Global HR, workforce and communications

In Conversation: Heather and Thomas share their reflections on the first three months in their new LGIU roles.

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To share what working for the LGIU is like, we asked our two newest members of staff to interview each other and share their experiences a month into the role. Finishing an extravagant smoothie, Heather (Chief Operating Officer) and Thomas (International Operations Assistant) took turns answering the below questions.

What’s it been like working at LGIU so far, what’s different than what you’ve expected

Heather: For me, looking at our 2022 LGIU annual survey responses demonstrates the benefits of working for the LGIU; enthusiastic, engaged members, who form the LGIU network and help design and deliver the most appropriate public services and help communities and individuals to thrive.

The recruitment process was really open and supportive, and this attracted me to the role and to LGIU as an organisation.  Jonathan was honest and upfront about challenges and expectations and I was given the opportunity to meet with some of the team as part of the process. Reflecting upon this, what I’ve experienced since coming into the role and the nature of the work I have been doing is as much as I expected.

Having said that, I joined in September and there was a lot happening at that time! Before joining, I had a clear idea of what I thought the first month would contain  –  party conferences, councillor awards for example – but with political turmoil in the background and the impact of the national mourning period, lots of long laid plans were having to be changed and the reality of the first month was a bit different.

The other thing to say is that this has been my first experience starting a job in a remote working environment. Lots of friends have asked me how it has been to start a job but not actually meet people face to face and have the chats that help you get to know people. My LGIU colleagues have been amazing and really welcoming. But not being able to meet people in the lift or kitchen does make it harder to get to know people and build relationships. I’m really looking forward to our Christmas meal next week as it will be the first time we have all been together in one place since I started.

Thomas: Joining at the start of September I have had a really fun time settling into the LGIU. I graduated in the summer, and after making it through the interview process I finished a week’s notice at hospitality and found myself in the LGIU.

The job description and interview process was very informative and detailed, so I had some initial expectations, however, the first few weeks were really interesting into what the role entails. Based in Edinburgh I was lucky to spend a lot of time with the Scotland team in-person and this was really useful for understanding more about the role and building those connections. September was also a great time to join, as October saw the LGIU Councillor awards in Scotland and England which provided some amazing opportunities to get to know the rest of the LGIU team.

Overall, I have found it interesting how the role involves open-content, events, membership and I have found it really interesting hearing from our member Council’s about all the different projects that go largely unnoticed. My particular favourite was the Derry and Strabane Council interview, it was fascinating to hear the long term planning and impacts that go into the Halloween festival.

What’s your interest and experience with local government?

Heather: I fell into local government after graduating from university. I studied Astrophysics at Manchester which was a great experience – we did experiments at Jodrell Bank radio telescope and Brian Cox was on the teaching staff. But by the end I was clear that I wanted to work in environmental sustainability.

I took some time out after graduation to take care of my family and do some travelling. When I came back I moved to London with my now husband and a job  popped up at the Royal Borough of Greenwich. I didn’t know much about local government then or have a strong desire to be in it, but it sounded interesting. I got the job and it started me on the path! The things I liked were that it was an interesting varied workload and there was the opportunity to work on real projects. Whilst i’ve always found policy interesting I do think that the most exciting thing local government is that it is where real world projects are implemented.

Looking back, I was very fortunate to have fallen into this role and very quickly I realised this is where I wanted to be. I was glad I ended up there and it opened up a lot of opportunity.

The other thing was that I joined local government at an interesting time for sustainability. There were lots of new policies and requirements coming forward like the carbon reduction commitment and the green deal. There was a lot of complex stuff to get your head round and to develop plans and proposals around. But after a lot of time and effort doing just that, most of what we were working towards was changed or watered down. It was really frustrating to think of how much wasted time had gone in, not just in my own team in Greenwich but across the UK. This is a lesson I am sure everyone who has worked in local government will appreciate, the work is rewarding, challenging, but frustrating at times.

But it was when I was at Greenwich, with all the new challenges and new legislative requirements, that I first came across the LGIU. Greenwich was and still is one of our Members and I was signed up to receive the LGIU environmental briefings. When an LGIU email came into my inbox with a briefing on carbon reduction or green deal I always knew it would be informative and looked forward to reading them and using them. So this is where my positive association with the LGIU came from.

After working as a Council officer for 8 years I went to work for Greenwich’s innovation company DG Cities which was an amazing experience, working with brilliant people and on some amazing projects. Everything from autonomous vehicles to electrification to data platforms. That experience was really good preparation for the LGIU too, as it taught me the ins and outs of what it means to run a company.

Thomas: I came into the LGIU after graduating from the University of Edinburgh in the summer of 2022. Before studying politics, I grew up in Belfast was always interested in the politics going around on me. I remember getting really interested in politics following the flag protests in 2012-13 and knew I wanted to learn more about history/politics.

Studying Politics in Edinburgh was also a great opportunity to learn more about local and regional politics. I got more and more interested in regional and local politics. I always found that change or progress was delivered locally, and that centrally politics was stagnant (in N. Ireland). I was lucky that the University offered great courses about Scottish and UK politics, and I really enjoyed reading/writing about issues affecting Irish/Scottish politics. Graduating this summer, I knew that I wanted to work in local politics, so when a friend showed me an LGIU job advertisement I wrote an application that evening.

