New South Holland District Council chief reveals ambitions to boost area
The new man at the helm of South Holland District Council is convinced the authority can tap into multi-million pound investment that can boost the area.
Rob Barlow (48) has taken over as chief executive of the authority this month and, in his first interview since taking up the post, revealed his ambition to bring the area a boost.
The Surfleet resident is in charge of the newly-formed South and East Lincolnshire Councils Partnership – which sees South Holland share senior leaders with Boston and East Lindsey.
The other two districts have been able to secure £75million in ‘town deals’ for Boston, Skegness and Mablethorpe – with hope to now replicate that success here.
Rob said: “There’s no reason why South Holland shouldn’t look for the same.”
He pointed to the raft of ideas raised in a recent feature in our sister paper the Spalding Guardian on what’s needed in the town – and similar community aspirations in East Lindsey – and said he’s aware that there are assets in Spalding and the district that are in need of ‘renewal’.
He said delivering changes that are on the public’s wish list can raise ‘community ambition’ on what can be achieved, adding: “I don’t see that being something we can’t deliver.”
He added: “We have got a cohort of staff who want to do things. That should translate into people seeing things delivered – that might be roads, better health or quicker services.
“I would hope over the coming years that people see improvements in Spalding and some of those become possible because of the partnership.”
Deciding what comes first
Members will need to spend the next six months deciding ‘what comes first’ for the partnership – with the chance to look at how all services can be done differently.
It’s hoped that the foundations of the new partnership can be firmly established by the time that process is complete – and be ready in time for the beginning of the post-Covid recovery once the winter has passed.
While there’s an acceptance that each of the three areas in the partnership has its own character, there’s also a feeling that many challenges are similar across the three districts – including health, leisure and transport – plus there’s the fact that Boston’s hospital, port and key roads are shared and used by South Holland’s residents.
Rob said: “If you look at a low wage economy, high rents or look at the flood risk or look at the limits of travel, or health profiles, they are different but similar enough.”
Having the largest district council partnership in the country should, he feels, give South Holland chance to tackle issues that might otherwise be too difficult, with climate change likely to be something the trio of authorities can work together on.
The councils could collaborate on managing future flood risk and ensuring that the planning system reflects this. Rob added: “For some district councils it can be quite hard to have the specialists to do things like that.”
South Holland still sovereign
Change can always bring suspicion – but Rob says residents don’t need to worry about their services being
delivered by people from far away or the district becoming overtaken by its neighbours.
He said: “We are talking about council staff and services but the three political councils do remain with their own sovereignty.
“There’s nothing we will be able to do without the same level of support and approval required by South Holland councillors – there should be no change that people notice.”
We’ve not had our fair share
While Covid has been a challenge – and also a spur to push on with change – local authorities have had a financial challenge that predates the pandemic, with their budgets slashed.
House of Commons Library data showed the district’s settlement funding fell from £5.93million in 2015/16 to £3.5million for 2021/22, when adjusted for inflation.
That amounts to a fall of 40.9% – but council leader Gary Porter has previously said the authority has actually lost ‘60p in the pound’ during an era of tightening local authority budgets.
Documents drawn up ahead of the new partnership deal suggested South Holland was in line for a further £1.25million cut by 2024/25 – and a budget black hole of more than £2million by then if it hadn’t acted to replace a previous arrangement with Breckland District Council.
While finances are still going to be tight, Rob believes the ‘levelling up agenda’ can be good for our area.
He said: “The cuts you hear about are often driven by factors outside our control.
“The country is going to have to take stock of its finances post pandemic and I am not sure there will be a great deal of fantastic news coming down to public sector.
“We do need to be aware and have our eyes open – there’s a bit about us being stronger together.”
The first job is to prove the partnership can work and begin to deliver efficiencies for the taxpayer.
He added: “South and East Lincolnshire has, I think, not had its fair share of support and funding over the years.
“What the levelling up agenda has allowed is rather than all the money going to where it delivers most profit, they are now putting money into areas where they get a community benefit.”
Back to where it all started
Taking up the reins at Priory Road marks a return to the authority – with Mr Barlow having first joined the then-new office in 1991 as an assistant to the audit team.
He’s lived in the area since he was 18 – previously in Gosberton Risegate – and has children at school in Spalding and Donington.
After training to be an accountant, he served in the finance department before leaving for a role in Norfolk.
In 2011 he joined Boston Borough Council and helped steer them through financial challenges. Three years ago he became chief executive of East Lindsey and a year ago added Boston to that role.
Adding a third council adds a greater level of spotlight – both locally and nationally.
Rob said: “I am a bit of a strange animal in local government – I am in no way driven by ambition but I do feel privileged to be given the chance to do this.
“We have got people looking at us, we have got the Local Government Association interested in what we are doing.
“We have got the opportunity to create something quite novel.”