Star Interview: 'We only exist once and should make an impact': Lord Bob Kerslake on his Manchester bomb report, living in Sheffield and juggling roles

If Lord Bob Kerslake confesses to feeling stretched, it really must have been a busy week. It's early on Friday morning and he's installed himself in a booth at a Sheffield city centre hotel '“ tie off, porridge eaten, pot of coffee on the go '“ after catching the train up from London.

Sunday, 1st April 2018, 2:51 pm
Updated Sunday, 1st April 2018, 2:56 pm
Lord Bob Kerslake in Millennium Square outside the Winter Garden, part of the original Heart of the City scheme in Sheffield. Picture by Marie Caley

The peer who cheerfully agrees to being ‘a man with many hats’ has reached the end of what must have been a tough few days. The former head of the civil service, who was chief executive of Sheffield Council for more than a decade, has put his independent report into the Manchester Arena bombing to bed and is mulling over the findings.

Manchester has much to be proud of, he says, in terms of civic leadership and the way the injured were handled. However, an emergency phone line didn’t work, failings were identified around the fire brigade’s response – it took crews two hours to reach the venue, when the average time is under six minutes – and parts of the media were singled out for criticism for hounding victims following the terror attack last May, which claimed 22 lives.

“Some of the press behaved appallingly, that’s the only way you can describe it.”

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Changes to the industry’s Editors’ Code were recommended, along with better training for family liaison officers and a requirement for the local press to be involved in contingency planning.

But he concludes: “I think ultimately the press has got to still take a long look at itself. I was surprised and shocked, to be frank. I thought things had changed more than they have.”

Lord Kerslake seems to have a knack for finding himself at the heart of the national conversation. In December he resigned as chair of the King’s College hospital board in protest over the Government’s approach to NHS funding. In return he attracted scorn at Prime Minister’s Questions from Theresa May, who drew attention to his advisory role with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. He wasn’t surprised by the reaction.

“I knew they were going to shoot the messenger. That’s just what happens, I’m afraid. I got terrific letters from people locally and in the hospital. That was really heartwarming; humbling, a bit. But the political reaction was because the Government feels vulnerable on health, and anyone saying ‘There’s something wrong here’ gets a reaction of that sort.”

He is still involved in charity work for King’s, and helped to raise a ‘chunky sum’ for the critical care unit two weeks ago. Ministers are ‘in denial’, he says, about the struggles in health and social care. “Unless they get tackled in a fundamental way – that’s to say you need somewhere about £4 billion extra in the NHS and around £2 billion extra into social care – these services will stagger from year to year, and crisis to crisis.”

While he’s able to largely brush off Mrs May’s words as ‘the rough and tumble of PMQs’, he was upset his resignation was linked to his Labour role.

“That was disappointing, and I think inappropriate. But there we go. At the time all that kerfuffle happened, I was doing interviews with bereaved families who were caught up in that terrible attack in Manchester. And to be honest it kind of put this into perspective. I just thought, it’s not nice to have the Prime Minister have a go at you in Parliament, but compared to what these people have experienced it’s nothing.”

How would he describe his Labour duties? Is he grooming Corbyn for power?

“I’m not in the Labour Party, I’m not developing their policy, and I’m not there to help them get elected. My job is to explain to them what it’s like if you are elected, and help them think about how they effectively implement their policies. You might say, isn’t that what the civil service does? But the rules are very restrictive in this country. Parties of any persuasion end up, if they go into power, having had too little access to advice and support in preparing for Government. I thought this was something I could offer. I don’t know if they’ll win, but we know it’s possible on the current polls, so it seemed right to help them. They asked me, I said yes.”

He won’t comment on whether he supports Jeremy or not. “I’m a cross-bencher, I’m not in any party, and I don’t join in conversations about particular individuals. I think it’s not helpful.”

Even a question about whether his politics are left-leaning is batted off. “I would say I’m progressive, but I’m not going to say I’m left or right. I do hope what I’ve done since I stepped down as head of the civil service is to champion those whose voices don’t get heard. Those who are desperate for housing, for example.”

When he left Sheffield Council in 2008, Lord Kerslake joined the Homes and Communities Agency, and ‘could see just how big the challenge was’. “It’s one of the most important things in people’s lives, having a home they know they can rely on. And yet, as a country we were singularly failing to deliver enough homes, and particularly enough affordable homes. I could also see power of housing in the regeneration of communities.”

He is chair of Peabody housing association, originally founded in 1862 to ‘ameliorate conditions for the poor and needy’ in London. As a child, his own circumstances were ‘very lucky’. He was born in Bath – his Somerset accent is still strong in conversation – and his father was a headteacher. “I’m sure it wasn’t easy, so I didn’t appreciate how tough it was financially, but we grew up in a good, settled home and didn’t face the huge issues around access and affordability people now experience.”

