In this interview series, local authority senior executives talk to KPMG about the challenges and opportunities they see for local government, for their place and for the people they serve.

Tom Riordan, Chief Executive of Leeds City Council, talks about how the pandemic has changed the meaning of connection and why he’s optimistic for the future of local government.

Tim Riordan

What does the future of local government mean to you?

Local government is realising just how powerful it is and what a difference it can make to people and to places. We won't always be in the middle of a global pandemic or austerity. Things are looking brighter: we're heading into a good period in which we should no longer have to make swingeing cuts to our organisations.

That said, there are three big areas on which local government needs to deliver. First the economy, jobs and homes. Second is looking after the most vulnerable people and helping tackle inequality. Third is having infrastructure fit for the 21st century: transport and property, reaching net zero, digital and data and tech, and having the right social infrastructure.

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What does that mean for how your customers interact with the council?

We’re using technology to give our citizens better access to public services. The more we can free up people who prefer to do things online the better. That will accelerate and extend beyond transactional issues to engagement, forming a growing online community to consult and communicate with.

At the same time the digital exclusion agenda is crucial. For example our libraries help people navigate public services that can only be accessed online, offering face-to-face help. The shift to universal services being provided online must not be at the expense of people who need our help.

What are some of the biggest challenges that local government has to overcome?

Inequality is a huge issue. We have done and continue to do some great work in Leeds to help address this. But within the city we still have areas where life expectancy is 12 or 13 years less than other places just a couple of miles away.

We are going to have to work extra hard to make sure that we get the people of the city skilled up to meet the demands of the future.

Then there’s net zero. We've set a demanding target of 2030 – a massive stretch, yes, but we want to be ambitious. We’re installing a district heating system into our city centre and neighbouring areas to help combat fuel poverty and decarbonise the economy. And we've got the biggest electric vehicle fleet in the country.

The third major challenge is workforce. Everybody I talk to is after talent. We are going to have to work extra hard to make sure that we get the people of the city skilled up to meet the demands of the future. Good things can come of that: wages will grow, and people will have more choice in the labour market. But we need to make sure we have the doctors, the nurses, the social workers, the HGV drivers, the data analysts and so on that we're going to need to achieve our ambitions.

What does the connected enterprise mean to you?

The last couple of years have seen more efficient and effective interaction with partner organisations, staff and colleagues. The next step is making sure not to overuse that ability: to retain some face-to-face interaction which leads to better quality time spent with colleagues, communities and citizens.

The pandemic has shown us who really runs our places and, surprise, surprise, it's not the CEO: it's the people who are out there every day providing our public services. It really has brought it home to everybody just what a team effort is needed to for local government to have the bright future and to achieve all we can. That’s why a connected enterprise should not be all about the sturdiness of tech and data but also about how we value our colleagues working in the community and improving what is needed to enable them to do their jobs.