In conversation with Jim Savege, Chief Executive of Aberdeenshire Council

Photo by Bjorn Snelders on Unsplash

Continuing with LGIU Scotland’s local government leadership series, Kim and Thomas spoke with Aberdeenshire Council’s Chief Executive, Jim Savege, to find out more about what the Council is trying to achieve this year. Aberdeenshire Council area is a predominantly rural area in North East Scotland and includes the Cairngorm mountains, rich agricultural lowlands and varied coastal landscapes. 

To start us off, tell us about you, your team and what you are trying to achieve?

Aberdeenshire’s strapline is From Mountain to Sea, the very best of Scotland – and it really does what it says on the tin. We have busy market towns and large expanses of rural landscapes with villages and individual dwellings. Aberdeenshire is closely linked with the oil industry of Aberdeen but also has key industry strengths in agriculture, fishing and food production.

As a local authority, we cover over 2,500 sq miles and deliver hundreds of services so we need to be ready to respond to the varied needs of our wide and diverse population.

In terms of our team setup, it is pretty straightforward. We have colleagues who cover policy areas of health and social care, education and children’s services, infrastructure and business services, along with a devolved local committee structure to ensure our work reflects the needs of local communities. We operate with a £660m revenue budget, £130m capital budget and a team of 16,000 staff.

Priority-wise, the May 2022 elections delivered a new Conservative-Lib Dem-Independent administration, and while this is a similar political flavour to before, a key difference is the 45% change in new councillors.

Our new administration successfully agreed on a new Council Plan in November 2022, with a big focus now on navigating the cost of living crisis, economic growth for the area, and sustainable net zero solutions.

What are the key opportunities and challenges in Aberdeenshire Council as we move into 2023 for you and your team?

In terms of challenges, the reconciliation of our immediate budget pressures is the key priority. We’ve got an 8% budget pressure which requires about £16m in savings. The quantum of this is hard and pushes us towards the cessation or transformation of service.

Very classically, this budget pressure forces us to look at the shifting relationship with the community in terms of actually who does what.

We are lucky to have resilient communities and our experiences with extreme weather events, such as recent flooding and storms, demonstrate how our communities are prepared and ready to deal with challenges. Reflecting on that, our financial pressures require the shifting and opening up of that conversation about how much communities can do for themselves and therefore our core focus forms both a key challenge and opportunity.

Another opportunity is continued strong ambition here from an economic point of view. We are lucky to have strong business leadership, particularly in terms of the transition of energy from oil and gas to renewables, so we need to continue to unlock developer interest in land, planning, construction, jobs and skills.

Overall, budget changes, economic growth and prosperity are where our opportunities and challenges lie in 2023.

Providing sustainable and affordable housing is a core task for many of our council members. Given Aberdeenshire’s rural background, how does the 2022-27 Council advance Aberdeenshire’s housing strategy?

We have just had our latest local development plan approved so it’s a very timely question. Following our previous plan, which had an industrial scale of development to match the scale of economic activity in the region, we have adopted an eclectic approach in terms of different developers coming forward in terms of what they wish to build. Put simply, our new local development plan is a mix of priorities with a new focus on self-build activity in communities, more infill development, helping sustain communities and asset utilisation.

Another focus is on sustaining and maintaining our 13,000 Council housing stock. Within this is another question of how much we spend on energy efficiency versus new builds. We’ve got a rich heritage in terms of architecture so we are trying to continue heritage-led regeneration which costs a lot more than new builds. So, balancing heritage and existing assets with new builds is difficult when you look at an economic and sustainability lens. For example, we have half of an old secondary school in Fraserburgh that we are about to convert into 16 flats and use for housing

This is exactly the sort of progressive investments we’re starting to make as we look at reducing carbon in our activity and the supply chain in both the smaller-scale local developments and secondly in the balance between progressive new builds and regenerating older housing stock.

In terms of rural housing, we are very dispersed in terms of our communities and we are trying not to extend and expand that even more, which means we have to look at consolidating existing communities and settlements.

Post-pandemic there has been an increased focus on our lived environment, and town centres in particular. It would be really interesting to hear about your town centre strategy and the regeneration issues and solutions implemented.

We have got a very strong sense of place and community across Aberdeenshire. In towns like Fraserburgh, Inverurie, Peterhead, Huntly, Westhill, and Stonehaven, we have distinct and unique communities.

Aberdeenshire was not exempt from the Covid-19 trend of increased localism, we found that people are staying and shopping more locally which prompts us to reconsider how we re-engage people and communities in their local areas. Accepting the challenges from the cost of living crisis, overall, things are progressing well from a local economy point of view. Holistically, a capital programme view is instructive for prioritising investment, especially in light of keeping public toilets open and encouraging community-led transport solutions. (Check out LGIU’s Global Local newsletter addressing the decline of public toilets).

Global Local bulletin: Flushed away – the decline in public toilets

Increasingly, we are focusing on translating the 20-minute neighbourhood concept into a rural context. We’re doing a lot of groundwork looking at how we can work on academy town catchment basins, to look at the travel to work activities for communities, the assets and activities of communities, and how we can enhance activity and trends in those areas.

From the housing and net zero perspectives, we have had great success in terms of heritage-led regeneration, particularly in Fraserburgh which was recognised as the most improved town in Scotland in 2021. This recognition was important as it came on the back of a multimillion investment into the old town hall, the town square, and the hotel as well as other schemes to help shopkeepers enhance their assets. So that goes to show that big investments into the public realm can make a real tangible difference. Moving forward, we have a longer-term consideration of opening the town up as well as supporting the harbour, offshore wind, maintenance and supply infrastructure.

