Herefordshire People: Chris Bull, perhaps the most powerful man in Herefordshire
PUBLISHED: 16:32 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013
Brian Viner talks to Chris Bull, whose new dual job makes him perhaps the most powerful man in Herefordshire.
Chief executive of Herefordshire Council and Primary Care Trust only since last December, 53-year-old Chris Bull has a fitting surname for his new job. By which I mean 'bull' as in the creature paraded before Hereford United games rather than 'bull' as in the popular euphemism for claptrap. Yet the council has produced plenty of the latter these last few months, and as I take my seat in Bull's rather modest office in the council's Hafod Road premises, I wonder whether I am about to be treated to more of the same.
Let us start with the council's disproportionate, discredited and now apparently discarded proposal to close or merge 37 of the county's schools. The resulting furore, I venture, must have felt like something of a baptism of fire?
"I wouldn't say that," he says. "It's an exciting and challenging job, but nonetheless one which feels ..." - there is a faintly uncomfortable pause while he searches for the mot juste - "... right."
How would he summarise the schools issue? "A set of proposals were put into the public domain. It became very clear very early on that these weren't proposals that could command public support, and as a consequence the council withdrew them, so what we are seeing is people having their voice ..."
Having been caused a lot of unnecessary angst?
Another long pause. "Of course it is true with hindsight that we would have wanted to handle some of this differently. But the reality is, like in Shropshire, like in the Isle of Wight, we were facing up to an issue which does need to be dealt with at some point, namely, how to accommodate the falling number of children in the population.
"The conclusion we came to was that we don't do that by a wholesale process of amalgamation and closure, but work with schools to help them find solutions to falling rolls ..."
A competent council, I suggest, might have reached that conclusion rather sooner?
An even longer pause. "I don't want to draw attention in this interview to the fact that I have only been here for a few weeks," he says, drawing attention to the fact that he has only been here a few weeks. Nonetheless, it is a fair point. Bull was previously the deputy chief executive of Southwark Council in London. He is also a keen amateur sailor. Perhaps with his hand on the tiller earlier, the rocks might have been avoided. Then again, perhaps not. After all, Herefordshire Council does not have much of a record, in a broad range of matters, of steering the wisest course.
I ask whether he is a parent. Yes, he says; his children are 22, 20 and 17. So yes, of course he had empathy with parents horrified by the school proposals. "I know what it's like being unable to get my children into the school of my preference. I do understand how these things feel." Does he also feel that the word 'fiasco' is appropriate for what happened?
The longest pause yet. "I think some people would describe it differently. The reality is that we are going to work to find solutions that don't involve school closures. We want to be constructive about this, rather than overly critical about how we got to where we got to."
But perhaps some strong criticism might itself be constructive. Let me, sailing metaphors seeming suddenly irresistible, try another tack. Did the proposals make sense to him, before he realised the scale of opposition to them?
"They make sense at a technical level, don't they?"
But not, surely, at a human level? Surely, any sentient being could see that to close a thriving secondary school like Queen Elizabeth in Bromyard would, on a human level, be disastrous?
Bull raises an eyebrow at the word 'thriving'. "Queen Elizabeth is an improving school, there's no doubt about that, and there was no sense as I understand it that the proposals were a comment on the performance of Queen Elizabeth, or any other school. They were based on an estimate of future needs of school places. With hindsight we can say those proposals were not deliverable."
According to the Hereford Times, I say, the projections of falling pupil numbers were based on unreliable data.
"That has been said, yes. We don't believe that to be the case, but we are getting independent work done on pupil projections, so that whatever we talk about in future, we can be sure that the data we use has public confidence."
Is this not work that should manifestly have been done before the proposals were drafted, not afterwards?
"I'm simply saying that since people have raised the issue, let's make sure the figures are independently verified."
Let's change tack again. Why did Bull take the job in the first place? He doesn't seem like a man who likes to glug from a poisoned chalice.
"For a range of reasons. Herefordshire is an absolutely beautiful place, and the job itself is incredibly attractive. Before I was deputy chief executive in Southwark I was chief executive of Southwark primary care trust and also director of social services, so I have done a joint job across health and local government before.
"Also, there are exciting challenges here. We have a highly dispersed population, one of the most dispersed in the country, which raises all sorts of issues in terms of transport, primary care, schools, road transport. These things matter heavily in a rural economy. And I come from the West Midlands. I grew up in Walsall, my mother lives over the border in Worcestershire. This job seemed made for me."
Would a reasonable summary of his duties be: dragging Herefordshire Council into the 21st century? He ignores my sarcasm.
"My job is to make sure we are focused on using public money locally, to produce the best possible outcomes for local people, with high-quality service delivery, transparent accountability, and efficiency in the sense of making sure we are efficient in the delivery of an infrastructure which supports services."
While even my tape-recorder winces at this particularly unwieldy example of local government jargon, I invite him to be more specific. Has anything horrified him about service-provision in the county?
"I wouldn't use the word 'horrified', but it's public knowledge that there are some areas where we need to focus on getting things better; some aspects of adult social care, for instance."
Is he concerned by the influx of economic migrants from Eastern Europe?
"It's a very important issue. The first thing to say is that migrant workers are critical to the local economy. We have relatively large numbers of them in Herefordshire because the economy needs them, enabling us to build wealth and prosperity in the county. But it's also important that people get access to the public services they need, and that we think of the impact this new element of the population has on the future of general practice and schools."
Did the projection of falling pupil numbers take this phenomenon into account? "It's one of the things we've asked the independent body to look at, yes. The fact is that there is a lot of turnover among migrant workers. A good proportion are single youngish men who don't actually use local services very much. But that may change over time. The pattern of migration elsewhere is that this kind of economic migration leads to settlement."
Bull, who is married but separated, has himself settled near Dinmore Hill, where he is currently renting a cottage. Living in Herefordshire does not give him much chance to sail - he has a share of a boat moored in Portsmouth - but he can at least indulge his other enthusiasms, for reading and running. I ask him what book he is reading at the moment. "My mind's gone blank," he says. "Erm, anything from Nick Hornby through to non-fiction stuff." As for his running habits, will drivers on the A49 be seeing him pounding up Dinmore Hill? He chuckles, a little nervously, and says there's more chance of seeing him coming down.
What, I ask, has impressed him about Herefordshire so far? "I've been very, very struck by the really strong sense of identity people have with Herefordshire, which says a lot for its future. People are incredibly committed to this county, and there is an incredible potential here."
Potential, I suggest, that will be best realised by the kind of strong and able local government that has been demonstrably lacking of late. Which brings me to the mismanagement, to put it politely, of the council's Information and Communications Technology department. Was Bull aware of that brouhaha when he took the job?
"Of course, and it demonstrates a number of lessons the council needs to learn."
What would he say to the observation that the council needs to do at least as much learning as the children whose schools it proposed to close? He smiles. "We all learn from experience," he says.