Five evil giants …

Just now I am reading the first part of Alan Johnson’s biography “This Boy”. It tells the story of his upbringing in a deprived part of London in the 1950s and early 1960s. This is Alan Johnson MP, the former Labour Cabinet Minister, dubbed by some “the best Labour Prime minister we never had.” I have previously read part 2 about his years as a postie and thought I would like to read the story from the start.

It’s a truly moving account of a poverty stricken childhood in a family deserted by the father, with a mother afflicted by a terminal illness and the upbringing of a small boy the responsibility of his older sister. That may not sell it to you as bed time reading, but it is a great read. His district of London, now fashionable, was in the 50s typified by run down indeed unfit houses and flats with the ravages of the Blitz still apparent, even 10 or 15 years after the end of the war.
A reflection he offers more than once in the book is on the position he and his mother and sister would have been in had they been living in the decade before the welfare state came into being in the late 1940s, rather than in the decade after. The NHS in particular plays a central role in his story.
At one point the book makes reference to the Beveridge Report that gave rise to the NHS, the benefits system and so on. Published in 1944, before the end of the war, the report published under the name of William Beveridge, a Liberal politician and academic, established the modern welfare state. This was in response to the need to tackle what Beveridge called the five “giant evils”. Squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Squalor relates to housing, ignorance to poor education, want to financial wellbeing and need, idleness to unemployment and disease to sickness and ill health.
All of these giants impacted on substantial sections of society in the UK, afflicting the lives of millions and well documented in Alan Johnson’s personal story.
This reference to Beveridge started me thinking about modern Britain and the extent to which we have managed to rid ourselves of the five giants through 60 years of endeavour.
In a country troubled by poor but expensive accommodation in short supply, with too many folk reliant on food banks and a changing benefits system, and in which the prospects of our young people seem limited, perhaps our world, although greatly improved in so many ways, has its own version of the post war challenges?

What makes change work?

It’s all about change at the moment. New thinking, new models and more. The MJ tells me that the LGA in England are looking at setting up a new insurance mutual. My former employer in North Lincolnshire has established a trading company to sell its services. Aberdeen City Council has gone for a bond issue to fund investment in infrastructure. All big and positive changes. There are many more examples, and some from Angus too.

But this morning’s Leadership Forum at Angus Council (our top 100+ managers meeting) reinforced for me that fundamental to successful change in local government are some more simple things. I have in mind –

  • Acknowledging that the customer/citizen experience should be the principal driver of service re-shaping
  • Accepting that change can lead to good things – and usually does
  • Coming to terms with the fact that there are some things we just won’t do anymore
  • Knowing that while hard times may lead us to dig in and defend our bit in fact we need to do the opposite and work as one council supporting each other
  • Grasping that we don’t know as much about our business and its customers as we think we do, or as much as we should
  • Understanding that people can be frightened by change and what it means for them
  • Communicating better, and more often, to help alleviate those fears wherever we can

Big K…


I was both captured and moved by a TV programme last night. It was “The Last Miners” on BBC1. This was a 2 part documentary looking at the last year of the very last deep coal mine in the UK – “Big K” at Kellingley in North Yorkshire.

I know the area well and have cast my eyes towards Big K many times from the M62 on journeys to and from home, especially when I was working in Leeds.

From an industry that employed hundreds of thousands just 30 or 40 years ago deep coal mining in Britain was down to the last 400 or so when Kellingley Colliery closed in December 2015.

In the second programme the show followed four miners in particular, two well in their 50s, one perhaps a little younger and one much younger man. Emotions, both in terms of the personal challenge of losing a job but also from being the very last of a proud industry, were always near the surface. The camaraderie of tough and dangerous work underground was brought home to the viewer. The first episode had one scene covering the relocation of the memorial to those killed underground at Kellingley to a nearby mining museum.

The imperative for the men underground was to keep cutting coal in the last month of the pit’s life in order to pay their own redundancy money.

