Outgoing council chief reflects on past eight years

Outgoing boss: Steve Rumbelow
Outgoing boss: Steve Rumbelow

The wider world now sees Burnley in a more positive and pioneering light, according to the departing head of Burnley Borough Council.

Chief executive Steve Rumbelow reflected on his eight years in charge and admitted he was proud of the changes he had overseen in the borough.

The 53-year-old from Sheffield, who is leaving to become chief executive of Rochdale Borough Council, revealed he had a five-point plan to transform Burnley when he arrived, and believes this has largely been achieved.

Burnley’s first university campus, new business parks, and when it finally arrives, improved rail links to Manchester, culminated in the borough being named “Most Enterprising Area in the UK” last year.

“I wanted to revive Burnley’s entrepreneurial culture. The town had lost its economic mojo,” Mr Rumbelow said. “We had to focus on advanced manufacturing. I spoke to employers and they told me Burnley had always been for manufacturing, that was what the town was about.

“They admitted we’d lost some of that, but they were still positive for the future. Companies were growing but it was a jobless growth.

“We took the view that we should stick to what we’re good at – and that was making and exporting.

“At the time, experts were saying we should diversify but we ignored this. I’m glad we did because manufacturing firms are again driving Burnley’s growth.”

The Burnley Bondholders scheme – a grouping of business leaders brought together to promote business in the borough and encourage investment – was another step in the plan.

The third element was to create a skills pipeline to feed the high-tech industries – an area which Steve admits still needs to catch up.

He added: “We asked how do we make sure that Burnley’s biggest employers, the aerospace and manufacturing companies, have the right young people to form their workforce.

“Burnley College was already focused on engineering and manufacturing, but we approached the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) about installing a campus there in a brand new building. We had to persuade UCLan to commit to us and thankfully they did. We also pitched for the University Technical College. These cater for the key skills the local economy needs.”

But, while acknowledging the success of Burnley’s further and higher education, Mr Rumbelow admitted that Burnley’s much-vaunted secondary schools were still playing catch-up.

Despite millions being spent on building and creating new secondary schools under the Building Schools for the Future programme, business leaders have expressed concern they are still not producing students capable of taking these high-skilled jobs.

Mr Rumbelow added: “Although secondary education comes under the county council remit we are still working hard to get it right.

“The Burnley Education Trust is getting the schools on an improving trajectory, and they are definitely closing the gap.”

The fourth tenet for Burnley’s “re-birth” was creating the physical space for businesses to expand and also arrive.

The Burnley Bridge Business Park, at Junction 9 of the M65, and a new aerospace supplier village at the former Michelin site, are just two examples of this.

“The fifth and final point in our plan was connectivity. We needed to connect better to the rest of the country to progress. The reinstatement of the Todmorden Curve rail link, to cut journey times to Manchester, was key to that. I am frustrated as everyone that we are still waiting for this. It is the most delayed train I’ve ever come across.

“The delay is unacceptable, and that is down to bad project management from the rail industry. What is most concerning, though, is the amount of time it took for us to get the project approved. We lobbied for four years to make the case.

“We believe the £9m. investment needed would bring a benefit of £12m. per year to the local economy. I still believe that to be the case. Better transport links makes Burnley more investable and more commutable.”

It has not all been plain sailing though. Burnley Council has received the biggest cut in Government funding in its history in recent years – leading to massive job cuts in the organisation.

“We have had to take 25% of our workforce out. On a personal level, that’s a very hard thing to do. I do worry for the future of local councils. Local government has a lot of challenges to face up to.

“I think there’s a big question on how sustainable councils like Burnley can be. I would like to see Burnley form part of a super district council with neighbouring authorities. The longer term real answer is for a new unitary council.”

It is such a council, Rochdale, that has attracted the career-long civil servant to his next post.

He added: “A unitary council has control over more issues. I love Burnley and I will be very sad to go.

“I don’t feel I’ve done all I could here but I do believe I’ve made a positive impact.

“The key thing is jobs. We are bucking the national trend in terms of private sector jobs growth.

“Burnley now has a platform, a better image. We have created a comeback economy.”