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Nick Kilby on The Chamberlain Lectures


This year, the annual Cratus Chamberlain Lecture is heading to the family home of Joseph Chamberlain, in whose honour the Lecture was named. Joseph Chamberlain transformed local government in Birmingham to such an extent that his ideas, and his blueprint for local authorities, was imitated across the UK. This year’s lecture will hear from Birmingham City Council’s current leader, highlighting the challenges, and the successes, of this crucial but often unsung aspect of all our lives.

We caught up with Nick Kilby, CEO of Cratus Communications Ltd and founder of the Chamberlain Lectures to tell us about why he founded the lectures and what they mean to him.

How did you come up with the idea for the Chamberlain Lecture and how has it evolved over the years?

It seems to me that every significant profession has some form of moment in time, when people who are thought leaders come together and share their feelings, thoughts and experiences, to an audience of their peers, to celebrate the work in their sector. The Reith Lectures at the BBC are one example.

I felt that Local Government needed the same; needed to do something for itself. I came up with the idea that we should have a lecture each year, that happens after the elections, when the dust has settled, new leaders are in place, and you have a moment in June before the LGC when you can pause and take stock. 

Why did you call it the Chamberlain Lecture?

There was only ever really one name on the list – Joseph Chamberlain. He realised there was no such thing as municipal government, no overarching body looking after the people of Birmingham. There was a poor board, a water board and so forth, and he brought them all together and created the municipal body called the city of Birmingham. The Government weren’t listening at first – they were preoccupied with other things – but when they did start to take notice, it became clear that he had created a blueprint for local authorities for the future.

Where was the first one?

The first one was sponsored by BT, and we held it in the BT tower, in a small theatre there. Amazingly, Lord Heseltine agreed to be our first speaker. I remember he turned up with handwritten notes, and he’d researched Chamberlain, and he found similarities in his own view to help explain his own vision: ‘show me the problem, show me the person in charge’ was the phrase he used. And that to me encapsulates Chamberlain; he looked at the problems in Birmingham, and thought, ‘this is how we are going to do it. This is how we can make Birmingham work.’ That first lecture was barnstorming. 

The second year, Lord Kerslake stood in when John Prescott had to pull out for health reasons. Local Government runs through Lord Kerslake’s veins. We were forced to have a gap due to Covid, but then we had Bristol’s mayor, Marvin Rees. He was wonderful. He came to life answering questions from the audience – he was magic. Then we had Georgia Gold, who is incredibly smart, and has extraordinary humanity. 

What do the lectures achieve?

What they have started to do is make people listen to local government. They’ve inspired people to take notice of the relationship between local authorities and the people they represent. There are huge questions for local government, and the role authorities play is more crucial than ever. These lectures help analyse and highlight that relationship. What I’d like them to achieve is increasing the pride within the sector for the people who work there. For them to want to embrace local government and stand tall and celebrate its achievements. I want everyone to care about it, and to understand just how important it is to all our lives.

Tell us about this year’s lecture. What can people expect?

Well first of all, the venue is special. Local Government is not London-centric, so we are going back to Birmingham, the home of the Chamberlain family. The venue is the Chamberlain family house, which is owned by the City of Birmingham. Joseph Chamberlain’s portrait looks down onto the platform where the speech will be given, so this will be an auspicious occasion! I think it’s only right that a representative from the city finally gets to give the lecture – so we have Council leader John Cotton, who is deeply passionate about the city. You have to be brave to take on Birmingham, and great people have stood in those shoes before him. John stands tall, and what will be fascinating will be to see how he feels Birmingham has developed since Chamberlain, and the pressures the city now faces. In terms of budgets and people, it is by far our biggest local authority, which takes us into a whole new world of understanding about everything that local authorities do.

If you are interested in attending this year’s lecture, please get in contact with [email protected] 

13th June 2023