Cornwall’s new boss tells the Packet about his ambition to devise a five-year-plan for Falmouth and Helston, about why he’s £1,000/week cheaper than his predecessor and why he pays most of his council tax in Wiltshire.
Andrew Kerr has just completed his first week as the new chief executive of Cornwall Council.
The 53-year-old, a former 400m runner who represented Great Britain at the 1977 European Junior Championships, is settling into his Truro flat – while returning to his family home in Wiltshire at weekends.
He had previously been chief operating officer at Cardiff Council, following spells as chief executive for North Tyneside and Wiltshire councils. So why did he want to be the new boss at County Hall?
“It’s a challenge,” he said. “This is one of the biggest local authorities in the country, it’s got lots of infrastructure money to spend – £1billion – and we’ve got to save£195million over the next five years. These things are not easy.
“I spent ten years coming on holiday here, so I know Cornwall quite well. I visit regularly; I’ve got friends in Fowey and I we go to Eden a lot. Part of the challenge, part of the reason why I wanted to come to Cornwall, is the localism agenda. I think we have to get the right balance between the infrastructure stuff and making sure that we’re providing services that are local enough, so that people understand that Newquay is different to Penzance, and making sure that we’re doing the right thing.”
Mr Kerr makes no secret of the fact that at the moment, he lacks the grasp of detail of many local priorities. But he plans to spend his first 100 days mastering that detail, so that he can crystalize a vision for how Cornwall will look in five years.
“For example, I’m not overly familiar with dredging issue in Falmouth, so please don’t hold that against me!” he said. “I know a little bit about the harbour and the dredging issue and why it matters to the local economy. I know that it’s controversial. My first 100 days is about getting to know these things well enough to be able to resolve them. I’m going to spend a lot of my first 100 days out and about.
“Part of the understanding is being there and talking to people. But there are two big financial issues – spending the European money most effectively, getting things running the way we want them with the LEP (Local Enterprise Partnership) and the fundamental changes that will happen to Cornwall council as a result of saving £195million.
“We have to work more intensively with our town and parish councils. Falmouth is a bit more proactive than some of the others. We have to work together. Some of it will be working with town and parish councils, to support them. I want a plan that will show what Falmouth and Helston will be like in five years. That will mean working with the university, with the local councils, and we’re doing some of that work already. I need to get to know Falmouth better. But I do want a blueprint which will inform our approach to local services.
In 2011, Mr Kerr hit the headlines for defending a £6,000 pay rise, which took his salary at Wiltshire to £189,000, at a time when rank-and-file staff had seen pay frozen and the council was implementing £99m of cuts over four years. But his salary at Cornwall council is about £50,000 a year less than his predecessor Kevin Lavery.
“That’s the market,” said Mr Kerr. “Kevin was employed many moons ago. The market then was a bit more buoyant than it is currently. And local authority chief executives don’t get paid the salaries they were getting paid previously. But I don’t think any of us got into being a chief exec because we thought he gets paid a lot of money. We get up in the morning because we think we’re doing good things for our communities.”
But when asked if Mr Lavery was really worth £1,000 a week more than him, Mr Kerr paused for several moments before replying.
“I don’t know,” said. “I personally think that Cornwall Council did a really good job in coming together, replacing all the previous district councils, and that was under Kevin’s leadership, and I think I’m inheriting a council that’s in quite good shape.”
One of the most controversial areas in which the council chief executive has to operate is the balance between direct provision of services and privatisation. Mr Lavery was seen as an enthusiastic supporter of privatisation, with a publicly declared ambition to turn Cornwall into a “commissioning council” with a radically slimmed-down workforce of its own. Is Mr Kerr keen to follow the same direction, or does he have a more traditional view of what councils are for?
“I don’t think I have a traditional view about what local government is for, but I have a mixed economy view,” he said. “Some things are done well by the private sector, some things are done well by the voluntary sector and some things are done well by local authorities. So why wouldn’t we just do what works well? I would agree that the private sector isn’t always better. But if you look at my history you’ll see that I’ve worked very happily with the private sector when the joint venture is right. But I’ve only been here five days so I don’t yet have fully rounded view about what will work best in Cornwall.”
One example of a service which the council has been keen to offload is the loss-making Newquay airport. Will the council still own Newquay airport in five years time?
“We will still have to have Newquay airport. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a council airport. We are talking to government about things like that, we’re talking to airlines about routes to Gatwick….but there’s no doubt, if you’re going to have a thriving economy you have to have an airport.”
Mr Kerr said he had one over-riding message for our readers: “What I’d like to say to the people of Falmouth and Helston is what they’re going to get is a chief executive that is absolutely committed to the people of Cornwall, and determined to do the best he can for the people of Cornwall. believve in committing to a place, and I believe that localities are important.”
But these words simply begged a follow-up question about his weekend-commute back to Wiltshire.
“I will move to Cornwall when it’s best for my family,” said Mr Kerr. “I’ve got a 12 year old who’s just starting in High School, and I’ve got elderly parents and I’m trying to work out what’s the best we can do there. I’m sure that everybody will understand that family has to come first.”
So where does he pay council tax, Cornwall or Wiltshire? The answer is both. But mostly in Wiltshire.
“I have a flat in Truro and I pay council tax on it,” he said. “But I pay a larger sum in council tax on the family home. I have to pay 100% council tax at the biggest place. I’m bound by the tax rules, same as everyone else. I have no choice in the matter.”