Wesley Fitzgerald is the man in the firing line at Cheshire East Council – struggling to manage its affairs in the face of a national financial crisis and local pressures on its services with a shrinking budget. He talks frankly to Express chief reporter Charlotte Cox.
Wesley Fitzgerald is immaculately turned out and quietly direct in Macclesfield Town Hall’s executive offices.
He’s reluctant to talk about his personal life – or in his words get ‘too psychological’.
But he concedes that knowing more of the man behind the leadership mask could help explain his management of a council under huge pressures. And he is clearly a man used to dealing with difficult problems.
He was born in Dublin in 1938. His father, a butcher, was killed in a lorry accident while he was still a little boy and his mother died when a cold turned to pneumonia.
“I was an orphan by the time I was eight. It was before antibiotics so colds like the one my mother had would often turn into something much more serious.”
A father himself, he says his own childhood has shaped his views on how the council approaches child protection – or ‘safeguarding’.
The latest pre-budget report shows an investment of £1.3m for children and families in 2012/13.
“I truly believe the first seven years of a child’s life are so important. So many children are affected by how they grow up, for example if their parents are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
The father of one added: “I really do feel that one of the biggest challenges we face is to rescue these children before they get older and their lives are blighted.”
He is committed to focusing on children and families, but with investment in adult services reduced by £2.1m – Shopmobility’s funding has been cut after 22 years – he can’t make guarantees.
“We are finding an alternative to Shopmobility. That service will still be available.
“But I can’t guarantee anything. It’s incumbent on us to be careful about cutting the services that are least impacting on the vulnerable – the elderly and infirm and children.
“But the fact remains, there may be some cuts.”
See more from Cllr Fitzgerald in the video below ...
He talks of deprived areas in Macclesfield and Wilmslow and says he has appealed to the government to reconsider its grant calculations for the next budget.
“It’s a convenience as a Conservative council to have a Conservative government as it gives us great access to people like George Osborne. I expect our pleas to be heard.”
The council is busy encouraging the older generation of Cheshire East to stay active. So how does he stay on top of such a demanding job?
“For me, running the council keeps me healthy. The amount of energy I expend doing this job is sufficient. It takes a lot of stamina.”
After a public school education, Coun Fitzgerald came to England, where he played rugby at top level, including a spell with Sale Sharks, before being called up for National Service with the Northern Irish Regiment.
“I came out for management training, but I wasn’t ready for life on civvy street so I joined the Sultan of Muscat’s army in Muscat and Oman, where I was a captain. I learnt a lot in the army.”
And he says that experience has influenced his leadership style.
“Of course it has. From the army I got my ability to assess people and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. I understand the value of a team and I know that success is down to a team effort.”
Over the past two years, five cabinet members have left at CEC – one of his own accord, the other four pushed by Coun Fitzgerald.
He said: “If you have strong people with strong opinions and I happen to be the person listening to those opinions and don’t agree, these strong people will walk away thinking I haven’t listened, but I just don’t agree. We have a strong leadership model which means I can appoint cabinet members as I see fit and I don’t have to explain those choices.
“In man management, when I take a decision to make a change, I evaluate. Am I being fair? Have I just reasons for doing this? I make my assessment as a manager.”
After his army service, he spent 35 years as a regional retail director for an international firm. “We had to work with budgets there – but I can honestly say that of the last 40-odd years, this has been the most difficult year to plan. We have at last balanced the budget – I am very relieved.”
With his background in business and the pre-budget report showing 10pc of economic output in Cheshire East coming from pharmaceuticals, he says he has sympathy for the 350 AstraZeneca staff now facing redundancy – but says that is the business reality.
“I’m sorry that they’ve had to reduce the workforce by that amount and there will be an impact on the local economy. But I do recognise that AstraZeneca is a global company and that means there have to be movements in the work force.”
After retiring in 1996, Coun Fitzgerald, who lives with his partner, immediately started campaigning for local government and has been a councillor ever since. “I was interested in local politics and in what was going on where I lived in Wilmslow – and I wanted something to keep me occupied and get me involved with people again.”
He says his biggest challenge has been dealing with the formation of Cheshire East. And he accepts it’s not always gone smoothly.
“Nobody can go forward and not make mistakes, but you have to learn from them.”
One such mistake has been in the council’s application for a waste transfer site at Lyme Green – spending half a million pounds on works before planning permission.
“An investigation is going on as to how we got to the situation that occurred that resulted in many people being upset by the actions of this council.
“I feel annoyed and I feel there should be good reasons as to why this happened.”
He says that considering all the challenges, the council does a good job. “Considering how much we do and how much could go wrong, I think we do a good job. Our child safeguarding is now considered good and we have balanced the budget. The people of Cheshire East have an effective and efficient council.”