The job of Chief Executive for a Council is like no other.
Continuing with LGIU Scotland’s local government leadership series, Hannah and Thomas sat down with Falkirk Council’s Chief Executive, Kenneth Lawrie, to find out more about what the Council is trying to achieve this year and Kenneth’s perspective on the challenges facing Scotland’s local government sector.
To start us off, tell us about you, the team, and the key outcomes you are trying to achieve
Despite the challenges faced during my five years at Falkirk, we are on track towards our goal of becoming a more joined-up, modern and high-performing council. Don’t get me wrong, there is still some way to go, but I believe significant progress has been made towards that goal, particularly over the past year. That’s partly due to changes within our Senior Management team, with the appointment of two new Directors and a new Chief Finance Officer, amongst other senior positions. These leadership changes have given us a whole new energy which has helped the organisation become more dynamic and transformational.
The turnover of 50% of councillors following the May 2022 Local Election has also given us a renewed focus, and we are collaborating more broadly with elected members to deliver the Falkirk Council Plan approved last September. The five-year plan aims to help us support communities, reduce inequalities, and support a thriving economy and green transition.
In the short term, and like all other councils in Scotland, our focus is on supporting communities with the ever-increasing cost of living. We are also looking to finalise a financial strategy that will help us bridge a substantial funding gap over the next five years. That is not going to be easy, and challenging decisions will need to be taken, but I believe we are up for the task and committed to transforming what we do and how we do it to ensure council priorities can be delivered in a financially sustainable way. We will also have a best value review later this year, which we hope will be a strong endorsement of our journey of improvement.
Longer term, the Falkirk Growth Deal and the Forth Green Freeport provide us with significant opportunities for economic growth, which we must capitalise on. That will have big implications for jobs, housing and community infrastructure, including educational and health facilities.
What was your experience of working in local government during the pandemic, and how do you ensure the lessons learned shape Falkirk Council going forward?
Things moved at lightning speed during the pandemic. There were so many unknowns. You simply didn’t have time to take a pause, never mind get caught up in red tape. You simply had to roll your sleeves up and do what you felt was right. That brought with it a real sense of purpose and trust which helped break down barriers and overcome bureaucratic silos.
The lessons we learnt during those years continue to help us build stronger and more effective partnerships with our communities. I’m also committed to driving the transformation of our organisation so we can better address the big challenges ahead of us and seize opportunities to improve people’s lives.
We know that the world is changing, and we must change with it. I am confident that by building on the momentum we gained during the pandemic, we can continue to create a more joined-up approach across the council and help support communities and the local economy in uncertain times.
We do face serious challenges in terms of our financial sustainability, poverty and inequality, economic recovery, and supporting our workforce, but I believe that by continuing to work together and building on our collective strengths, we can overcome these challenges and emerge stronger as a council.
A core focus for a lot of our member councils is providing sustainable and affordable housing. How does the 2022 to 2027 council plan advance the Falkirk housing strategy?
Falkirk Council. Credit @Scotdrone
Good quality housing provides stability for individuals and families and plays an important role in helping to improve lives. That is why we are increasing the housing supply across the area. Over the next five years, we plan to build 555 new homes while also implementing a significant buyback programme. Our team is also collaborating with Falkirk Health and Social Care Partnership and social landlords to design homes that meet specific needs.
One of our council plan priorities is to support stronger and healthier communities, and our efforts to increase housing access for vulnerable groups reflect this. Our focus on energy efficiency and fuel poverty ensures that we are taking a comprehensive approach to improving the housing situation across the Falkirk area.
We take pride in the quality of our housing stock, but we are always striving for improvement. Our team is dedicated to making homes more energy-efficient and improving insulation, doors, and other features that impact the quality of life for residents. We are also passionate about providing safe, comfortable, and affordable housing for our communities.
We believe that by working together and focusing on our common goals, we can create a brighter future for all those who call the Falkirk Council area home.
What are your key education service issues?
I am proud to say that in education, Falkirk is making significant strides towards creating a brighter future for children and young people. According to an Audit Scotland report in 2021, Falkirk was recognised as the most improved Council in two of the four indicators, and we are determined to maintain this momentum post-pandemic.
Great things are happening, like our Connected Falkirk programme, but ring-fenced funding can make it difficult to be innovative across education and all our schools. We would strongly welcome a more joined-up approach at the Scottish Government level to ensure initiatives can bring widespread benefits.
