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by Mandy Rhodes
06 January 2011
Mandy Rhodes interviews Sir Peter Housden

Mandy Rhodes interviews Sir Peter Housden

The civil service isn’t renowned for its culture of casual spontaneity so when Sir Gus O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary and head of the UK civil service, turned to Peter Housden, his Permanent Secretary for Communities and Local Government at the end of a meeting one Wednesday afternoon and asked if he could have a word, Housden had no inclination of what was to come.

That ‘word’ was, basically, to lead to a whole series of conversations with both Sir Gus and with Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, and led to Housden’s eventual appointment as the Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government in June of this year, replacing Sir John Elvidge who had earlier announced his retirement.

Housden arrives in Scotland at a critical time in terms of devolution. Some have already called it the next stage of devolution as the years of financial generosity from Westminster come to an end, as further constitutional powers are being legislated for, with a nationalist party in power and as our politicians prepare for election. It will be a testing time, even for those already in the know, yet Housden’s prior knowledge of Scotland was based on an annual foray to the Edinburgh Fringe over 30 years ago, when he was a school teacher leading a 100-strong pupil delegation to perform in a show, and to a 24-hour whistle-stop tour in 2009, which he describes as his ‘most important’ visit, when he came for a crash course in what civil servants in Scotland were doing in terms of public service reform.

“This appointment came completely out of the blue for me and Maureen [Housden’s wife],” he says. “I had no thought at all other than we would carry on living in London and I was going to continue in my work with the Communities and Local Government Department for the duration so it is no exaggeration to say this came as a complete surprise.

“We knew a bit of Scotland but we have an attitude to life which means we like a challenge and an adventure and our children were grown up, so it was all perfectly possible.

And as the conversations with Alex Salmond unfolded, because of course this was the first time the appointment had been made by the Cabinet Secretary in consultation with the First Minister whereas previously it would have been with the Prime Minister, the more attractive it became.

“If you are in this business, this is the kind of job you want so all the ingredients that you have listed: the Scotland Bill, an SNP-led minority government, a different stage in the devolution process, etc, made this prospect exciting and professionally challenging and that is what you should go towards, which is why I just thought it was such a fantastic opportunity.

“Sir John Elvidge was of course a very good advocate for what was happening so this was not a leap in the dark and I knew what this place was like; a high performing organisation with a good reputation. The Scottish Government is very well regarded.

“One of the attractive things about this place is the very open culture which is apparent in its politics and Holyrood has a very different feel to Westminster and that atmosphere pervades and in public life in general, people say what they mean and it is a less stilted conversation in general.

“I sense it is a more egalitarian place and that is part of the cultural story of Scotland and the whole Jock Tamson’s bairns’ type of philosophy. There are advantages of course of a small place and there being quite a concentrated group of people but making that knowledge and understanding count and taking advantage of it, is another issue altogether.” You sense that it is this possibility of opportunity that excites Housden. He went into teaching after graduating, out of nothing more than it being something you could easily do then with just a degree and while he will modestly describe his own ability as a teacher as ‘I was alright’, he also admits to being touched by the excellence of others including his wife who had a vocation and so he says he knows ‘what good looks like’ and he knows the difference that good can make.

Housden is an instantly likeable individual; he is like the approachable, quite cool headteacher that indeed he could have been.

He seems devoid of the stuffiness that one might expect from a senior civil servant and although keen to respond to every question, he also takes a considered approach and won’t be hurried for an answer and is perfectly willing to censor himself with what appears to be the occasional and uncharacteristic perfunctory reply when he clearly deems it appropriate.

Sir Peter spent his early career in the classroom at a comprehensive school in Shropshire before moving into education management and local government in England, eventually becoming chief executive of Nottinghamshire County Council, where he led the council through a wide-ranging programme of reform. He joined the civil service ranks in 2001, when he was already 50 but rose very quickly, becoming Director- General for Schools then Permanent Secretary at the Department for Communities and Local Government in 2005.

"I sense it is a more egalitarian place and that is part of the cultural story of Scotland"

He now finds himself, in what should be a fairly invidious position, a high-ranking English UK civil servant serving a nationalistled government whose driving ambition remains to break up the Union. He, however, appears to relish the challenges that this may throw up.

“The UK civil service context is the one in which we work and my colleagues in the civil service based in London understand the position that the Government in Scotland takes on a range of questions and work within that as a framework. I know there was a set of discussions about whether that was right and proper and in accordance with civil service values and Gus O’Donnell was clear that it was, so it’s not a challenge or an issue, really.

“We work for the Government of the day and often it will be about finding solutions to make their political dreams reality and talking through with the ministers and advisers what the landscape of opinion is on a particular issue and exploring the places where you could build consensus and where that is less likely and very much the stuff of politics.

“One of the most important questions for a civil servant is to ask your minister or indeed a special adviser, to talk you through the politics and to ask them how they read that. That is what a lot of our job is about is asking the right questions in the right way to give politicians a chance to rehearse language, think about hypothesis, explore issues and offer a 360-degree view of an issue so you can take a decision and evaluate risk from a good, overall perspective.” Housden was closely involved in the coalition talks at Westminster and says that the lessons from Scotland were keenly listened to.

