You’ve just celebrated 35 years working at Local Solutions, can you tell us a bit about that journey?
After studying at university (Politics and International Relations) I got involved in the voluntary sector through volunteering at a night shelter for homeless people, run by the Petrus Community Trust.
Being the oldest of six kids from a traditional working class family in Huyton, I grew up acutely aware of issues around social justice. I have never lost any of my concern for homeless people and the system/human failings that allow it still to prevail on our streets.
For me, homelessness is a humanitarian crisis – it is not unheard of for people to die out there. During this cold spell, it is sad to see that homelessness seems every bit as bad now as it was in the early 80s, which I find truly shocking.
My first paid job at Merseyside Council for Voluntary Services (now known as Local Solutions) was as a ‘Self-Help Support worker’ where I would set up local branches of national charities such as the Parkinsons Society, Alzheimers Society – many of these are still going strong today!
I’ve done lots of different roles in this organisation, including Community Development, Managing projects around disability and homelessness. At one stage I even ran our training agency.
Curiosity comes naturally to me and all my roles have enabled me to be inventive.
I’ve been Chief Executive here for 10 years this May and I’ve had a parallel career of doing non-executive roles in the NHS for about 20 years, which I really enjoyed.
What have been the highlights over those years?
The things that I get most satisfaction from are those that we set up ourselves. So our vision to build the Watersports Centre, to develop Supported Lodgings (the simplicity of someone having room in their heart as well as their house to support a homeless young person), a track record of inventiveness within the disability sector, right up to the current day with our ground-breaking AIMS (Accommodation & Intense Mentoring Service), the Resettlement Passport and our Mytime initiative for carers.
The simple ideas are often the best and many have now been ‘harvested’ by the state, becoming commissioned services. Anything that we’ve created for the benefit of people to enhance their quality of life has been a shining beacon, much brighter than anything we’ve won in the way of multi-million pound contracts.
What Local Solutions has always been good at is taking care of people that fall between the spaces, where they fall between responsibilities - finding the gaps and plugging them, not with a lot of money, but with energy, enthusiasm and ambition.
As an organisation, we were given Freedom of the City in 2014 and that made me very, very proud. The thousands of people who have worked and volunteered here - each one of them has made some contribution to getting that award. Then on a personal level, I was given a great honour of becoming a Fellow of John Moores University.
What’s been some of the challenges?
Well, we live in a world that is much more risk averse. As a charity, there was a time when you could just help someone out, but it is crucial to ensure sure your governance is up to scratch for a modern organisation. Trying not to be bored by processes is a challenge. With systems, you cannot, as a leader, assume they are always working. Yes you need to trust people, but one must also test them out occasionally. A lot of people depend on us, so we have to take governance seriously.
The neat trick is to maintain the enthusiasm, drive and the fresh ideas, during an era of increasing regulation and scrutiny.
Where do you get inspiration and drive from to keep going forward among the challenges?
It’s from all the people that I work with. Yes, they are all different, but one of the unifying features is a shared desire to challenge bigotry. My parents were very strong on that. When I was young we had some Vietnamese refugees move into the house next door and they got their windows smashed by bigots. I remember how appalled we were and how my family offered help. Local Solutions inspires me almost as a family.
At Local Solutions, we are all trying to do the right thing - sometimes we’re incompetent and sometimes we clash, but we’re all ultimately trying to do the same thing, which is enabling people to lead fulfilled lived.
What does your average week look like now?
Today, I’ve had a session to do with the new data regulations and a session looking at our future planning. I recently had a meeting with one of our colleagues about trying to get some issues with our accommodation resolved and a conversation about doing some new enterprise, which was discussed at our recent and very successful Board Away Day.
My week’s very varied and I’m the one in the senior team who doesn’t have a clear job description. My job is to know what the big issues are – to synthesise, to explain and to encourage. Rarely does a week go by without the opportunity or need to develop external influence with, e.g. politicians, the church, media and partner organisations.
I really enjoy meeting the users of our services - for me, they are the premier partners in our work.
Outside of work, what is important to you and how do you recharge your batteries?
Having just returned from a prolonged absence for treatment for lymphoma, I’m just getting my strength back. After keeping the illness quiet for so long – 10 years – it’s a relief to have it in the open and I’d be pleased to help any of my colleagues and their families, if my experience would help in any way.
I have blasts of listening to music and I am mourning for the recent loss of Mark E Smith (The Fall). I was inspired by a quote of his: “Fear is something I try not to absorb.” And then there’s my beloved Liverpool Football Club!
I’m slowly getting back into swimming, cycling and walking. Doing something physical really recharges me and helps me think things through. You’ve got to keep your mind and your body ticking over, so I also do a lot of reading.
What have you been reading recently?
Truman Capote, John Banville, Elizabeth Gaskell and, for a bit of nerdiness, I have read the biography of Charlemagne!!
What do you think are the challenges for the charity sector as a whole?
It feels like a fork in the road - either charities partner more and more with the state and risk becoming voiceless vassals thereof OR they pronounce loudly their independence, positioning themselves firmly with users, serving and campaigning on their behalf.
Clearly as the state rolls back and Government (Local, Regional & National) gets ever more remote, there is a great need for charities to resume their place at the forefront of civil society. I have never liked the term 3rd sector (aka 3rd rate!) Just ask one of our service users who have had bad government decisions overturned with the help of our expert adviser/advocates whether our service is 3rd rate!
Charities are much in the news at present and some of this reflects negatively on all of us. I think a good guide for public facing organisations is to pay strong attention to what I call the 3 Ps – Purpose, Performance and Propriety.
As we approach the 80th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, I wonder, if writing now, what old Wills’ sixth Giant Evil would be after Idleness, Want, Ignorance, Squalor and Disease……how about Loneliness? For me, that is worthy of the attention of charities wanting to reaffirm their independence from the state by getting closer to "all the lonely people"
Generally though, we are innovators and should continue to be disruptive in seeking richer and more fulfilling relationships with our beneficiaries.
We are innovators and should continue to be disruptive in seeking richer and more fulfilling relationships with our beneficiaries.