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City's new boss is determined to put Plymouth on map

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 09, 2013

  • Tracey Lee is the new chief executive of Plymouth City Council, which is facing cuts of £30m over the next three years

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One of the main goals for the – fairly – new chief executive of Plymouth City Council is for people outside the South West to look at a map and know where the city is and something positive about it.

It sounds like a fairly modest ambition but with the world beyond Bristol having a seemingly irresistible desire to confuse it with Portsmouth, Tracey Lee may have her work cut out to achieve it.

A key means of doing so, she says, is for Plymouth to stop being one of the region's "quiet" local authorities and to work effectively with other councils and Local Enterprise Partnerships on regional issues like transport investment and growth.

Again, it doesn't sound like a big ask but it's actually a step change from how local authorities, particularly those in Devon, have liaised in the past.

And with central government funding likely to remain in short supply, Ms Lee is in no doubt that speaking with a unified voice will be the only way the peninsula will be able to get its share of investment.

Plymouth has been working with neighbouring authorities and the region's LEPs on a bid for City Deal status in a move that would divert power and funding from central to local government.

It's the first such initiative that has brought the authorities together around the table. Pointing to local authorities in the north east as examples of those who join together effectively to lobby on common issues, Ms Lee said that this would need to become a regular feature for the region.

"It's a catalyst for how we work as a sub-region. If you look at regions in the north east, around Manchester, it comes back to what is the voice, the one voice, how we can work collectively and punch above our weight and get our voice heard," she said.

"If we are successful with the City Deal, I think there are opportunities to work on other things with Devon, Cornwall, the two LEPS and the districts. If we're doing it alone, we're probably doing it wrong. It will raise the profile of the Plymouth city region with government who sometimes struggle to know where we are on a map."

Born in Kingston-Upon-Thames, Ms Lee began her career as a biology teacher but after two years she moved into local government, working her way up through the ranks at authorities including Ipswich, Tamworth and Newport before taking up the top job in Plymouth in November.

The 46-year-old mother of two teenagers describes it as "the job in local government I always wanted" after years of travelling to the city to visit her husband's parents.

"Seeing Plymouth develop has been a big thing for me. In the 20 years that I've known the city some of the changes have been substantial. It's a bit like slow motion photography – it takes someone to come back and see the changes. If you see things every day you miss the changes."

Citing the growth of the university and redevelopment at key sites such as the Royal William Yard as the most important of these changes, Ms Lee said she wanted Plymouth's national profile to be raised through initiatives such as its City of Culture bid.

"For me it's about how we build our profile. It's about being big and bold about the future. I want people to look at a map and point to Plymouth and say something positive."

Previously managing director of Newport, Ms Lee has taken on the role of chief executive of Plymouth at a salary of £150,000 – £21,000 less than her predecessor Barry Keel.

Inevitably, in an age of austerity, remuneration levels for top officers is the subject of intense scrutiny – something that Ms Lee says she is comfortable with.

"At the end of the day, the public are paying for us. That transparency does come with being in the public sector. I don't have an issue with that," she said.

We meet in Ms Lee's office in Plymouth's Civic Centre and the first surprise is that we're press officer-free for the interview – something that's becoming increasingly rare for any senior figure in the public or private sector.

Strains of the music played by fairground rides outside in Armada Way can be heard, something that Ms Lee said had become something of staple of everyday working life in recent weeks: "We know what the time is by what time Robbie Williams plays."

But it's the merry-go-round of local authority funding that is causing the authority more serious disruption at the moment, with officers still weighing up the ramifications of last month's Autumn Statement to evaluate its full impact on town hall coffers.

Plymouth is facing cuts of £30 million over the next three years. Ms Lee has urged staff "to spend money like it's their own" and has stressed that the council will be looking at how it can work differently, including increased use of technology, to maintain services where possible.

But she conceded that this would not always be an option.

"What we have to do is to transform our services and how we can run them but also to say to residents 'what is important to them?' and what it is we need to stop doing because we cannot do everything with that magnitude of savings facing us – it's impossible," she said.

Ms Lee's vision for the council is that it is "a brilliant co-operative council" meaning that it consults effectively with residents, works closely with other organisations – and that whatever it does, it does well.

The council is currently working on a review of its libraries and parks to see if they can be run more effectively. And it has already drawn up plans for an energy co-operative to supply cheap electricity and gas to Plymouth residents.

Although much of the focus from government has been around how councils should be working to cut costs, Ms Lee said this was obscuring the real issue of the increasing costs of adult social care which, coupled with an ageing population, meant that councils are facing an overall funding black hole of £16.5 billion by 2020, according to the Local Government Association.

Ms Lee has called for a national debate about the role of local authorities to examine what services they should continue to provide – particularly in terms of adult social care.

"What it is that councils and public services will be like in ten years' time compared with what we've done in the past should be part of a national debate," she said. "The biggest danger is that something happens locally, whether it's in Plymouth or elsewhere, and it becomes a debate that's very specific about a service or an issue rather than the big national debates are around adult social services and what we can do in the future... It feels like we dip our toe in the water and it's too hard a conversation to have."

But it's not all about cutbacks, she said, insisting that the council also had to be prepared to spend on projects that would bring major benefits to the city.

Asked if she believed that the council should again pay for a leg of the America's Cup to be staged in the city, as it did successfully in 2011, Ms Lee replied: "I think we should. It's a return on investment. If you think about the money that Plymouth City Council put into the America's Cup and the return on investment for the city and amount of money leveraged in from the private sector, it's quite considerable.

"It's the same as I found with the Ryder Cup (which she was involved in while in Newport). It's an opportunity to showcase the city to organisations around the world – what price would you put on that?"

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