“John Elvidge was a very important teacher for us down south in thinking this through as a possibility. It had always been part of the scenario planning that we could end up with no overall control situation and we had thought hard about all kinds of minority administration but only at the very margins had we thought about a Tory-Lib Dem coalition – we had thought about it but not as the leading option. John had been very important in teaching us about coalition forming and the role of the civil service and indeed, about how government is possible without overall majorities because the culture down there, for a generation or more, has been one of thumping majorities, strong whipping and Parliament being taken for granted because in the Commons you could always get things through.” Does working with a minority government make the process more difficult?

“I think particular functions become very important so you see straight away that the Bureau in the Parliament and the role of Bruce Crawford [the SNP’s Parliamentary Business Manager] is absolutely fundamental in a way that it would be different if the political arithmetic were different. For civil servants, there is an awareness of the makeup but even with the biggest majority there are issues about where stakeholders come from, about building consensus for policy and often within bigger majorities, the divisions come from within the governing party and those are the ones that have to be managed in terms of different positions that different Cabinet ministers might take, so I think the civil servants get used to that fluidity and sensitivity.” And just six months into the job in Scotland, he is already preparing for possible change after the elections in May.

“These are in some of the most interesting times, actually, and I think this is the third time I have been involved in discussions in the run up to an election and each time the governing party has recognised, very properly, that this is the right thing to happen and there is a protocol that says roughly six months before the election the PM, or in this case the FM, says to me, ‘yes, you can start those discussions’ and there is a very clear convention about what we do; we are not offering advice, we are listening to their plans and we can give them factual information, as is available to them as they develop them, and it gives them a chance to see how government is organised if they are involved and I have always found absolute constitutional propriety from the governing party and the opposition parties generally regard this as something that is a really useful opportunity for them as they develop their approaches. The conversations remain completely confidential and, touch wood, all of those have moved forward sensibly, in my experience.” Housden has an air of constant optimism about him. I ask him about his upbringing and he laughs and says he would describe it as ‘downwardly mobile middle class’.

He hesitates and at first asks me not to use this story but then realises it does offer an insight into the man that is basically running Scotland.

He describes how his maternal and paternal grandfathers were in business together, which is how his own parents met – there was a ten-year age gap. The family business was a successful grain broking business which, unfortunately, went bust in the 1930s, leaving the two families in a fairly impoverished situation. Sir Peter’s father, he says, never got over the shift in personal circumstances and he remained bitter and resentful throughout his life.

"I think egos are good things and they produce a lot of energy, bravery and there a lot of positive things that can come from that and I am very conscious about the pressures on politicians"

“My mother was, I would say, a very resilient person and although she died a couple of years ago, she remained a very stoical and optimistic person and while I think I inherited quite a bit of that, if I am really honest, what I inherited from my father was a determination to be happier than he was.

"My father wasn’t a happy individual with himself or with others and a lot of that was about a feeling of disenfranchisement. I think my analysis of that is that there is an awful lot goes on in this world and I think it is important to stay on an even keel and remain optimistic. You could not do a job like mine and go around being miserable and be saying, ‘this is all awful’ because, frankly, if I did, I wouldn’t be able to motivate anybody into doing anything.

“I think that if you are looking for a guiding thread for me, it is about giving people opportunities. I grew up in England in the 50s and 60s and that was a very hidebound hierarchical society and you could see where I went to school how that operated. Basically, who passed the 11 plus and who didn’t was about class and opportunity and I noticed that and going to a comprehensive was a formative moment for me because I saw how a town that had been split between a grammar and a secondary modern, because of selection at 11, came back together when a comprehensive was formed. They also brought in a team of teachers who had experience of comprehensive schooling and again, they were inspiring people and even as a student in the school, you knew there was a vision and a purpose in the school that was more than the narrow education and I think those things stayed with me, actually.

“And when I went into teaching, this was in Telford New Town, on the fringes of the West Midlands conurbation and there were lots of people making a new life for themselves, in fact it was interesting that there were a lot of Scots who had moved down from the old mining communities, so there was a pioneering spirit around with quite a lot of challenging children with families in difficult circumstances but also that feeling of everyone in it together. It was also a relatively new school, six or seven years old, and that tends to attract teachers who want to make something happen so it had a very idealistic and inspiring headteacher who I learnt a lot from and a fairly radical and pioneering set of teachers so it was a good place to work.” Is that how he would have viewed himself; radical and pioneering?

“I wouldn’t apply either of those two words to the work that I did but I can remember the very moment – and this is important – when I was teaching in Shropshire when I realised what my contribution could be.

