The key to the city

The key to the city

Birmingham Council has shown that thinking differently yields results. Damian Wild meets its exceptional FD, Sarah Wood.

One minute you are chaperoning Helmut Kohl around town, the next you are turning down a role at the Eurovision song contest – it is hardly the stereotype of the town hall treasurer.

But then, neither Sarah Wood nor Birmingham – the council where she has been finance director for the last 16 months – are typical in the traditionally uniform world of local government. Birmingham is, of course, the largest council in the UK by some distance. And, in terms of background, Wood is very different from most of her municipal counterparts.

Birmingham is a city transformed. A decade ago, its city centre was a symbol of all that was wrong with 1960s municipal planning – dirty grey buildings with a maze of subways below. But with the subways largely gone and the centre now sporting fountains, public squares and pedestrianised streets, it has the feel of a continental capital. By plugging into Europe and the funding that Brussels has made available to promote local regeneration across the continent, the council has been a local government pioneer.

In appointing Wood in April last year, Birmingham also heralded something of a revolution in local government finance departments. Traditionally, council FDs have been appointed after rising through the ranks in one, or a handful, of local authority finance departments. But Wood, with her direct service experience, is very different.

A break with tradition

It was Birmingham’s willingness to break with tradition that attracted her to the job. ‘I liked the ad,’ she says, smiling. ‘They were looking for someone whose experience was broader than is usually seen in an ad for an FD. I decided I would like to see if I could serve in a bigger pond.’

She was also attracted by the reputations of many of those at Birmingham.

Michael Lyons is the city’s long-serving chief executive, while leader Theresa Stewart is something of a local government institution.

Wood, 50, started her career as a trainee accountant in the old Corporation of Glasgow authority in 1966. She moved, again as an accountant, to the County Council of Dumbarton in 1974, before switching to Strathclyde regional council as a principal accountant a year later. So far, so standard.

But, in 1986, Wood changed direction, becoming associate director of Strathclyde’s social work department – though still responsible for finance.

Four years later, she completed her transition by becoming deputy director and taking on responsibility for elderly care services. She became senior deputy director of the department in 1993.

The winds of change

Two years later, Wood changed direction again, moving to Glasgow City Council as its deputy chief executive, with responsibility for economic development and social regeneration. Finally, she joined Birmingham last April.

She describes herself, with typical self-deprecation, as a ‘mongrel’.

As an accountant, Wood qualified first with ACCA (‘My council wouldn’t accept me as a CIPFA trainee because I didn’t have enough qualifications,’ she explains) and then with CIPFA on its accelerated senior managers course.

She also holds an MSc in public policy – something she thinks helped her gain an understanding of policy and management issues and, with her fellow students coming from a wider background than those found in council finance departments, helped open her mind to other points of view. ‘It succeeded in raising my awareness and exposing how little I knew,’ she says. ‘I think it’s good to get experience from practitioners in other areas of work.’

Having been out of finance for some time, and facing a new set of laws and regulations south of the border, she has had to learn and learn fast, at Birmingham. ‘The technical difficulties were not as great as I feared,’ she says. ‘You have to have certain skills as an FD and it has been a steep learning curve for me after being out of finance for ten years.

‘Until 1990, I had been connected with the finances of a large department with a budget of #400m. But it was still seven years since I had done mainstream finance work.’ So by now, she should be on top of the myriad of rules and acronyms that regulate the work of a town hall treasurer.

‘I would never claim to be on top of them,’ she says.

The scale of the job at Birmingham, a city of nearly a million people and a council with a budget in excess of #1bn, has been less challenging.

It may be the biggest council in the UK, but, until it was abolished in 1996, that honour fell to her previous employer.

‘Strathclyde was the biggest council in the UK, Glasgow was the biggest in Scotland – I like big authorities,’ she says. ‘I have come from the second city in Scotland to the second city in England; from a predominantly industrial city that had started to regenerate itself, to a predominantly industrial city that has regenerated itself; from a council with a big Labour majority, to a council with a strong Labour majority. There are more similarities than differences.’

One of the biggest pressures of Wood’s role at Birmingham – she is responsible for developing strategies for the city’s land and buildings – is to continue the massive regeneration of the recent past. Other councils have followed Birmingham’s lead in securing European funding, and Wood acknowledges that money is now harder to find. ‘The drying up of European funding is an issue – we need to get our thinking caps on and find alternative ways of doing things,’ she says. ‘I think the trick is that once you start regenerating a city, you have to keep on regenerating it. It’s a struggle to keep going forward with different schemes and finding funding for them.’

Just completed is an #80m refurbishment of the NEC – funded and carried out in conjunction with a private-sector partner. Beyond that is a #40m private finance initiative to build ten schools. And then there are also council plans to regenerate Birmingham’s jewellery quarter.

Private-sector partners are not quite beating a path to the town hall door, but Birmingham has a dedicated team working on developing ‘innovative’ funding arrangements under one of Wood’s senior assistant FDs. ‘It’s incumbent on Birmingham to do that work. We must look at how to attract resources into the city.’

So is she someone who enjoys beating the system? She pauses before she answers – something she does a lot, though this time the pause is longer – and says: ‘I enjoy making the rules work for the people of Birmingham.’

For Wood, local government is not a soft option for accountants. ‘I’m passionate about local government,’ she says. ‘I believe in ensuring some of our less well-off citizens receive the services they should get and are entitled to.

‘I believe that passionately and it’s nice to be a tiny cog in a big wheel that some-times delivers something. The challenges in local government are immense because you have to do it an open and accountable fashion.’

Wherever I lay my books …

A company may lay its books in Companies House but it does not have to open them up to the public in the same way as a council, she says. ‘It’s a unique challenge. It’s a very real experience for an FD to explain that process to a roomful of people who are worried about street lights, pot holes and so on.’

This openness extends to Wood’s interpretation of her role at Birmingham.

‘I think the FD’s role is to support the chief executive in fulfiling the key objectives of that authority. It is not about being a director of finance who keeps money a secret and drip-feeds little bits through.’

A fan of ‘good company, good wine, a good book and good music’, Wood is also an Associate of the London College of Music. And while she draws professional parallels between Glasgow and Birmingham, she speaks of their differences in lifestyle.

‘I absolutely adore Symphony Hall and love the Hippodrome, particularly when the Royal Ballet is there,’ she says. ‘But I don’t think the restaurants are as good as in Glasgow.’ She is also an expert on travel between Birmingham and Glasgow, heading home every other weekend to see her family and partner.

Wood recognises that her path to the top is not a typical one. ‘My appointment says the world is changing. I don’t think a director of finance with direct service experience and executive experience would necessarily have been appointed three or four years ago,’ she says. ‘I think my appointment is a sign that things are changing. I think the training of FDs will change.

The corporate role is something that there is a greater appreciation of.’

‘I’ve both learned and survived,’ she says of her first 16 months. Learned, no doubt, from the experience of the city’s hosting of the recent G8 summit, where it was her job to chaperone Helmut Kohl, and surviving the Eurovision song contest which Birmingham also hosted. ‘I ducked out of that one,’ she says.

And the future? To get on top of the job at Birmingham? ‘I don’t think you ever get on top of a job the size of Birmingham,’ she says with refreshing honesty. ‘You get on with it.’

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