Executive I appreciate that I am only as good as the people who work for me. Fortunately, I have been very lucky working with such an amazing team within a really positive culture at the Council. I will miss everyone although the memories of my experiences working with them will remain with me for the rest of my life.
What advice would you give to your successor?
My advice has been to enjoy the role but look after yourself as it is very demanding. It is easy to find yourself working most evenings and weekends in addition to core hours whilst still having early morning meetings and late calls to take. Eventually this will have an impact on you so its important to pace yourself and have some good diversionary activities that allow your mind to focus on something else so that you stay fresh. It’s not easy but this is really important.
I also think that you should never forget the amazing team of people who deliver services on behalf of the Council often in difficult conditions at all times of the day. Spending time to understand and acknowledge what they do is really important across the Council.
What are your plans for retirement?
I intend to have some time off and then see what happens. I enjoy walking, playing golf and watching sport. It has been great to do some of these albeit it’s not ideal at the moment due to the lockdown. I’m looking forward to the spring and new challenges whatever these may be in the future.
Any final comments?
I have had an amazing career of 43 years in local government. For those thinking about their career my advice would be that you can achieve what you want to achieve. I started my career as a beach lifeguard/pool attendant and went on to be Chief Executive. There is no reason why someone else can’t do the same. This does require hard work, good relationship and political management, positivity towards change and definitely a sense of humour but it can be achieved.
I honestly believe that my journey from the frontline to the most senior officer position made be a better Chief Executive and person as I understand the operational aspects of the organisation better. I have also seen some fantastic chief executives who have had a similar journey. For those aspiring to have a career in local government aim high.
• Terry delivered a presentation on how frontline services are responding to the new normal at the APSE Performance Networks Seminar 2020. You can watch a recording of the presentation here.