In many ways the programme captured the challenges of modernisation in all walks of life and industry. The human side of things is always very telling for those caught up in change, as we all are at one time or another, or in one way or another. Although the continuing need for coal, now all imported, to fuel our remaining coal fired power stations for the next 10 years was commented on there seemed to be no malice towards management, local management at the colliery at least. One item of graffiti proclaimed “Scargill was right!”

The good news – of the four they followed three had got new jobs by March 2016, and the fourth had started working for himself as a handyman having enjoyed doing some DIY for his son in the first few months after redundancy.

It’s worth seeking out if you missed it – BBC iPlayer will oblige.



A comment on my recent blog “On the rails…” mentioned how the blog piece had given an example of one of the many things that a council is involved with that the wider public just aren’t aware of.

Yesterday (10 November) provided another example. The Tayside Local Resilience Partnership staged an event at the Marryat Hall in Dundee to discuss multi-agency plans in response to a terrorist incident. That might seem to be a little off the track for your local council, but it certainly isn’t. The need to be aware and engaged with this issue has become essential for organisations of all types.

In the room were NHS Tayside, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, Scottish Ambulance Service, the 3 Tayside councils, SEPA, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the Army, the RAF and the Royal Navy, the Scottish Government, Network Rail, ScotRail and the British Transport Police. That gives a picture of the comprehensive nature of the event and the extent of engagement from public bodes that would be required to deal with an event and to recover from it.

I really want to emphasise there is no information suggesting any kind of imminent incident in the Tayside area – this event was part of a planned learning and development programme – but we must remember that the threat level in the UK from terrorism remains unchanged and advice to all of our communities is to remain vigilant and to be alert, but not to be alarmed.

If you want to think about your organisation’s readiness there is guidance and advice on security on the GOV.UK website and in particular have a look at the ‘Run – Hide – Tell’ Stay Safe video at

On the rails…..

infographic2On Tuesday 1st November I attended an event at the Scottish Parliament to promote the work of the East Coast Mainline Authorities consortium (EMCA).

The event was sponsored by Iain Gray MSP and the main speaker was Humza Yousaf MSP, demonstrating the cross party support ECMA needs.

ECMA is a perhaps unique alliance of 41 councils (including Angus Council), combined authorities and Regional Transport Partnerships which has come together to promote the need for investment in the east coast mainline (ECML) railway, working with both the Scottish and UK governments and the rail industry.

The ECML, which of course runs through Angus, is a vital economic and social artery, but for too long it has been the victim of underinvestment in comparison to other routes. The consequence this has been problems with running times and route capacity, limiting the potential for economic growth and reducing the experience of rail travel for passengers.

ECMA funded research has demonstrated the national and UK wide importance of this historic 580 mile long route running from London to the north east of Scotland. ECMA estimates that the £3 billion of investment the route needs would produce a return of at least £9 billion in terms of the economic growth and development unlocked.  Not just a train service.

If you want to know more have a look at this –

Provost of Angus, Helen Oswald

Provost Helen Oswald
Provost Helen Oswald

Angus Council colleagues will know that the Provost of Angus, Helen Oswald, passed away in the early hours of Thursday 13 October.

I first met Helen in the snow bound and oh so cold December of 2010. She was a member of the appointments panel that offered me the role of Chief Executive at the council. In my first year or so at the council Helen was a tenacious leader of the then opposition SNP group and a strong advocate for her ward at Carnoustie.

In the years since 2012 as Provost of Angus Helen worked exceptionally hard to promote the county and to deliver on our community’s expectation of its “first citizen”. She continued to speak up for her ward and to promote those causes – political and otherwise – that were close to her heart.
In the role of Provost it is not possible to please all the people all the time, but no one can say that Helen did not give the job her best.
At this time foremost in my mind is that she was a wife, a mother and a grandmother and my thoughts and yours too I think will be with her husband Ed and the wider family.