Scotland Climate action and sustainable development, Communities and society, Democracy, devolution and governance, Finance

“Being a local authority Chief Executive is the best job in the world” – Dr Grace Vickers, Solace Scotland Chair

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Dr Grace Vickers

In this interview, Dr Grace Vickers, Chair of Solace Scotland and Midlothian Council CEO, discusses current trends and issues in local government with LGIU Chief Executive Jonathan Carr-West. Covering the benefits of an education career in local government to facts about local government finance, Vickers shares her expertise and advice for success in the sector.

Dr Grace Vickers took up the post of Chief Executive on 1 August 2018, having previously held the position of Chief Education Officer with Midlothian Council.

Educated at the University of Edinburgh, Grace holds a PhD from the University of Edinburgh Business School and previously was a secondary school Head Teacher and Quality Improvement Manager with City of Edinburgh Council before moving to Midlothian.

Tell us a bit about you, your background, and how you ended up in local government.

I took quite an unusual route for a Chief Executive – I first trained as a musician and later moved into teaching. I grew up in an area of multiple deprivation and witnessed first-hand the benefit of excellent teaching and how it can transform people’s lives by lifting them out of poverty. This has shaped my core principles and has motivated me to make a difference for others. In 2008, I was appointed into the role of a head teacher at a secondary school and then onto the role of Chief Education Officer in Midlothian. I was then appointed Chief Executive of Midlothian Council in 2018.

For me, the important part of working in education was understanding the communities we serve. As the growing number of Chief Executives with an education background demonstrates, it offers a strong route into local government in terms of understanding communities, managing large staff teams on a variety of terms and conditions and the wide range of skills and abilities which are developed within an educational setting.

As Solace Scotland Chair 2023-24, what are your key aspirations for SOLACE and the local government sector?

Similar to the Verity House Agreement, three overarching priorities shape the work of Solace Scotland.

  1. Poverty: The pace of change in this area in terms of hidden poverty and in-work poverty growth demonstrates the need for new ideas and a concentrated effort. For example, in Midlothian, a politically led Cost of Living task force was crucial for making decisions based on lived experience, showing the need for collaborative working, which makes a difference on the ground.
  2. We need to achieve net zero by 2030: We are all committed to achieving net zero but the reality is proving increasingly challenging, especially in the context of growing financial pressures.
  3. Financial sustainability: We can see the situation in England with council finances, and we cannot pretend the drivers and pressures on local government finance are not present in Scotland.

When it comes to local government finance, what are some myths that you think the sector needs to challenge?

Councils are already an incredibly efficient part of the sector. We might not always shout it from the rooftops, but we have already transformed and significantly slimmed our staffing structures.

Local government delivers services in line with the Christie Commission principles, but despite this transformation, growing financial pressures are acutely affecting our capacity to continue to transform.

In addition, there is a myth about reserves. We are not sitting on large usable reserves. Any reserves which we have left are earmarked for key projects e.g. house-building, as we respond to an ever-increasing demand for housing, for climate change and for continued investment in new and existing infrastructure, meaning that there is a disconnect between what is practically possible and this is symptomatic of the wider issues in understanding local government finance.

As Chief Executive of Scotland’s fastest-growing council, what key lessons would you give other councils facing rapid demographic changes?

Midlothian is one of the few local authorities with a rapidly growing 0-15-year-old population, which I am particularly proud of. So I would say plan, plan, plan.

Funding this growth is a challenge. Although we have great schools and fantastic open spaces, there is a myth about the capital and revenue split. Across Edinburgh and the south-east of Scotland, because we are the fastest-growing region, we are working through our City Region partners to demonstrate the positive economic impact that our region has on the Scottish and UK economies. But without the capital and revenue support, I worry that we will notreach our full potential.

As Chair of Solace Scotland, it is also important that I recognise that population challenges are not the same across Scotland, and the vast range of different elements of depopulation and growth means that it is essential to have a holistic dialogue rather than the polar conversations, which are not helpful.

In Scotland, local governments are showing how local, regional and cross-boundary groupings are making a difference, and, as a sector, we need to have a holistic view of what Scotland needs. We all want to support one another, and we each face unique challenges, so finding the best way forward for Scotland is key, particularly during times of fiscal constraint.

As workforce challenges show, the value basis for local government is increasingly important. What advice would you give those considering a career in local government?

If you want to make a difference, you should consider a career in local government. Being a local authority Chief Executive is the best job in the world.

You do not have to come from a corporate background. What local government needs is innovative and creative thinkers. People who can see the bigger picture and those who can think long-term about how local government can deliver for our communities.

I would encourage people from various backgrounds, as creativity is needed more than ever for the growing array of complex problems which lie ahead of us. You get to affect positive change, and there is nothing better career-wise than being able to transform people’s lives.

Did you enjoy this interview? Save your spot at our upcoming Global Local Executive Panel: Sustainable & Affordable Housing, where Dr Vickers will join our esteemed panellists to discuss barriers to housing accessibility, development, the role of all levels of government in working together and short—and long-term strategies in each jurisdiction.



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