From Insight - October 2016 :
A proud Teessider with almost four decades of service in local government, Ian Ferguson is the next President of the IRRV. His mission is to promote education and membership during his year of office. Lester Dinnie reports :
As a youngster who started work with his Stockton-on-Tees local authority in 1975 at the tender age of 16, Ian Ferguson soon discovered that more education was the key to success.
His early experience of the then Rating and Valuation Association examinations convinced him that the standards, fellowship and practical advantages of membership were going to play a major part in his career.
Studying via distance learning in the pre-digital age was not, of course, quite the efficient process that it is today. However, when Barry Smith took him on at Chester City Council in 1980 he was able to undertake a course of study at Preston Polytechnic. This was the real kick-start to his future and to a number of lifelong friendships along the way, meeting and being influenced by the likes of Gil Young, Allen Shaw, Peter Fairhurst and Alf Alker, some of whom went on to become Presidents of the IRRV themselves.
It was at the Lancashire and Cheshire branch of the IRRV that he met a certain Mr J C Roberts, another President-in-the-making, who was destined to become a regular room-mate at Annual Conferences in the heady days of room-sharing at seaside B and Bs. Readers of Insight will, no doubt, judge whether this was, for Ian, a series of inspirational interludes or merely a valuable exercise in dealing with life’s challenges. Whatever the conclusions, according to Ian much was done by discussion into the early hours on how to put the world to rights.
Together these two ‘young guns’ would regularly invite themselves to conference drinks reception, no doubt in pursuit of professional networking rather than free alcohol. These days the two are still regularly in touch with Ian as a contributor of articles for Insight magazine.
The Lancashire and Cheshire branch has been a rich source of camaraderie and professional support for Ian over the years, notably from Linda Price, Ann Sizer (Penn), Ray Dart and Richard Mason.
As a sports fan from the Teesside area it’s no surprise to find that Ian is a lifelong Middlesbrough supporter, now a family tradition with his 16-year-old son following him as a season ticket holder. Ian is still a regular at ‘Boro’s’ home games, these days in the magnificent environs of the Riverside Stadium. He points out that amongst all the exotic owners of English football clubs, from Russian Oligarchs to Middle Eastern Royalty, Middlesbrough’s owner is former local authority accountant Steve Gibson.
With the club currently sitting proudly in the Premiership, maybe there are hints of further success this season following recent promotion. Ian talks, slightly wistfully, of the days when his club was managed by ex-England and Manchester United captain Bryan Robson and the blandishments (climate?) of Teesside brought the likes of Italian international Ravenelli and Brazilian legend Juninho to the club.
Looking back in the world of work, by 1983 Ian had moved on to what is now Redcar and Cleveland authority as a senior Rating Assistant, thence to Gateshead as Principal Rating Officer and by 1988 was Revenues Manager at Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council. Like everyone who served in local government but most particularly those involved with revenues and benefits, this is the time best remembered, or perhaps most easily remembered, for the introduction of the Poll Tax! First in Scotland in 1989 and then in England in 1990.
Quite apart from the intense political atmosphere and the practical need to recruit more staff, Ian’s experience at Nuneaton and Bedworth has a darkly humorous aspect to it. With a Labour-controlled council fiercely opposed to the tax, the entire team was moved out of its offices in the Council House to a building opposite. With barely concealed irony the building was christened ‘Poll Tax House’, presumably to focus attention on it and to literally distance it from the rest of the council’s business.
As Ian puts it “The council didn’t want to know us and the public didn’t want to know us either!”.
What he also recalls, however, is the camaraderie amongst the hard-pressed occupants of Poll Tax House, particularly among those who shared IRRV membership.
