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Council chief who kickstarted Blackburn's revival set to retire
ON Monday chief executive Graham Burgess will spend his last day at the helm of Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council. Since taking on the top job six years ago he has steered the authority through one of its most challenging periods ever, coping with the recession and implementing difficult budget cuts. Here he talks to local government reporter Bill Jacobs about his time with the council and the challenge facing him at his next post.
AT 60, most council chiefs could be forgiven for starting to think seriously about the pressure-free joys of retirement.
But not Graham Burgess, who has put his carpet slippers on hold and is about to take on the daunting task of turning around a failing authority.
It will not be the first time Mr Burgess has stepped into a difficult situation.
Back in 1998, the Merseysider came to the Blackburn as regeneration director charged with reviving its down-at-heel town centre, faltering business base and decaying housing stock.
There was much to do and an awful lot at stake for the borough, which had seen years of decline. Now he leaves with a feeling of having achieved much, but with more still be done.
Mr Burgess already had experience of testing times as a council officer. In the 1980s he was at the eye of the Militant storm in Liverpool in the 1980s, accused by then council deputy leader Derek Hatton of destroying their socialist experiment in the city.
He came to Blackburn when the once-proud mill town was trying to kickstart a huge regeneration project.
Now he is heading to Wirral Council, which is reeling from a string of allegations of corporate malpractice, ranging from failing its children in care through persecuting a whistleblower and investigations into “abnormal” multi-million pound contract awards.
As he considers both his previous career and new two-year task to turn a failing authority around after being parachuted in by the Local Government Association, Mr Burgess said laconically: “I like a challenge.”
And he admits: “When, six months after I was appointed chief executive in October 2006, the Labour administration was replaced by the Conservative -Lib Dem coalition, they were difficult times.
“We came through them.
“I have enjoyed my time in Blackburn. We have seen a lot of changes in the borough. Blackburn town centre has been massively revived with the Mall development and new market and we have the Cathedral Quarter project to come. But there is a lot still to be done.
“I am proud of the industrial developments out towards Shadsworth and Guide on the M65 corridor.
“The town still faces major challenges in terms of continuing that development strategy in tough economic times.
“The borough is facing major budgets cuts in the coming years which will be difficult to manage without cutting essential services. The government’s welfare changes will have a massive impact on people in the town and knock on to the council’s services.
“There is a real challenge of how, with less money, the council deals with continuing deprivation. There are major problems with housing after the Elevate project was ended halfway through.
“These are real problems, but I am confident that Blackburn with Darwen – the only authority to win Council of the Year twice – is ready and capable of dealing with them.”
So why instead of getting out his carpet slippers is Mr Burgess going in as troubleshooter to a third local authority in trouble?
He said: “It’s all about putting something back.
“I was brought up in a council house in Norris Green, Liverpool. Working in local government has been kind to me. I have a nice house in Allerton, Liverpool, and my daughters are doing well.
“I believe in what councils do and I want to do something to help people through my job. It is another challenge but one I am looking forward to.
“In a few years I want to come back to Blackburn and see how it has coped with the problems it still faces, enjoy the new town centre with the Cathedral Quarter and bus station and know that the borough is still on the way up.
“And of course I want to see my club Everton play Rovers in a Premier League clash at Ewood Park – and beat them in a thriller!”
One thing is for sure, he will be warmly welcomed back after making a huge contribution to the wellbeing of the borough in the past 14 years.
- the revival of Blackburn town centre
- economic and industrial development along the M65 corridor
- Blackburn with Darwen council winning council of the year twice
- the social cohesion in the town
- successes in regenerating housing and brownfield sites in the borough
- the failure of East Lancashire district councils to work together
- the continuing blight of deprivation in parts of the borough
- the services reductions forced on the council by economic austerity
- the non-completion of the authority’s housing market renewal scheme
- Blackburn Rovers being relegated from the Premier League