A qualified accountant with a degree from Warwick University, he worked for councils in London before coming to Sheffield in 1997. Aged 63, he is married to wife Anne, and together they have a grown-up son and daughter. The family home is still in Endcliffe – “Probably every other weekend I’m back” – so he’s never fully moved away. Besides, he’s chair of the Sheffield Theatres board, watching every in-house production, and leads Hallam University’s panel of governors too.

“I love the city, I’ve never felt anything but enjoyment in living here. It’s friendly, people are very direct, and there’s that massively great combination of an urban area with access to the countryside. You can walk from my house through Endcliffe Park and beyond, and you end up right into the Peak District. People are usually exhausted by the time they get to Hathersage, but they’re just bowled over.”

But shuttling between the capital and South Yorkshire has highlighted the huge difference between the ‘two worlds’. “The growing north-south gap really comes home to you.”

London and the South East generate over 40 per cent of the country’s GDP, he says. They are also the only regions to have recovered since the 2007 economic crash, and the sole areas that match the highest-performing regions in northern Europe.

Last month it emerged he had offered his services as an ‘honest broker’ to break the deadlock over devolution in South Yorkshire as the mayoral election approaches. Sheffield and Rotherham are pursuing the existing City Region agreement but Barnsley and Doncaster want the option to join a proposed Yorkshire-wide deal. Lord Kerslake has met the four councils’ chief executives. “The question was, is there a way forward in the here and now that recognises those differences, but allows the process – particularly for South Yorkshire – to move on. We’re still having that conversation.”

Are the problems intractable?

“They’re clearly quite deep-rooted, we know this. But they’re not intractable. There is common ground on some issues and a willingness to talk. The fact they asked me to come in is encouraging. It’s really important that we establish a stronger and more unified leadership. We’ve got a job on here. Bluntly, Government are not going to sort this out for South Yorkshire. I’m not saying they’ll be unhelpful, but they’re not going to put themselves out specifically, as they haven’t in the North East. In the end, the solutions have to come from this area.”

Did he consider running for mayor?

“I would want to give any support I can to whoever gets elected as mayor, but that’s not a job I’m going for.”

In the Lords he feels he has enough of a platform to champion issues. And anyway, standing for elected office has never crossed his mind. “You have to be clear which role you’re playing. You’ve got to be one or the other, and I was an officer.”

Yet things would have to be different for him to consider repeating his experience with the civil service, which he led from 2012 to 2014, joining the Lords 12 months later. “I enjoyed working with the civil service and the people in it. I had mixed views about some of the relationship issues with ministers. I particularly disliked the anonymous briefing against civil servants.”

His latest task is to head the UPP Foundation Civic Universities Commission, launched last month and billed as a way for institutions to ‘reconnect with the cities that built them’.

An initial survey uncovered some good news, in that people are ‘proud of their universities’. “But there’s quite a big difference between people on lower incomes, who are less clear about the benefits, than those who are more affluent.”

The commission won’t deal with fees, which a separate Government review intends to address. “I’m hoping what we do will report a bit earlier and feed into their review.”

It comes after ‘a fairly benign period where, in effect, universities didn’t suffer the same scale of cuts as local government or others’, he says. “The effects of austerity were transferred to students through higher fees.”

Does he relish his porfolio career?

“Sometimes at the end of a week like this you can feel a bit stretched. But I love the variety of what I can do.”

He often finds it hard to say no to projects, and turns down ‘a load of stuff’, counting on a skilled PA to run his whole diary. “But, hey, we only exist once, and we should make an impact. I can compartmentalise. But I can also connect things as well.”

'Heart of the City was touch and go'

Lord Bob Kerslake is credited with transforming Sheffield city centre as one of the prime movers behind the original Heart of the City scheme.

It was the first job he was faced with in 1997, when the then council leader Mike Bower asked for his thoughts on the plan that brought the Peace Gardens, Millennium Gallery, Winter Garden and the offices of St Paul’s Place.

“I wrote him a memo that pointed out some of the challenges with this project. At that time, the finances of the council were very constrained, and there was a mantra of ‘No more big projects’. He said ‘That’s the wrong memo, can you write me another one’. I went away, thought about it and came back.”

But the proposal was initially turned down by the Labour group, and the situation remained ‘touch and go’ the night before a crunch meeting with the Millennium Commission in London.

“I remember Mike saying, ‘If you get a call from me, it’s on, if you don’t, it’s all over’. Fortunately he called me and the project was back on again. But it was that close to not happening.

“I feel good every time I come into the city. In many of our jobs you think ‘What have I done on that?’ It’s something I can touch and feel proud of.”

The project’s successor – Heart of the City II, formerly the Sheffield Retail Quarter and before that Sevenstone – is now under construction after much delay.

“It has taken a long time, but you’ve got to have in mind the seismic effect of the credit crisis. I was lucky. I had a buoyant, growing economy, the private sector was coming in and there was public money as well following the election of the Blair government.”