In fact, throughout the whole of this period the IRRV’s next president was developing his passion for education as part of the Institute’s mission and values. Now on the brink of the highest office in the Institute’s governance, he has a distinguished history of contribution to this aspect of the IRRV’s work. He is currently both secretary and education liaison officer for the Northern Counties Association, has tutored in Revenues Administration, Council Tax Law, Non-Domestic Rating Law and Benefits Administration at certificate (previously technician) level, Diploma level Administration and Management and Revenues Administration at Level 2. He has also taught at both Dudley and Catterick courses as well as the pre-exam revision course at Caerleon and Keele University.
By 2003 he was much travelled in local authority terms and now decided to return to the north east with Derwentside Council as Revenues and Benefits Manager. Itself the product of a reorganisation under the Local Government Act of 1972 which merged Consett Urban District, Stanley Urban District and Lanchester Rural District, Derwentside was one of seven District Councils which merged with Durham County Council in 2009, which presented Ian with his next challenge in the geographically large and diverse authority.
As Revenues and Benefits Manager of England’s fifth biggest authority, he found himself responsible for a department of 300 staff and a remit covering 220,000 properties compared to 40,000 on his previous ‘watch’.
“County Durham”, he says, “is a big, largely rural area with a population of half a million and thirteen modest sized towns but no major urban centre. Durham itself is beautiful but by no means big. The Revenues and Benefits offices were located in Spennymoor, which meant the vast majority of staff having to travel, some of them quite long commutes. In addition, we were losing a lot of senior managers with many key functions only needing one head rather than eight. As with all major restructures there were significant changes to people and processes, while the pressure was on to improve performance and efficiency.”
As before, he found that the IRRV was a unifying factor in all of this for those staff who were members, with both ‘unofficial’ mentoring and the structures of the Institute providing a professional level of support.
The final instalment of Ian’s local authority career ended when he left Durham County Council on 31st March 2016. He ruefully reveals that the final four weeks of his long sojourn in the public sector was spent laid up with a snapped achilles tendon.
“I have to confess it was a battle scar of a lunchtime five-a-side football match with some work colleagues”, he says “definitely a life experience which can be filed in the ‘you should have known better’ drawer, but at least I can say my footballing activities died with their boots on.”
As a youngster he had been a pacey outside right and enforced retirement through injury, as all enthusiastic amateurs will agree, is a hard pill to swallow. Now his very occasional golf is something of a consolation although he is mysteriously vague about whether any IRRV golf trophy carries his name.
His other major form of ‘relaxation’ is in the field of popular music. Particularly, but not exclusively, a fan of the 80s genres, his interest is far from being sedentary, with a diary list of live gigs from Lloyd Cole to Bryan Ferry and China Crisis to the Kaiser Chiefs. ‘Being there’ is all part of the experience, not just listening to.
Now, looking forward to a year in office travelling, meeting up with old friends and colleagues, he is far from being ‘retiring’ about the task ahead for the Institute.
In addition to his other duties he has been Chair of the IRRV’s Commercial Services Committee in recent times, so has a good fix on priorities.
“Education and membership are the life blood of any professional institute”, he says “and this of course needs to be supported by a strong income stream from commercial activities.
The public sector is under pressure on costs, which directly affects the resources of local authorities to fund training and education, while private sector providers find local authority spending is down, which influences their involvement in our events.
However, with issues such as the introduction of Universal Credit, our profession will continue to have a focus on its activities and performance. This is something we can turn to our advantage by stressing the need for highly qualified specialists who can implement new policy, procedures and performance targets. If we can’t convince them of the value of Institute membership and qualifications, then many authorities are heading for an implementation disaster.”
In Ian Ferguson, the IRRV has an ambassador for its programme with a wealth of experience to draw on. Not only is this the case with his time in a number of local authorities, but also in his grasp of both revenues and benefits roles, where they overlap and where they divide. In addition, he has served with a number of Associations; Northern Counties; Lancashire and Cheshire and the West Midlands, where he was President, and has also been a regular attendee of East Midlands meetings and with IRRV in Scotland.
|Ian and his son, supporting The 'Boro at Wembley|