Business Interview: Scott Dickinson, Business Chair, Northumberland County Council

Northumberland is open for business, according to county council leadership. And to ensure that, Scott Dickinson was appointed the authority’s first ever business chair. Jo Blakemore spoke to him

Councillor Scott Dickinson, the new County Council Business Chair for Northumberland, at County Hall, Morpeth
Councillor Scott Dickinson, the new County Council Business Chair for Northumberland, at County Hall, Morpeth

Passenger trains will definitely run on Northumberland’s Ashington, Blyth and Tyne railway line – a key public transport priority for more than 15 years. Scott Dickinson has guaranteed it. “It will happen – even if I have to lay the track myself,” he pledged.

The reopening of the line would also open up huge opportunities for county residents to access employment opportunities, he believes. And he would like more stations opened up on the East Coast Main Line.

He said: “What I would like to see is the East Coast maintained in its current format. I think the line returned more than £250m to the taxpayer for this year. Its current format could be reinvested and trains stop at the current locations more often. It doesn’t stop at Alnmouth as much as we’d like it to. To learn that in the contract for privatisation, trains don’t have to stop at Alnmouth, and that Alnmouth and such like could be cut off from the East Coast Main Line, I find absolutely appalling.”

Public transport is a big priority for the Druridge Bay councillor but he acknowledges that such a large and sparsely-populated county as Northumberland will always struggle to provide universal coverage.

“Rural counties do have issues with public transport and probably always will. We subsidise lots of routes across Northumberland to make providers still operate them; many of them are not cost-effective for the provider and they wouldn’t do them if we didn’t subsidise them. My hope is that the Combined Authority will give us some leverage with that.

“I think that when the Combined Authority becomes responsible for assisting the region as a whole for transport, that will open up the doors to a little bit of competition and I don’t think that’s a bad thing in terms of a bus service. Where Newcastle and such like have heavily-profitable bus journeys in the city, that could be used to have more bus services in the rural areas that might not be as cost-effective. We are a huge geographical area, very sparsely populated which causes huge problems and I think it always will but we need to manage that as best we can and make sure that no one is cut off or isolated.”

Scott Dickinson is 30 and one of the youngest members of Northumberland County Council. He entered politics at 21 when he was elected to East Chevington Parish Council, becoming chairman a few years later. He stepped down from this position at the end of May: “I ousted the person who had been chair for 26 years and I was very proud to get that position.”

His route into the political arena actually began when he was at school. “I had always been interested in the community as a whole, you see I was chair of the school council and have always been kind of just involved at bringing people together, listening to views and lobbying for change. You could see positive change happening at school and I think it developed from a school age.

“I am that oddball that is into politics, my friends think it’s all very boring. But thank the lord somebody is into politics at a young age. People assume councillors are of a certain age but a county councillor’s role, a role like mine, is actually a job now. To encourage people of a professional younger age to come into this I think is very important.

“I think it just throws a really good mix into our group and our decision-making process when you have younger, professional people participating with people who offer a wealth of experience from their lifetime in work previously, so I think together it makes a very strong team to look at various issues.”

His first attempt at standing for the county council was in 2008 and was unsuccessful. Although it was his first taste of a big, political-scale election, he had experience in local government: “I was chairman of Northumberland local government committee which coordinated various things on a local government level and a member of the Northumberland Association of Local Councils (NALC), so I did a lot of the Northumberland-level things while being a parish councillor.

“I stood again in 2013 and ran a successful campaign with a 500-whatever majority. Then internal politics made me the business chairman of the authority straightaway, which was a big achievement because usually, or people assume usually, these positions are split when it’s a Labour authority between Blyth and Ashington and anyone from out of those areas won’t get anything of substance, but I managed to get the third most senior position within the council.”

The business chairman is responsible for all the functions of the council, from scrutiny to policy board to democratic services, as well as the running of member development and training. Dickinson concedes that he had a rocky start in the role, although things have settled down.

“My role is part making sure meetings run the way they should, part making sure council policy goes through the system. My background was I’m a lead director for a charitable organisation – Hadstone House Youth and Community Project Ltd – that’s funded by Children in Need, the Greggs Foundation and various things like that, so I have a lot of experience in process and organisational stuff. In an organisation like I run, you apply for some money, you get some money, you have to monitor that money and then you have to feed it back, so it’s pretty much the same system but with council policy. Prior to that I was part of the family business which is a bed and breakfast, pub and restaurant, in north Northumberland.”

 

He sees one of the main demands of his council role as challenging the status quo and as an authority this was never more evident than in the blood-letting of senior management when Labour took the reins last year. He said: “It has been quite a powerful shockwave through the authority because I don’t think it’s ever been so clear that this is a member-led authority, that the officers work for the members, the members were elected by the people.

“We took out the chief executive and the deputy chief executive, we moved from six corporate directors down to three, made a whole range of changes. Some of those people were paid up to £180,000 – for one of those people we can protect 50 hands-on personnel in terms of local services who are litter picking and cutting grass and doing all the sorts of things that we really want to see improved and maintained in our communities. It was very important for us to do that.