To address the attainment gap, we are taking a data-driven approach. We are rigorously analysing data, supporting and challenging our schools, tracking and monitoring pupil progress, and providing tailored support to those who need it most. We are also adapting and innovating around our curriculum to offer diverse pathways like vocational learning.
I believe we are in a strong position to narrow the attainment gap, as we had started to do prior to COVID. By taking a more holistic and joined-up approach, we can provide all pupils with the education they deserve, and we are eager to work collaboratively with all partners to achieve this goal.
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, moving council HQ into the centre. Any regeneration or other obstacles encountered, and solutions implemented.
Our council HQ & arts centre project has been a long time coming, but we have finally reached a shared view and have identified a town centre location. The pandemic did alter our plans for the facility, with less office space needed due to hybrid working and more focus being placed on creating a building that celebrates the arts and culture and provides an access point for services.
We are also committed to the regeneration of Falkirk and Grangemouth. Our focus is not just on the town centres but on broader re-adjustment efforts associated with the decline of retail. We are prioritising cultural-led regeneration, which means investing in town-centre housing and health facilities to encourage town-centre living.
Grangemouth Town Centre is also a key priority for us, and we have secured £10m from the Scottish Government to help support a greener Grangemouth. This project is centred on community well-being and the transition to net zero. We are working closely with businesses in and around Grangemouth to ensure that the community benefits from this transition.
Of course, there are always obstacles to regeneration, such as negotiating with various landowners, but we have good support from our business community. Looking ahead, we are confident that we can continue to build momentum and negotiate land and specific sites to create a better Falkirk and Grangemouth for all.
Evidence-based policymaking is the golden egg for local government. What future do you see for digitisation and comparative data such as the Local Government Benchmarking Framework (LGBF)?
I believe digitisation and artificial intelligence will undoubtedly help councils address the financial challenges they face, and more effective use of data will improve decision-making processes and policies.
At the LGBF, we understand the importance of data and benchmarking, especially in driving performance improvement and supporting good decision-making at a council level. Our core focus is to use evidence to advocate for local government, with a clearer emphasis on sector-wide performance, such as climate action, poverty, and the cost-of-living crisis.
Our new dashboard is a prime example of the power of upfront data, and it offers a nuanced lens for the Scottish local government landscape. The LGBF is not about forming a crude league table. Instead, it is an opportunity to understand how Councils operate on specific indicators, making it easier to identify areas for improvement and growth.
While the LGBF may not be perfect, it is meant to be a can opener, providing information that enables people to learn more about their Council and its performance. There is no absolute measure of performance, and the context of each council is unique. However, by embracing digitisation, we can work towards a more efficient, innovative, and data-driven local government landscape.
Finally, you have been in the post of Chief Executive in Midlothian and Falkirk. During this time, what has surprised you, aside from a pandemic? What challenged you? What are the similarities and differences between councils?
As a Chief Executive, I am always ready for the unexpected. It’s part and parcel of the job – you have to be prepared for both the opportunities and the challenges which can emerge on a daily basis. While events like the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis are unexpected, we operate in a political environment where surprises are a part of everyday life.
As a leader, I see challenges as opportunities for innovation and change. The financial position has meant there is a need for ongoing service transformation, and that need has only become more acute with time. The need for savings, efficiencies, and reshaping our organisations has not diminished.
In Falkirk, we have been on a journey of transformation, moving towards a more collaborative, joined-up approach that works across boundaries with partners and communities. Building a new team around me, and taking them on that journey with me, has made it easier to face current challenges head-on.
For me, workplace culture is key. You can have all the strategies and plans in the world but if the organisational culture is not right, you’ll not deliver on your goals nor keep or attract the talent you need to make things happen. That is why we are embarking on an employer branding exercise that will highlight where things are working really well and the areas we need to work on, both in terms of strengthening our internal culture but also our external brand.
Because nobody can deny, when people come together positively, openly, collaboratively, and ambitiously, remarkable things can happen. As a Chief Executive for 13 years, previously at Midlothian Council, what keeps me going is seeing the energy and resourcefulness of my colleagues right across the organisation, whether they are senior officers or on the frontline.
It is that determination to support our communities, especially the most vulnerable, that keeps me motivated despite the constant and growing set of challenges facing local government. I am proud to be a part of an organisation that is always ready to face the unexpected and find new and innovative ways to serve communities.