What’s your favourite town hall? What style of architecture do you like in a town hall?

Heather: Manchester town hall is really stunning and could well be my favourite town hall, however, I have never been there for a work purpose, I’ve only been there for a wedding. But seeing the inside was amazing.

The one I know best is Woolwich town hall. I know it the most from working at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, and when I worked across the road in the main Council office I remember it would always be a really special occasion to go inside. To set the scene, you would go in through a beautiful entrance to a marble floored entrance hall with a dome and soft almost pinkish colour scheme.  There were often wedding photos happening from people who had just got married in one of the formal rooms.

Thomas: Newry town hall. I am not the biggest fan of big imposing “look at me type” buildings. It feels a bit excessive. But that doesn’t mean Newry town hall is a concrete box. Instead it is a red-brick town hall that sits on a specially constructed bridge. It has a rich interesting history, sits in the centre of Newry and unlike a lot of buildings with character in N. Ireland, it has impressively survived unscathed since the 19th century.

Newry town hall. Source: Stefan Schäfer, Lich, CC BY-SA 4.0

What’s your favourite local gov maintained thing (park, museum, leisure, festival) in your local area or area you grew up in?

Heather: That’s such a hard question! I grew up in quite a rural area in Yorkshire and I can’t immediately think of what there was that the Council maintained. There was definitely a village hall which was where all sorts happened and there were fetes and jumble sales and things.  I’ve definitely got fond memories of that village hall. So maybe that.

I remember how bad the public transport was there and that I had a love/hate relationship with the local bus service. When I got a bit older I would get the bus into Leeds and it only ran once an hour in the evenings so if you missed it, it was pretty annoying! It was basically a polar opposite from where I live now in South London where there’s so many options and it’s 24 hours.

Another thing that’s just occurred to me is something called the Green Chain Walk. It’s a walk that joins up lots of parks in South East London and there’s a 50 mile walking route that goes from one end to another. I love the concept of these green links and how much variety there is along the way – everything from ancient woodland to castles to dinosaurs. I have two big dogs so I’m always on the lookout for a new place to take them for a walk and the Green Chain has loads of good options.

Thomas: For me it’s the Cregagh Glen in Belfast. It is a walkway up through a glen that is hidden at the edge of East Belfast. You would easily miss it, but it has an amazing waterfall and leads you up to the Castlereagh hills and provides amazing views of Belfast. So aye it’s a lovely spot and it has a really interesting history with a wee memorial at the top for the American’s stationed during the Second World War.

The Cregagh Glen. Source: Thomas Lynch

What are you most looking forward to achieving at LGIU?

Heather: Another tough one. No question I am a bit daunted to be taking over from Andy (the LGIU’s outgoing Chief Operating Officer) who has been so instrumental in making LGIU what it is.  But I think the thing I love most about this role is being able to work across the whole organisation and with different people.  Next year is going to be a cracker as we have lots planned for the 40th birthday of the LGIU around a theme of “defending local institutions” and we will be showcasing the value of local government, especially given the intensity of challenges we face today.

Thomas: Some size of a question. I am most excited to work with our Irish and Scottish members. I like seeing the similarities between the Irish and Scottish local government when doing our weekly roundups. But overall, I am looking forward to working with our members and hearing about all the interesting projects that Council’s are doing, especially as they are finding themselves constantly adapting to changing opportunities and challenges.

What’s your biggest worry about local democracy/ local public services?

Heather: I have to say funding. I joined local government in 2009 and cuts to councils were already in motion so I’ve never known a local government sector that wasn’t in a period of cost cutting/ austerity. That’s 13 years ago and we are now in a place where Councils like Kent and Hampshire are making public pleas to the government for urgent action because of the size of the budget deficits they are  facing.  We had an LGIU event for leaders not long ago and every single person there was united in their view on this. One of the Leaders said that in the past 12 years they had  undertaken 3 reorganisations, countless transformation programmes and that the cost of living crisis meant that they were getting to ‘bare bones.’ It was startling to hear it being spelt out like that.

Thomas: In Scotland, I think the biggest threat to local democracy is that twinned threat of centralisation of services, coupled with the continuous underfunding of local governments. It really struck me when the Chief Executive of Renfrewshire Council remarked in an LGIU In Conversation that since 2008 council, Councils have been in a constant battle for financial sustainability with no end in sight. In Ireland, both North and South I think the lack of powers is a real hindrance to local democracy. I think this is the most apparent in the North, where the “blurred lines” between the Executive Department’s and Councils really frustrates the need for the reform on transport, infrastructure and economic regeneration.

If you had to pick one LGIU briefing to best showcase what you like about the LGIU, what would it be?

Heather: It’s impossible to pick one! I love the breadth and variety of briefings and other publications that we produce. There really is something for everyone/ every role.

Thomas: So far, my favourite is this LGIU Ireland briefing “Town Centre First – Lessons from Scotland”. This briefing provides an overview of the policy and the review and looks to possible lessons from Scotland for local and national Irish policy-makers.

I picked this briefing for two reasons. First, it was written by the LGIU Research team (you can find the LGIU Research Team’s ongoing work here), which I think is a really interesting part of the LGIU. Second, its one of the many parts of the LGIU which connects Irish and Scottish local governments and shows how much scope there is for the sharing of best practice and information.

You can find out more about the rest of the LGIU team here