“We came in with a plan discussed prior to arrival. It is in the values of our group to protect jobs and we said we would do that and I can safely say we’ve done that from the start and the only way to do that was to reduce the management at the top which had previously been protected. In the past five years, 1,500-plus people at the bottom had been paid off, nobody had been touched at the top and you continued to have that kind of top-heavy management structure that actually was ineffective. What we needed to do was streamline some of the departments, have equal responsibility under one director for what was previously two directors. I think in a year we’ve made it much more efficient. We’ve got much more to do but I think we’ve done an incredible job.”

He has been contacted by other councils interested in this approach which, he says, as well as saving money had the additional benefit of raising morale among remaining staff members.

He defends the proposed relocation of council headquarters from Morpeth to Ashington, which has drawn criticism. “When I first came here in 2013 the building was already well below capacity use. Studies suggest that as of now, £10.5m is needed to bring it up to modern workplace standards. The county council has all the district buildings so we have perfectly useful buildings standing empty in towns across Northumberland. What we want to do and will do is create one central base for corporate resources in Ashington and all the other services will be delivered locally in communities across Northumberland, all the major towns will have a council hub and that will be spreading the economic value of the council out across Northumberland.

“It will reduce the costs in travel – we currently have staff travelling from Berwick to County Hall to deliver services back to Berwick, which is just ridiculous. All we need to do is decentralise and let people have council services visible in their communities, not a central base in Morpeth where everyone has to travel to.

“Does this sound as though we’re going back to the old district councils? Well, people say that but we’re not necessarily, it is one council, a family of council services, it is still one central body and all its decisions will be made as one council, but delivered in communities. It might be wishful thinking but I think a lot of people did cherish their district councils.”

Another council decision that has proved controversial was the bailout, a six-figure sum, to Hexham store Beales which safeguarded 120 jobs. Dickinson said: “I do visit businesses and have been to various companies that want to work in partnership with councils, or to businesses that are having financial difficulties, and I always take financial officers who can explain to the businesses what kind of support and options are available from the council to see them through.

“A good example was Beales in Hexham – our support protected 120 jobs and it was a small amount of support, the council would ultimately have to pay a lot more if all those people had been put on to benefits, it was worth stimulating that for a little while.

“I am a bridge between private business and council support. Some businesses want me to visit them to raise their profile. It’s about using the council to assist the local council and economy and help promote local businesses across Northumberland. Equally, businesses which have been interested in setting up in Northumberland may contact me first and I will set up a meeting with either our development company Arch or officers from business support in the council. I will encourage them to come here, tell them how wonderful Northumberland is, how hardworking the people can be, the cost of living here is quite reasonable ... all the things that are really good to try to encourage businesses into Northumberland.”

He is candid about the implications of a yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum: “It would make my business chair role much more difficult. If Scotland, just on the other side of the border, offers reduced business rates, whatever, that encourages people to jump the border, that’s going to cause us problems. Not just us as a council but the people – the more businesses that disappear, the more jobs that go with them.”

The council has been working on a plan of action for months. “Our leader has been across the border to make friends with the border councils to make sure we have that relationship ready if a yes vote takes place to make sure we know the people we will be asked to work with. We already knew them but we need to know them more.”

Dickinson has always lived in Northumberland, currently in Broomhill near Acklington with his partner Anthony, and free time is spent in the county. As Labour’s Parliamentary hopeful for the Berwick seat, when sitting MP Sir Alan Beith retires next year, he makes sure he is seen out and about in the constituency: “Street fairs, festivals, food markets ... I go around Northumberland because I’ve got a big thing about keeping it local and buying local produce. I love cooking, I do all the cooking in my house, find it very therapeutic. After a day here, I can chop an onion quite vigorously.”

The Questionnaire

What car do you drive? Golf

What’s your favourite restaurant? Fishing Boat Inn, near Boulmer

What’s your favourite book? About A Boy by Alan Johnson.

What was the last album you bought? I don’t really buy music.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got? It feels ideal but I don’t think it would be – head teacher. I’m chair of governors of a college and I thoroughly enjoy that.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say? Vote Dickinson. I’d carry it around on my shoulder.

What’s your poison? I don’t drink alcohol.

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal? The Guardian.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for? £12.50 – my parents owned a florist and I used to carry the buckets of flowers and sweep up the front. It was very embarrassing but I wanted the money.

How do you keep fit? Running around the corridors and up and down the stairs of County Hall but I’d like to have the chance to do more.

What’s your most irritating habit? Impatience.

What’s your biggest extravagance? I’ve booked a holiday to the Cape Verde Islands travelling on Christmas Eve. That was extravagant for me as I never see the value of spending money on holidays. I get frustrated being away.

Which historical or fictional character do you most identify with or admire? Nelson Mandela

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with? Nelson Mandela, Sharon Osbourne, John Prescott and JK Rowling

How would you like to be remembered? Being first Labour MP for Berwick.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer