'We can make the best of opportunities': Shropshire Council boss ready to tackle whatever comes next

The chief executive of Shropshire Council Andy Begley tells how he remains optimistic despite floods and now the coronavirus crisis

Andy Begley
Andy Begley

He’s remarkably polite. That’s the first thing you notice. And then there’s his enthusiasm. In the world of Andy Begley, there are no problems, only challenges; no difficulties, only opportunities. He’s not particularly charismatic; rather, he’s straight. You ask him a question, he answers it. He engenders trust.

So our starter for ten is simple. Given that we’ve been through an era of austerity in which local councils have suffered huge cuts and given that the public purse is in an immeasurably worse position now with harsher cuts to come, why on earth did he apply for his job, as chief executive of Shropshire Council?

He laughs and then he explains: “I wouldn’t have applied for the job if I didn’t think there were lots of opportunities to move forward. When I took over, I tell people I should have taken my lucky charm off. I took over as interim chief with the worst flooding in 25 years, earlier this year, then a week after there was a global pandemic. Being interim for six months, that galvanised me into wanting to become chief exec. I saw what the organisation was capable of. I have worked in public sector for long enough to know what public services can do.”

A man who sees a glass half full, rather than half empty, Andy Begley is one of life’s true optimists. He is not, however, from the Boris Johnson school of fairy stories and making things up. There’s hard headed realism and an abundance of pragmatism in the way he views his work. He’s also seen the council in its toughest fix for decades – and liked the way it responded to extreme stress.

He’s seen the decline in public funding, particularly for local government, during the past decade. However, he’s also witnessed incredible innovations and service developments. His background is in health and social care and during that epoch, that sector has led the way in terms of innovations to achieve better results with lower budgets. One of the key drivers of that was collaborative working, where social care providers worked with the private and public sector to achieve synergy.

“There are so many opportunities to carry on those development. It’s not just about the local authority. It’s about working with others.

“That collaborative approach is really important. No one organisation can solve problems on their own. Whether you are talking about organisations within a locality, a region or nationally, it’s important that we understand how to work together as an eco-system. That’s the only way to address the major challenges we address. I’ve seen the results of what happens when you get systems right and overcome organisational boundaries.”

Ah yes, organisational boundaries. If Covid has taught us one thing, it’s that we have to work together. Without PPE providers in distant parts of the world, without observing the clues and cues from nations hit before us, without learning the lessons from others experiences, we are lost.

“What we need to do as organisations and leaders is not only look at our local position but look globally. We have to look at what clues and cues are there. Whether that’s issues of global trade and how that impacts on local supply chains, whether that’s the digital agenda and how that’s been accelerated over the past six or seven months; we’ve probably moved five years in five months on that side.”

Andy Begley’s character can probably be summed up with this vignette. When staff were sent home from their offices in Spring, he saw not difficulties but opportunities. He didn’t see restrictive practices, he saw the benefits that might come from people working remotely, from a change to the norm.

“All those things start to become a series of opportunities. We can seize the moment and make the best of the opportunities. They are the largest changes to our working environment in generations. We can’t underestimate the impact and we need to understand that. But we have to rise to the challenge and understand the potential benefits.”

And in Shropshire, those benefits are considerable. The county has a very, very positive narrative, with all of the components for fantastic success. It has remarkable geography while its position in the UK provides the twin engines of beautiful rurality as well as an important access point from north-south and east-west. The county’s topography lends itself to agriculture and agri-tech, in which it is incredibly successful. Again, Mr Begley sees the opportunity as he identifies emerging trends.

“You think about plant-based diets for instance and we are brilliantly placed. We have a huge number of small industries. We don’t just have major industries, particularly. Our SMES and their portfolio of trade is enormous. It’s become apparent to me, going back to technical and digital vocations, that people are moving out of London and other cities into rural areas. People don’t want to pay that rent for residential or commercial accommodation in London. You can run a global tech company in Shropshire and live in a beautiful place.”

It’s all about the team, however, about collaboration. Shropshire has exceptional links into the West Midlands combined authority. However, it is equidistant, almost, from the grater Manchester authorities, as well as having a huge border with wales. “The ability to work with others is evident, while not forgetting that we are a destination in ourselves. Tourism is a huge attractor for Shropshire and we need to support it.” It’s not all good news, however.

