From leisure to rock concerts via adult social care: the lot of a community services director

Being asked to negotiate the price for a ferry company to carry the Rolling Stones’ equipment from the mainland to the Isle of Wight isn’t a typical problem you’d expect to face a director responsible for adults’ social services.

But Sarah Mitchell is one of a growing number of directors whose role now stretches beyond the traditional social care remit, carrying the all-encompassing title of director of community services.

For Mitchell, it means being responsible for an eclectic mix of the Isle of Wight Festival – where the Rolling Stones headlined a couple of weeks ago (see Rockin all over the…spectrum of council services) Cowes Week, Dinosaur Isle (Britain’s first purpose-built dinosaur museum), libraries and carnivals. Leisure services, which include swimming pools, gyms and Ventnor Botanic Gardens, also fall to Mitchell, who has been in post for nine months.

Swimming pools have been a particularly steep learning curve. “The maintenance stuff is huge. We had set up free swimming for children during the holidays and in terms of well-being and obesity targets that was great,” says Mitchell.

But then the swimming pool started leaking 4,000 gallons a day. “It was terrifying. We had to consider whether to close it, but if you drain older pools they can collapse. We had divers going down to find the leak.”

The pool was closed, re-opened and closed again, but was back in business in time for the Whitsun half-term. The incident underlines the contrast between statutory services, which Mitchell is more used to dealing with, and discretionary ones.

“Apart from an obligation to ensure that Year 3 children can swim, that’s about it we don’t have to provide leisure services,” says Mitchell. “But despite this being an island population, it has the highest number of eight-year-olds who can’t swim. So, for me, it’s about safety as much as anything.”

Mitchell has also found that everyone is taking an interest in her work for a change. “Most of the public aren’t bothered about health and social care, but everybody is interested in these other things.”

Twenty-three years ago, Mitchell had a social work placement on the island and says it hasn’t changed in that time. So part of her agenda is to modernise its “bucket and spade” image by using events like the festival and Cowes Week to promote the island in the hope of attracting people to move there and boost the economy.

This is sorely needed. The biggest employers on the island are the local authority, the primary care trust and the three prisons housing 1,600 serious offenders. Unusually, it’s the public sector workers who are better paid than others on the island because the other main work is seasonal or rural.

“Everybody recognises that if the island is going to develop, we need economic development which links to affordable housing, which is a real challenge here,” explains Mitchell. “Those who were born and bred here know that because their children can’t afford to buy a house.”

Vibrant island

Mitchell says she will know she’s succeeded when it feels like a vibrant place and people come “not because they want to escape but because they want to be here”.

With the world windsurfing championships being held on the island this summer, and plans for a film festival and literary festival, it sounds like the island will be positively pulsating. The island has also won the race to host the International Island Games in 2011. A smaller version of the Olympics, they take place every two years with competitors from islands all over the world. Mitchell has linked up with a group of London directors working on the 2012 Olympics to pick up ideas on the issues and potential sponsorship.

The Olympics is very much on Vennetta Johnston’s mind too. As well as her adult social care responsibility, the executive director of adults’, culture and community services at the London Borough of Newham also has 10 libraries, four leisure centres, community centres and consumer services within her remit.

“The challenge was getting to know a new service – the leisure service – within a new context: the Olympics,” she says.

The most pressing concern for Johnston, is ensuring there is a legacy from the Olympics in terms of physical facilities and jobs for people in Newham. Most of the Olympic stadiums are going to be temporary, so they will be dismantled afterwards and the land developed.

Johnston is keen for the aquatic centre housing the Olympic-sized pool to stay. But this means the local authority, with some of its neighbouring boroughs, will have to find the money to buy it. “That has implications for finding the money now and what we do with existing leisure facilities coming to the end of their life, and decommissioning services that people have grown to love.”

She is also keen for the Olympic legacy to have a positive impact on local people with disabilities. “We have an opportunity to offer real work opportunities rather than day care. It’s too early to say how, and could be as crude as having targets for getting people with disabilities into work. They would have to be challenging targets given that there are thousands of jobs being created in Newham as part of the Olympic workforce.”

After predominantly working in social care, Johnston’s previous job was as district director in Birmingham where they had created 11 districts. This meant she came to Newham with some preparation for the diversity of her new job. What it didn’t prepare her for was responsibility for the maintenance of council buildings and all that this entails.

“One of the town hall statues fell off the roof. There’s a bus stop underneath and how it didn’t hit someone I don’t know. That could have been dreadful.”

Johnston has found times when her priorities have swung from dealing with a serious case review to planning the annual town show, a high profile event but one with a markedly different kind of priority than social care.

For directors taking on these extended roles, the demands of the job are huge in terms of the breadth of knowledge they are expected to pick up and run with.

“Children’s directors have the luxury of presenting reports to cabinet on a subject they know about. We have to rapidly learn new professional areas and not just what’s happening currently, but the history so that you know why they are in the position they are in,” Johnston says. “And each service has their own client group and politics, so it’s not just technical insight, but gaining political insight as well. It’s pretty demanding.”

Johnston likens it to getting a new job where you have to build your credibility quickly and publicly. Despite this, she thinks there are far more advantages than disadvantages to the role, partly because adult social care can otherwise become “incredibly insular”.

“The connection with culture and community means we are challenging far harder why people are going to day care as opposed to living an ordinary life,” she explains. “It means we are in a much stronger position to offer an ordinary life because these services are working together so the contacts are far more productive than if adult services were managed independently of these other areas.

