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We sat down with Lorraine Norris before she retires from Preston City Council

Posted on - 17th May, 2018 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Business, Politics, Preston Council, Preston News
Lorraine Norris in her office at the Town Hall Pic: Blog Preston
Lorraine Norris in her office at the Town Hall Pic: Blog Preston

Walking into the chief executive’s office at the Town Hall is like stepping into part of the Harris Museum.

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Ornate paintings hang on the wall, selected by Lorraine Norris herself, and large-scale antique furniture is dotted about along with an enormous desk.

But there’s no grandstanding here. ‘Do you want a brew Ed?’ says Lorraine in her typical no-nonsense manner.

When I say yes she disappears off into the kitchen next door and comes back with one for me, and one for her. There’s no ordering a PA about to get one, that’s not Lorraine’s style.

She’s been in office since 2009 but is approaching two decades at the city council and has decided to call time on her work in local government.

Over the next hour, with some rare sunshine flowing in through the Town Hall windows, we reflected on some of the dark days post-Tithebarn through to some green shoots of regeneration in the city.

Lorraine's office in the Town Hall
Lorraine’s office in the Town Hall

Lorraine throughout is self-effacing, there is much reference to the great work of officers, of politicians (of all political colours) but a steely resolve shows itself a number of times and an over-riding positivity about the city too.

BP: Well here we are, leaving on Friday (18 May), when did you join the council?

LN: I joined the city council in 2002, in August, just after the city status had been achieved. I was Director of Corporate Services, the legal advisor as such, and there was a real buzz about the place. The Queen had recently visited, Tithebarn was on the horizon and it was what attracted me to it really. Preston had, and remains to have, such potential. I had been working at Salford, a big, gritty, urban authority, and I’m a Leyland girl, so the opportunity to come back home so to speak was too good to pass up.

Preston to me is home, holidays away began at the Bus Station or the train station, growing up I was a regular at the Guild Hall. I remember seeing Elton John there in the 1970s.

BP: Why have you decided to leave, and when did you make the decision?

LN: I’ve been the chief executive since 2009 and I turn 60 on Friday, the day I will leave. Was it planned that way? Well maybe, but these things have a habit of coming together like that. I guess it is a neat ending.

For me it was around Autumn last year when I looked at we were facing another restructure of the senior team and I thought this, now, might be my time to go – so the leader and I had a conversation and here we are today.

BP: What has been your greatest achievement?

LN: I have to say it’s not about me and my achievement, it’s about working as a team. As chief executive you don’t achieve anything so to speak, as you work with the politicians on the framework they set out. I suppose the greatest achievement for the council is that against a backdrop of very difficult financial circumstances we’ve been able to get the city back into a position where we are seeing investment and we are seeing things happen.

I don’t like to talk about Tithebarn, because that for many has come to define the city, but for us to be at a position with the markets and other things going on, is quite an achievement.

I also think we’ve been able to have a very steady approach over the last decade, unlike some other authorities, and there was been a continuity between administrations. When I became chief executive we had a minority Conservative administration under Ken Hudson, before that there was the Labour administration, and then since 2011 we’ve had a majority Labour administration. But we, and by we I mean myself and the senior officers, we’ve been able to work with those politicians – who have very different ideas – and see the people of Preston see a regeneration happening. It’s been a common theme.

BP: What have been the darkest days in the role?

LN: The toughest times were no doubt in the wake of Tithebarn, many cities wouldn’t come back from that, but we did. After it we sat down and we had to take a long hard look at what we were going to do, and we changed tactics.

Everyone is used to ‘the council doing everything’ but in these times that just can’t happen. Preston is a relatively small district council and we don’t have the money, no one does. So we had to build partnerships. We brought together people, from central government, from the private sector, all sorts of organisations and said ‘Preston is open to working with you’.

We also went to speak to the people. One thing I am proud of is in 2010 we did the Your City, Your Say, and we went out into the shopping centres, held events, and I was out there with my clipboard, and we asked the people of Preston what they wanted to see.

I was at an event recently at Preston North End, and Lawrence Kenwright, the developer behind the Shankly Hotel, was asked why he had chosen Preston to invest in. And he said it was because the council had taken him by the hand, shown him the Old Post Office and shown him the opportunity. To me that’s the council doing its job.

Read more: New name for hotel in the Old Post Office

BP: Should the council be more aggressive about getting empty buildings into use? Such as St Josephs?

LN: Because a lot of buildings, such as St Joseph’s, are in third party ownership there is a limited amount that we as a council can do. Of course we want to see these buildings back into use but we have to work with those owners to help them see the opportunity. We can go down the compulsory purchase route, those are the powers available, but that has to be a last resort. And it is expensive. You need capital to do that and as a council the capital we have is tied up in the Markets.

St Joseph's Orphanage has stood empty for years Pic: scrappynw
St Joseph’s Orphanage has stood empty for years Pic: scrappynw

Former leader Peter Rankin and his Labour group had to make a decision back in 2012/2013, knowing the financial situation we only had a limited amount of capital left after Tithebarn. They chose to invest that money in the Market scheme. We took advice and it was suggested that area of the city would benefit most from having it invested there.

