In Conversation with Pippa Milne, Chief Executive of award-winning Council, Argyll and Bute

Photo by Nancy Hann on Unsplash

2022 was an award-winning year for Argyll and Bute Council, as Dunoon was recognised as the world-best for community engagement and Port Ellen Primary won The Pearson National Teaching Awards Primary School of the Year for Making a Difference.

To find out more about success in Argyll and Bute, Kim and Thomas spoke with Chief Executive Pippa Milne to hear about Argyll and Bute Council, their partners and the wider public sector.

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

I have lived and worked in Argyll for 8 years and I became Chief Executive of the Council in January 2020. Given the pandemic, previously laid plans and priorities went out the window and we had to totally readjust.

The education team was absolutely at the heart of what we were doing in the pandemic response. They were totally community focused, setting up food hubs in schools to make sure we still had contact with pupils. Using different ways of teaching remotely posed a lot of challenges, and accelerated opportunities that we were considering pre-pandemic.

Speaking to teachers at the time, there was a growing recognition that for some young people different methods of teaching were actually suited them better For us, one of the things we were looking at before the pandemic was how we maximise the range of subjects and opportunities that we can offer to young people. Given our unique geography that means being innovative on how we can use virtual learning and in person learning. So for us a big focus was how can we get schools working collaboratively to maximise the offer available to young people.

The priorities that our members have just agreed upon are aimed at making sure that we have positive destinations for young people as well as good academic results, and making it attractive for young people to stay in the area. So we are highlighting a range of career opportunities in the area, and especially those that don’t have the best understood career opportunities. We also work closely with Argyll College and look to see how we can deliver on a dispersed model to maximise what we can offer young people, whether it be through our education team or the college.

We have a talented team, including Executive Director for Education (Douglas Hendry), and two heads of education (Jennifer Crocket and Wendy Brownlie) who deal with a very widely spread and varied range of schools. We have 76 schools spread from the Tiree in the north west to Bute and Helensburgh in the south east. Within these schools, there is also a wide variation from large schools to some that have just 2 pupils.

The word unprecedented was a weekly occurrence amongst the LGIU team. What are the key opportunities and challenges in Argyll and Bute Council as you move into 2023?

A big focus we have is taking some of the things that worked well during Covid and trying to pull those out into what we are doing now. For example, having a clear set of objectives, working across team boundaries, continuing to strengthen our partnerships, using technology, and making sure we are continuously learning and evaluating about what we are doing.

Applying those things back into normal work, the recent education success is evidence of that. Dunoon grammar was crowned the World’s Best School for Community Collaboration and Port Ellen Primary was named Primary School of the Year. Both these awards are reflections of the community links and partnerships. Following on from that success, working across the traditional boundaries in how we operate is key to future development.

One big personal reflection from our recent education success is the energy and positivity you find when you spend time in these schools and how engaged the pupils are, and this is why it always makes for the best days out of the office.

Building on technology in schools, this offers really exciting opportunities. The other big hope for 2023 is our recent application to the learning estate improvement program and working towards achieving a new school campus for Mull.

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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.

Campbeltown is a good example of our regeneration journey.We have done a lot of work in the town and supported a number of community projects. From 2007-2020 Argyll and Bute Council working in partnership with the community, private and social enterprise sector delivered an extensive programme of heritage led regeneration in Campbeltown town centre.

This work translates into community confidence and local community groups have completed projects like the Town Hall and Picture House. Both these projects really lifted the town, and recently there is a lot of new interest in redeveloping distilleries which is a strong and growing sector in the town.

It’s also not without its challenges, projects included harbour and road improvements to facilitate the movement of wind turbine towers but sadly the factory manufacturing these in the area has closed down. We are still working with HIE to maximise the use of these facilities in the future.

We are not finished yet, but it shows the amount of money, time and effort required turn these towns around and get to a point where you are confident they are in a robust sustainable position. We saw this with Campbeltown town centre regeneration being shortlisted at the Scotland Loves Local Awards, in the Town Centre Living category. And this is just one of Argyll and Bute’s towns, we have similar examples in all our towns.

We continue to invest a range of funds across our towns, working with communities to shape those plans. We are also participating in a pilot project, working with the Improvement Service and Public Health Scotland to consider the impact of regeneration on wellbeing.

Hybrid working cultures and increased staff turnovers are challenges facing every council. Where do you think home and hybrid working will go in the next 15 months?

We definitely see hybrid working continuing. We did a number of surveys on the tail end of Covid and people definitely want a hybrid offering better work-life balance – Working from Home, mixed with the opportunity for in-person and real life connections.

Equally, in a rural and large area like ours it is really important for our elected members to use hybrid meetings. It gives them more options and it supports the diversity in our elected members by giving those who may have children and caring responsibility a way to participate.

It gives a whole new flexibility and it gives an opportunity to rationalise our estate, and in the current climate, anything that cuts our costs on energy and buildings is more than welcome. Overall, I think hybrid working is here to stay and it gives a whole new flexibility. We had good flexible technology before the pandemic, but we had to take it to a whole new level and continue to look at ways to make further improvements.

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

I touched upon it at the beginning, but it’s been tough but also interesting time. The plan that when I started in the role went out the window. But in a reassuring way, we were dealing with something where everyone was in the same boat. So it wasn’t harder for a new chief executive than anyone else who was dealing with it and informal networks with colleagues were a great support during covid.

The pandemic was challenging and devastating for many people but looking back over my local government experience with the pandemic, it did provide opportunities to accelerate change, and there was more appetite for something new.

The key example is that something that would normally take weeks and months to implement would take days and weeks. And coming in as a new Chief Executive during the pandemic, it gave me a real opportunity to set a new culture when people were more accepting of change. So it was a really interesting time to enter the role, and getting out and getting involved in education and social care was really interesting and rewarding.

One key positive learning from the pandemic I found is that if you empower people, and you trust them, they can do some pretty amazing stuff. For instance, one of our teams created a new service for Covid in 3 days. So it has been a responsibility and a privilege to try and create a positive culture within my own organisation, and with community and partners.

In terms of challenges, finances is a big one. There is a real need for an open and constructive conversation about how we deal with that. There are a lot of competing demands, and we really need to have a hard look as an organisation and local government as a sector. But the pandemic has shown what is possible (the pace and opportunities), so we also need to ask how do we capture that shift and apply it to our challenges.

We need to have a look at how things could look different, how organisations operate, and all with a mind towards change. It’s a difficult conversation to have, but absolutely necessary. We cannot keep making incremental changes about ways of working that have existed for decades. We need more radical change.

There are also the challenges of Argyll and Bute’s unique geography. We all say we are unique, but I don’t know if “rural” challenges are well enough understood. This is particularly relevant given the discussions around “consistency” in reference to the delivery of services within the national care service proposals.

In terms of what we are doing, we also face the big challenge of population and housing. With a decline in the working age population, we also face a real concern over public sector housing availability which has drastically worsened and is a really difficult, systemic issue to address. And for both of these issues, people want quick and easy solutions for. However, that is not the reality.

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