“That said, local authorities have tended to either combine adult services with health services (the primary care trust) or with other council services, such as culture and community. But in Newham we have done both, so my attention is torn in two completely different directions. If I only had to know about pools it would be easy. But I have to know about the PCT and culture and community services too.”

Too much on their plate?

While she thinks the model has its strengths, she also has concerns. “My experience has been that in previous times you would have a social services director, assistant directors and a strong middle management tier all holding key posts. But the whole point of integration is to rationalise management costs.

“We have to be careful that we haven’t taken out so much management that we leave ourselves vulnerable in the future because there aren’t enough people skilled to spot risks and manage them.”

Andrea Rowe, chief executive of Skills for Care, also sounds a note of caution. She is concerned that adult social care could be sidelined if directors get carried away with their wider remits.

“The role is an opportunity and a threat. The opportunity is to be leaders in local communities, in bringing together public services under the local area agreement and putting together imaginative packages for people. If it’s properly managed and dealt with then it’s a real opportunity.”

The threat, she says, is when the “ongoing boring bits of adult care get lost in the acuteness and crisis management of, say, the quality of the water in swimming pools, which has an immediacy because there’s an accountability and it could be disastrous”.

However, Charlie MacNally, community services director at Bedfordshire Council, espouses the benefits of this type of directorate over a purely adults’ social services one. Just one month into the job, he is excited about the actual difference it can make.

“It reveals what joined-up local government can achieve, I really believe that,” MacNally says.

His examples include the libraries service, which has trained 5,000 older people to surf the net so they can buy goods and services and keep in touch with family who have moved away. Trading standards has created a “no cold-call zone” across the county, and employs special constables who have the power of arrest.

Both measures, as well as the council’s list of approved contractors, have reduced the level of distraction burglary against older people and people with learning disabilities.

“Social care touches on a small number of people, but community services impact on everyone in the county, and it’s about helping Bedfordshire feel good about itself. Talking to colleagues, those with a community directorate are unanimous in their belief in this route. It’s the future.”

Sarah Mitchell, Director of community services, Isle of Wight

Rockin’ all over the … spectrum of council services

It’s day two of the Isle of Wight festival, and Sarah Mitchell is stressed. Security staff are turning away VIP guests with silver wristbands mistakenly thinking they are for another day. It’s the first year the council has hosted a VIP and
hospitality area and it isn’t a great start.

“Traditionally the council has done the background management, but we want people who are big investors in the island [to come] so we want to give them VIP tickets,” says Mitchell.

She’s concerned the slip-up looks as if they haven’t got their act together and could ruin a VIP’s experience. But by the time we reach the security point, it’s been sorted. Free tickets have also been given to children in care and, for the first time, to people with learning disabilities.

With 60,000 people descending on the island for the three-day festival, Mitchell admits to nerves the day before. “If it goes wrong, it happens publicly and that’s scary.”

As we walk and talk, Mitchell is constantly interrupted by her phone. “Traffic, security and safety, in terms of what the festival meant for the community, that was our previous role,” she says between calls. “But this year, it’s part of the placeshaping agenda. It’s about raising our game and using it to promote the island.”

To this end, the VIP guest list includes big investors on the regeneration front.

“The festival is held on council land, so it’s a chance to portray a positive image and show young people we aren’t fuddy duddy. It’s good for islanders to see we are trying to attract people.”

And Mitchell’s highlight? “Seeing the island so alive,” she enthuses. “It feels like the whole place is buzzing.”

Roy Taylor, Director of community services, London Borough of Kingston

It shouldn’t happen to a director of community services

They say never work with children or animals. As director of community services at the London Borough of Kingston, Roy Taylor fully expected that he would never work with the latter. Little did he know.

Taylor, the first social services director to switch to the “community services” title, took on responsibility for social  services, housing, environmental health, trading standards, cemeteries and crematoriums, births, marriages and deaths in 1994.

“As soon as I took up responsibility for the environmental health service we had an issue with pigeons. They were gathering under the railway bridges and doing what they do on people standing underneath. I’d seen this idea that if you hired birds of prey they would sort out the pigeons. But it was too expensive to hire a Harris hawk so I had thought we could put a cardboard cut-out one there instead.

“The pigeons took no notice so we had to go back to other culling methods.”

More ignominy followed with a horse kept on a travellers’ encampment. “We kept saying the horse couldn’t stay, so one of the housing officers was charged with serving the horse with a notice to quit! I don’t think they took a horse whisperer and they had to pin the notice to a nearby fence post. But the horse couldn’t read, so stayed.”

As if this wasn’t enough, Chessington World of Adventures falls within Kingston’s boundaries and the small zoo there is inspected by zoo inspectors, who send their report to the council’s environmental health service.

“I know all the social services jargon, but  one of the first committee reports I saw for environmental health said there needed to be some further development on the care of the ungulates.

“I didn’t realise I had ungulates under my control. I had to pretend I knew what they were while I looked for a dictionary so I didn’t look like an idiot in front of the environmental health officer.” He quickly learned they are animals of the hoofed variety.

Taylor had been the director for a short time when there was a royal visit by barge. “I was given the job of helping the member of royalty step off the barge. No training course you’ve been on prepares you for this – which part of the royal anatomy can you touch? I remember thinking ‘this is surreal’.”

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Natalie Valios

This article appeared in the 21 June issue under the headline “Taking the plunge”

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