“We were a school without many academic traditions and we had a tiny 6th form. There was a bigger school up the road with a large but not enormous 6th form and discussions were conjoined about us running joint courses and being able to benefit from better economies of scale. The discussions about potential merger foundered and they foundered on our school’s unwillingness to sacrifice its independence and to sacrifice anything for this sort of joint venture. At that time I was teaching a class of one in A-level sociology and happily, she passed, but I had her for eight periods a week for two years and I thought at the time, ‘this is crackers and not a good use of public money’. It was that experience that started to make me think about patterns of provision and I was at that time doing our liaison with primary schools so I got an overview of our education system and I think I realised then that my skills would better used at that rather than as a school teacher.” Sir Peter describes his background as being in educational devolution or to use the current lingo, ‘localism’. He is a strong believer that energy and potential can be released by devolving power down the way which is clearly an interesting take on his current post.

“What I learnt from that school experience was the negative aspects of parochialism, where people’s first instincts was they didn’t want to change and if I was faced with that problem now, I would start to, first of all, try and understand each of the camps, identify who were the people closest to coming together and think of the incentives and how money was flowing in and whether there was some way to use that to get them to come together. Basically, I would find a solution by finding consensus.” Is that how he operates now, by having the ability to be emotionally detached?

“I think you have to be very conscious that feelings will often be running high but you have to be capable of understanding the range of issues and opinions that will be out there and advise appropriately and dispassionately. The civil servant’s values of objectivity, impartiality, honesty and integrity are really important and also, it is about maintaining boundaries.

"When I became chief executive of a council, I inherited a situation where one or two of the officers would drink at the bar with members at lunchtime because there was a bar in the council in those days and I just quietly brought that practice to an end because it stepped over a line between recognising and respecting the difference between the political sphere and that of officials.” Housden understands boundaries but is also willing for them to be stretched. His staff in St Andrew’s House say he is ‘out there’; that he is approachable, willing to listen and makes a point of being seen. Whether he is actually collegiate or just gives the impression of being so is almost immaterial within the context of the civil service. Problem solving and deconstructing political process is what he does. He has an inquiring mind, a common touch and his words are carefully chosen to leave little room for misinterpretation but he also offers a glimpse of the sensitive man behind the public persona. He enjoys the study of the workings of government and embodies the fascination that many political observers have about the role of the civil service and its relationship with politicians.

Does he think civil servants are there to manage the egos of politicians?

“I think egos are good things and they produce a lot of energy, bravery and there a lot of positive things that can come from that and I am very conscious about the pressures on politicians; visibly insecure positions, can be out of a job overnight, careers often short, subject to violent switchbacks if they lose power and go back into opposition, and you have to recognise that as a set of circumstances and provide that sort of space but I have always found that the upside of all of this far outweighs any of the grit.” He will need to use all that inner resource in the months ahead as Scotland comes to terms with a much reduced financial settlement and an election. He has personally committed to reduce the spending on the civil service by 25 per cent on the period of the spending review and by 10 per cent in 2011/12 and in January will move into a new structure and put into effect those savings, closing 30 senior civil service posts through natural wastage and normal movements, slimming down senior teams and cutting costs. He says that Scotland is well placed to meet the challenges ahead.

“One of the huge inheritances from John Elvidge and the Scottish Government in general has been the unified approach to the public sector so the 150 or so people who run large public organisations in Scotland have a tradition of meeting together in various contexts so there is a great feeling of solidarity. That is a huge asset and I have been working with all those groups and I think the Independent Budget Review helped get the right numbers in people’s minds about the direction of travel, the big numbers and the options that we were facing as a government. Additionally, the Campbell Christie Commission spanning an election will keep asking those big questions about the future of public services so I think there is a lot of communication, a lot of honesty and transparency about figures and the projections as we go forward and that all helps us to have a good consistent dialogue.” Did he not share the Opposition’s criticism of the Finance Secretary’s initial reluctance to produce spending plans for more than the year?

“The spending review settlement down south that produces our consequentials and the general direction of travel that had been set out north and south of the border gave a pretty clear planning horizon for people involved in public services in Scotland, particularly because the Government’s establishment of the Campbell Christie Commission and its determination to look at some bigger questions about public services going forward. I think it was a perfectly legitimate position for the Government to take.”

Doesn’t the Christie Commission just stall some of the inevitable discussions?

“It doesn’t feel like stalling to me and could be very important. and the fact that its timescale arches over an election means it is not a sticking plaster and allows for the commission to ask very basic questions and for the Government that is formed after it to pick up and move it forward.” How difficult is it for civil servants after an election to potentially pick up the reins and start?

“You grow used to it and there is a strongly embedded tradition of the impartial civil service and the way it has worked in Scotland since devolution has been a happy and positive one particularly around the transition of different stages. Similarly down south I was involved in the coalition coming into government and there was a recognition by both of the political parties involved and the outgoing Labour government that the civil service had a role in the orderly transition of power.

“You do it with a bit of care and one of my fears in all of this is that you could dance ahead of the music so you need to be aware of what you face but you need to keep your eyes and ears open because you can be surprised the whole time. Lots of people were surprised about the way the coalition set about doing its business down there and about the status given to Liberal Democrat ministers in departments. Trying to find a way through that was new to us all so you have to let it come on to you a bit and react to what you see rather than what you expect to find.”

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