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Goodbye 2021: Our Year at Cratus

Every new year, I look forward with renewed hope and optimism, as with hindsight I can start to judge the year we are leaving. We can see where our aspirations were realised, and where and why they were not. 2021 was a year where we set a course of growth, yet we knew that we would have to navigate uncharted waters. One of our management team felt that 2021 would be harder than 2020 and he was right in a number of ways.

The lockdowns have had an effect on all of us. These often deeply personal experiences have affected us all in so many different ways and these, in turn, have influenced our work. For those who have only just started their careers, the experience often involved completely isolating from the usual freedom to live life to the full, entrapped in homes far too small for 24/7 living, sometimes with no outdoor amenity space. Some felt that the lockdown way of remote working was extremely intense, even invasive, with all the “Zoom” and “Teams” calls.

When freedom came, many wanted to spread their wings, and whilst we have seen a number move on, we have welcomed others who, for the same reasons, wanted to come to join us and explore our world.

We have adapted our ways of working and remain flexible, as adapting to our clients’ working patterns has been one of the new challenges. Some have returned to work from their offices but others have continued, like us, to work from home or adopted a hybrid pattern.

We have always prioritised the welfare of our team as highly as possible. Private medical care was introduced a few years ago but it’s now open to everyone after their 3 month probation, and in 2021 we extended it to cover mental health too.

The strongest amongst us would be hard-pushed to say that we did not have low moments, which often came completely unexpectedly. The ability to seek help has been a great support at those times, and I am pleased the company has been able to give that support when needed.

It is true to say that few local authorities have returned to their office based environments, but I know from my finance team that when they are working with clients, there are also very few accounts teams who are back in their offices, making communications with them all the more stressful and challenging. Keeping the cashflow going is never easy for any business, and yet we have and will continue to do so, with the support of our clients.

The challenges of ‘WFH’ are still largely unresolved, but it is here to stay. I am still waiting for someone to confirm an employer’s liability for their employees, while working from home. We have not waited for guidance, but have provided office furniture, technology, given clear directions on working/non-working hours, and more. I remain concerned that we still have to understand the implications more, but as we do, we will continue to improve how we work.

We have seen that most of our teams want the enjoyment of working from an office and we have been blessed with moving to new offices in London, Manchester and Reading. Manchester even has a window now! (please don’t ask why someone signed a lease for an office without a window). We have a wide range of work spaces to allow teams to collaborate together, work alone, share an open plan hot desk office, or go and work on a roof terrace (typical British weather permitting).

We have a wide range of spaces for working with our clients from video booths to really great board/meetings rooms. I cannot quite comprehend how we could dispense with offices completely, but I know that we need greater flexibility and variety of spaces to work in, than the rows of desks in open plan units of the recent past.

My highlight of 2021 has definitely been our drive to keep doing things that would demonstrate our passion for all things local, pushing the boundaries and debate in respect to local government, and its role in our communities, as much as possible.

Our series of Webinars with Stantec have been a true delight. “What has the environment ever done for us” started from lockdown chats with my friend Sarah Matthews at Stantec. She involved Keith Mitchell, who I have known for a while, but this series of webinars has made me appreciate his passion for the built environment and climate change. He in turn introduced me to Johnny Riggall, who is simply one of the best communicators of all things climate change, and then Jenny Hughes, who we all joke is the “nice” person, as she is delightful but like Keith and Johnny is one of the most knowledgeable people I have met on all things climate. I am joined by my colleague Vikki Slade, who heads all our work on climate change here at Cratus and brings her political passion to the climate debate. The combination of our outstanding guests and our in-house team has been one of the big highlights for me. This also links to another highlight, but more on that later. Climate change is one of the challenges that will continue to test us all, and cause all our work to change year on year. In 2022, we will continue to promote and invest in the climate change agenda here at Cratus.

The Chamberlain Lecture is our way of giving back to Local Government, having successfully created an annual platform for local government to be celebrated, demonstrating new thinking and aspirations. With the support of BT in 2018, Lord Heseltine gave the maiden lecture, followed by Lord Keslake in 2019. It was with deep regret that 2020’s lecture was cancelled due to the restriction on us at the time, but in 2021, we were determined to host the lecture again, and against the odds we achieved this goal in September. The Chamberlain Lecture 2021 was given by Marvin Rees, the elected Mayor of Bristol. The combined audience of those who joined us in our London office, and those watching online live, was far greater than in previous years, and the quality of the debate was every bit as good as our first two lectures. Marvin is someone who I feel will have more to give, and much like Joseph Chamberlain himself, his name will stand for his achievements. I hope in the future he will play a more national role, without forgetting what he has learnt in Bristol. 2022 will see the fourth Chamberlain Lecture, and I hope to announce who will give the lecture soon.

My interest in climate change has been growing throughout 2021. I was particularly struck by reading Bill Gates’ book ‘How to Avoid a Climate Disaster’. The book was perfect for me to get an understanding of the size and complexity of the climate emergency we face.The reality is that we don’t have all the answers, and that some of the things we do today to lower our carbon emission will be superseded when innovation allows. But I am convinced that we all need to start this journey now and do all we can before it’s too late. Only last night I watched the film ‘Don’t Look Up’ and I share the writer’s fear that politicians and some sections of our society will deny the emergency until they see the full effects, by which time it will be too late. In the coming days, we will launch ‘Cratus 2050’, a programme of internal changes and new services linked to the climate change agenda.

Vikki Slade and I decided to attend COP26 in Glasgow. In the lead up to the visit, we worked with various parties to understand how this international event could benefit local government here in the UK. We hosted a round table lunch with Council Leaders and a senior member of the COP26 team at the Cabinet Office, and our meetings with amazing people from all over the world left us humbled, but slightly sad at the situation we find ourselves in. The UK has now used COP26 to genuinely inspire our home nations, but it’s clear that the role of local government is essential. Local government will need to provide the leadership each community needs to transform their way of life, reducing carbon usage and tackling climate change. Without this leadership, we will fail future generations. I left Glasgow certain that Cratus has to do more, both in terms of our own carbon footprint and in encouraging those we work with.

When we started the last year, we hoped that we would be able to lead a more normal life, yet it’s clear, even as we start 2022, that Covid will continue to influence our lives, either directly or indirectly, for quite some time to come. We wanted to have a successful year for our clients as well as for ourselves, and in all respects we achieved that and more, despite some huge challenges on the way, Staffing changes, supporting clients through their own challenges, and ensuring morale remained high, were all hurdles we had to overcome. But we are still here and stronger than ever.

In 2022 we have decided to invest more into our business, with the creation of new support roles to give our Planning and Communities teams the dedicated back-support they now need, as these two areas of our business outgrew our expectations in 2021. We have been actively recruiting throughout 2021, and will continue to do so through 2022 as we increase our resources, train newcomers to our sector, and expand our coverage throughout the United Kingdom. We will also enhance our core services, and climate change advice and support will become a key offer.

2022 will be no less of a challenge than 2021, but one we are looking forward to with optimism.

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