Winckley Square, I think that’s one of the most interesting schemes in the city. It dates back to 2010 I think when we did a budget roadshow, under the previous Conservative administration, and a number of businesses on the Square said ‘what can be done about it?’ and so we worked with them. But they said they would form a Community Interest Company to be the vehicle to help drive it forward, and we as a council supported that. Now that’s a very different way of working as usually a council would seek to control, but we took a different approach and that’s paid off I think. Just look at it now and you’re seeing lots of redevelopment in and around the Square. It’s a good example too of how these things take time, you can’t expect to regenerate a city overnight, often the seeds are sown many years back and over time it comes to fruition.

Read more: See all the latest news about Winckley Square

BP: There’s a lot of buzz about The Preston Model, how do you feel about It?

LN: It’s become a shorthand for how other people see us, I think it was Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian who first used it. When we began working with the Labour group it was clear they wanted to do something different, and it’s up to us as officers to build that framework for ensuring we’re delivering what they, as politicians, think are the priorities. We came up with these three strands, Your City, which is about that regeneration and the city centre and wider area, Your Council, which is about ensuring all those services we run are run as well as they can be and give value for money, and Fairness for You, and that’s where I think a lot of this comes from.

Cllr Brown, and others, recognised that the economy as it was is not working for a large number of Prestonians. So it was about us, as a council, doing what we could to help people. Some of that is by us leading, so becoming a Living Wage employer for example, but also by asking that question of other organisations – often much bigger than ourselves, such as the university, who have a far bigger budget and sway these days, to ask why they were not a living wage employer.

It’s also been looking at what we spend as a council, and asking the question of whether it can be spent locally or not, and it might only be small amounts here and there but added up it does make a difference. And we must lead by example.

BP: The City Deal, has been important to the city, what happens when it ends?

LN: Again that’s been about working together, with South Ribble, the county council and the Department for Transport. I appreciate that for those in the North West of the city in particular it is a very disrupting time, but it is a significant investment for the city, and the wider area.

Read more: See the latest on the City Deal here

There will be more building and the five-year housing supply question is certainly not the last we’ve heard of it. We are waiting on central government to deliver their review on how it is worked out as at the moment places such as Preston are disadvantaged as the current formula looks at historic building, or non-building, and it has been fairly recent we’ve gone from no new homes being built to some 800-a-year. It will take time for that to be put right.

Lorraine Norris outside the Town Hall
Lorraine Norris outside the Town Hall

BP: Will Preston City Council exist in 10 years time?

LN: At the moment there doesn’t seem to be an appetite for further local government reorganisation, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be. I don’t have a crystal ball but what I can say is there will be some kind of local authority responsible for Preston. It’s too big and an important place to be without local government. I was talking to someone from the church the other day and as institutions there is a familiarity, you don’t often need the council until something is wrong. It’s difficult for people to understand what a council does, but it’s the first place they phone, or blame, and it’s up to us to ensure we’re doing as good a job as possible.

Yes, I’m a South Ribble girl, and it does look to Preston, but often the boundaries of councils don’t reflect how people live their lives. It’s difficult for a civil servant with a map to understand that.

BP: What would your colleagues say about you?

LN: I think they would say that I talk too much! ‘Will that woman ever shut up?’ they must think. But that’s only because I am passionate about what I do. I’m definitely a lark, not a night owl, I’ll be up early and in early. That’s always been my way.

BP: Adrian Phillips is taking over from you as interim chief executive, what will be the biggest challenge he will face in the next 12 months?

LN: Biggest challenge will be ensuring we have a senior team that reflects the direction the council is going and the priorities as they are today. It’s important we’re regularly looking at whether we have the right structure to fit with the challenges we face. Of course there will be the same financial pressures as previous years, if not more severe.

Adrian Phillips will be the most senior council officer at the Town Hall
Adrian Phillips will be the most senior council officer at the Town Hall

I have every confidence in Adrian, I’ve worked with him for many years and I think he’ll do things differently but in a good way. Of course there is a change in leader too, so it’s not often you get both of those changes.

BP: You said you would like to say a few words about Peter Rankin?

LN: In terms of Peter’s situation that is of course a private issue between him and his family, but I would like to say a few words about working with him. He always knew he had to do right by people and I think Preston will owe him an awful lot. Maybe it was his upbringing in Northern Ireland but he was always wanting to get on.

Sam Livesey helped cut the ribbon at the Preston Markets opening
Peter Rankin, second right right, at the opening of the new Preston Market Hall

You can see his impact in that partnership working, he very quickly recognised that as a council we can’t always control, and we must bringing people together. I think that is one of Peter’s great strengths, he always tried to work with lots of different groups in the city, some traditional, and others less so. I think the City Deal in particular is something he worked very hard on and Preston as a city will be very thankful for in years to come.

Read more: Former council leader Peter Rankin to be made Alderman of Preston

BP: Retirement, at 59, will you work again?