Long term we will continue investing in Banff and Huntly, recognising that elevating a town’s heritage gives a unique and distinct appeal to the town which in turn helps attract people to stay in the area. Our approach, therefore, is a real combination of opportunist energy following pandemic trends, as well as continued and careful place-based investment.

However, part of it is about attitude. All of our thinking is about places and communities. For example, we operate with differential services and activities based on the needs of the community. Translating community-determined needs from a concept into action is quite difficult to pull off, but it avoids the rigidity of a one size fits all model and means if a certain community needs something done – we will go with it.

(Interview continues below)

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What is the thinking in Aberdeenshire Council about child poverty for this year and next year?

There is the reality and perception of Aberdeenshire as a relatively affluent area. Our GPA  is a third higher than the rest of Scotland and there is a lot of wealth in different parts of the industry and in different communities.

However, that wealth often masks the reality of pockets of extreme poverty. It’s not a race to the bottom, but there is a recognition that we do have communities who are having a tough gig here and always have done, we recognise that and we do a lot of work to support those living in poverty.

Agriculture, tourism and fish processing are all significant employers but these can be low-wage economies. Like the rest of the country, this means we have seen a rise and increase in relative levels of poverty and child poverty.

We commission two strategic assessments each year which look specifically at how our companies are doing. That continues to demonstrate some of the challenges that we’re finding on the back of Covid-19, especially with the cost-of-living crisis and helps to inform how we can support businesses to the best effect.

That means in the midst of all the budget work, we’re still maintaining a very strong focus on investment in terms of tackling child poverty, support for welfare, cost of living, support from local community groups, third sector groups and giving people licence in their own communities for greater self-determination and improvement in terms of their communities.

Looking at our current budgetary pressures, we continue to consider very careful cuts and reductions in our services, to ensure there are no unintended consequences on those areas which may impact how we tackle child poverty.

We recently received a multi-agency inspection report in January 2023 focusing on how we are doing with service provision for at-risk children and we ranked 5 out of 6, a high positive and high score for this incredibly important area of work.

That required a huge amount of work, particularly through Covid-19 and working on a multi-agency basis looking at data, trends and information, supporting frontline staff and ensuring staff are directed at the right place.

Reflecting on the Care Inspectorate report highlights two points of Aberdeenshire’s approach. First, there is a sharp grassroots focus in terms of community development. Secondly, we have a strong core professional function. Both work together to try to mitigate child poverty and ensure our young people are safe and supported.

Looking over the entire Council, there is a massive contrast of both wanting to embrace the transition from oil and gas to renewable energy, while needing to maintain that focus on supporting our communities working in challenged sectors. Both have got an equal focus in terms of our attention and effort as well. Overall, supporting those in need is part of our DNA and it is the heart of a Council’s job.

Climate action leadership was identified as a key focus in last week’s Scottish Parliament Net Zero Committee report. How does the 2022-27 Council plan advance Aberdeenshire as a climate action leader in your community?

We were one of the first councils in the UK to adopt a carbon budget which is designed to continuously shine a light and inform our decision-making in all of our policies and activities.

Like many other authorities, Aberdeenshire has a Roadmap 2030 that was agreed last year, supported by a policy committee on sustainability with a sole focus on achieving net zero.

What lies behind these practical actions are a number of important questions that we continually ask ourselves.

  • How can we enable and encourage people to live more sustainably within their local communities?
  • How do we minimise unnecessary travel around the area?
  • How do we maximise waste reduction?

By asking these questions, we have moved towards new climate actions such as new energy from a waste plant coming online next month; altering bin collections to encourage greater recycling; shifting towards electric and hydrogen fleets; active conversation with developers and community groups on hydrogen production; and, utilisation and a macro industry change from oil and gas to renewables

With that combination of policies is a whole scale change in the DNA of our practice and activity, how we live more locally, diversifying our economic mix. I wouldn’t suggest that we are leading the way in any shape or form, but our climate focus is one that percolates through everything we’re doing.

From an accounting point of view, a lot of our challenges for energy and sustainability are within our estate. Of our 170 schools, we have a number of lovely Victorian buildings which score very poorly in terms of energy efficiency which requires a targeted investment to consolidate our built estate in education.

We are also looking at a significant reduction in our estate, and we’re looking at our existing housing stock from a perspective on climate and cost of living sustainability.

Across the board, it is easy to look at our actions and feel accomplished. However, I don’t think there is a magic wand. Instead, it is about a diligent focus to ensure it is part and parcel of everything we are doing.

Finally, you have been in the post of Chief Executive for around 8 years. During this time, what has surprised you, aside from a pandemic? What challenged you?

Over my career, I have read the textbooks and listened to the ideas of leadership. However, for me, it always comes back to elegant simplicity in terms of having good, trusted working relationships that you invest in all the time, being kind to people as the starting point and working in partnership with those relationships.

It feels like a simplistic formula, but there are only so many things I can do or influence. So that means the absolute bedrock has to be about how well you work with people and I have found that it reaps the rewards and dividends significantly. This also reflects the culture of Aberdeenshire, and I believe we have a reputation both locally and nationally for working well with people. Those relationships are a source of great pride for me.

Fundamentally, being a leader is about being a decent person and actually working well with people.