While the sunlit uplands of our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty may drive people from the cities to rural areas, bringing money, business and experience with them, there are other issues. Having worked in health and social care, Mr Begley is acutely aware of them.

The percentage of people aged 65+ in Shropshire is 23 per cent against a West Midlands and UK average of 18 per cent. In such towns as Church Stretton, Much Wenlock, Ludlow, Bishop’s Castle and Cleobury Mortimer, the disparity is considerably greater. In Church Stretton, for instance, almost a third of all people are retired. Life expectancy for both males and females is also higher than in the rest of the UK.

A 2018 study into the county’s ageing populations illustrated some of the effects: “The number of people with dementia or mobility issues which result in them being unable to manage at least one activity on their own is expected to rise significantly with the increase in the elderly population.

“Between 2017 and 2035 the number of people aged 65-plus with dementia is expected to increase by 80 per cent. Those people who are aged 65 plus and unable to manage at least one activity on their own is projected to increase by 63 per cent.”

Yet, despite the challenges, Mr Begley is unswervingly optimistic. He talks compellingly of the value that the elderly bring to our wider society, about their willingness to volunteer about the types of communities that can be built around them. Yet health and social care are not the only challenge. The pandemic has destroyed much of the creative and cultural industries, depriving them or revenue at a time when councils have little money to spend on performative arts. Sport and leisure are equally hard hit, areas that need substantial funding at a time when there is none.

“Health and social care is a national challenge. This isn’t just a particular Shropshire challenge. These are national conditions that we need to deal with. From my perspective, culture and the arts is another fascinating area. It’s one that may be very easy to look at and say ‘it’s not essential so we should look for cuts’.

“Actually, however, it’s a really important part of keeping a healthy and vibrant population. Health and social care isn’t just about medical conditions or disability. It’s about well- being. people need to be economically comfortable and live, eat and stay warm without any worries.

“You look nationally at foodbanks and nationally on the edge of poverty, we need to make sure nationally that we have wellbeing. That’s where we come back to arts and culture and recreation being an integral part of that, including the use of theatres. We need to pay careful attention to both sides of the coin. Having said that, all this sits within such restricted budgets and tightening of the purse strings. Let’s be honest if we find our national debt compared to going into austerity; it’s three times the scale of where we were during the last period of austerity. Clearly, there are going to be extremely challenging times to come.”

Mr Begley is a front foot player. He doesn’t want to sit back to wait to see what happens.

“I want to look at developing services that may not be funded. I go back to collaboration. We have volunteers who are retired and want to contribute back into the system. We have to mix the resource, the impetus, the expertise and the capacity of the community, private and public sector.”

Leadership is a key issue of course and Mr Begley has neither the time nor ambition to micro manage every member of staff for the region’s largest employer. He does, however, want the council to be more front-facing, to be more accessible and visible. Organisational discipline is a topic close to his heart and he wants individual council employees to have the freedom to innovate, drive services and contribute to the development of services.

“We have to let people know what is acceptable and what isn’t, but there has to be flexibility and freedom for individuals to develop. It’s important to be different from a private sector organisation. We are led by democratically-elected politicians.

“Those members of cabinet and the broader members of the council are mandated by the community. They are the ones who gives us that direction.”

In some ways, Shropshire Council is ahead of the curve. In the era before Covid it invested heavily in a new digital infrastructure that allows remote working and better interaction between community and council.

“I’d like to tell you that we had a crystal ball and anticipated what was happening but clearly we didn’t. But we did invest heavily in our digital infrastructure, we have been finessing that.

“Then we come into Covid and the whole thing is accelerated. We’re in a much better position than many colleagues who didn’t have that infrastructure. The speed of development is mind-boggling.

“What was understood as the only way of working six months ago is hugely different to where we are today. I have no idea of what it will look like in six to 12 or 18 months, though I know it will be different. This isn’t a Shropshire Council thing. What we have to do as an organisation is make sure we’re agile enough and able to take advantage of opportunities.”

Away from his desk job Mr Begley has a busy home life with two children and a household of animals that keep him busy.

Born in Bolton, he’s always been an outdoors type. “My heart is definitely in Shropshire.”

His passion is rugby, though he’s long since hung up his boots.

His other passion, though, is to move Shropshire forward so that it’s fit to cope with the changes brought about by changes to our climate, issues surrounding Brexit and the nightmare that has been Covid-19.

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