LN: I don’t have any immediate plans or a job to go. I am looking forward to a rest, some pottering about in the garden. However, I do like to keep busy and I think after being in a role, such as chief executive, then I will want to do something else. What that is, I don’t know yet. But I need a break.

BP: We have to ask about the Bus Station, was the right thing done with the building? You can see it from your window and it does define the city

LN: Do people care about my opinion of it as a building? No, I don’t think so, and as chief executive I think it’s right – that’s for the politicians to have their say. What I do know is that it was not a pleasant or safe environment. The building was becoming unsafe and would you want to walk through those subways? I wouldn’t. What we do know is that at that time there was no way we, as a council, had the funds to take the building on. And historically it should always have been owned by county anyway, but just happened to be in Preston’s control. I think we did the right thing for the city and it’s now being restored and refurbished and will be a much better Bus Station. And let’s face it, it’s a very large car park on top of a Bus Station!

Read more: See the latest on Preston Bus Station

BP: Will Preston ever bid to be City of Culture?

LN: Oh yes, I do hope we do bid one day for it. Why should we not? However, I would say it takes a lot of work to get even to the stage where we should bid. It’s a shame with the timings it would never coincide with a Guild year but that shouldn’t stop the aspiration. It will be for someone else to decide whether we should bid before or after the 2032 Guild. But what a fantastic thing for Preston it would be. The way it works means we would get a large investment, if we won, to ensure we have the infrastructure in place to host the UK City of Culture. Again any bid would be an example of that partnership working, the Cultural Framework for the city exists, but it’s not the council, we just support and it’s other organisations who are making it happen.

BP: Another cultural event, The Guild, what was 2012 like?

LN: I can’t not mention the Guild, what a fantastic experience and privilege it was to be chief executive during the 2012 Guild. You hold a dual role, there’s your local authority role in ensuring we didn’t bankrupt ourselves on hosting it and then there’s the ceremonial role as the Guild Clerk. So I had the honour to read the proclamations for the Guild court and now myself and my family will be Guild Burgesses for ever more. What an honour. What I love most about the Guild is how every member of the council gets involved, from the street cleaning staff to myself as chief exec. Some of my favourite memories is the entire planning department running the inflatable Stonehenge attraction we had, to the environmental health team helping to put on some of the parades. Everyone worked their socks off and it was such a buzz, and we still had to make sure the bins were picked up of course, but everyone pitched in and for that week there’s just nothing else like it. It’s a good job it is once every 20 years as I think everyone was knackered after it!

Read more: You can see everything from the last Guild here

BP: Any final comments you would like to make…

LN: I think when I came into being a public servant it was still seen as a very respectable profession, and I think in the last few years then it’s definitely been under-valued. Public servants contribute a huge amount to this country and I don’t think that’s always recognised. For me it has been a huge honour to do this job and I hope people will think and know I have done the best I can in what has certainly been some of the most testing times for local authorities. I think and know Preston has huge potential and I will always believe in it.

Some quick-fire question to help you get to know Lorraine better…

Favourite sandwich filling? Cheese
Coffee, black or white? I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but white, plenty of milk. More of a tea woman, love an Earl Grey.
First drink at the bar? A glass of white wine, Chablis
Favourite Preston day? Pop into Ham and Jam for a drink, then wander into the Harris, then to Winckley Square and Avenham Park and pop into M&S on the way home.
Favourite TV show? My guilty pleasure is definitely Casualty and Holby City, I guess it’s my chance to just put my brain to one side and switch off properly. I love them both!

What the politicians had to say

Cabinet member for resources and finance councillor Martyn Rawlinson said: “Lorraine is only the second Chief Executive that I have worked with at Preston Council in my tenure since 2003. This continuity and stability is reflected in the way Preston Council have handled the huge changes to local government in that time, mainly due of course to Austerity. Lorraine has been a rock throughout this period.

“She is level-headed and guides with a light hand, letting experienced officers and members get on with the job at hand.

“Preston has progressed despite Austerity and this is in no small part to Lorraine’s stewardship, representation and negotiation skills. She will be a very hard act to follow.”

Conservative group leader councillor Neil Cartwright said: “Lorraine has been good to work with and she has been an excellent Chief Executive for Preston. She will be missed not just for what she has done for Preston but the manner in which she has done it, invariably cheerful, always helpful and leading from the front.

“This was demonstrated at the Guild when she ‘got stuck in’ on Avenham/Miller Parks to get them fit for Guild Week.”

New Labour group leader and council leader councillor Matthew Brown said: “Lorraine has been central in transforming Preston to the vastly improving city we see at present after the failed ambitions of Tithebarn.

“I personally think she is one of the best council chiefs around in the north west and has worked tirelessly, dynamically and creatively to improve our city.

“She also has been very inclusive and personable in all the dealings she has had over the last decade or so and will be sorely missed by everyone. We wish her all the best for the future.”

 

Have you worked with Lorraine? Do you work at the council? You can leave your thoughts in the comments below

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