“Health and wellbeing is our top priority” – David Parr OBE reflects on life as a local authority Chief Executive

Welcome to Local Spotlight, a regular feature in Collaborate, our stakeholder newsletter, that shines the light on the amazing public health people, teams, programmes and projects in Cheshire and Merseyside’s nine local areas that are really worth shouting about.

This month, we are shining a light on Halton Borough Council’s Chief Executive, David Parr OBE, who is retiring at the end of March after nearly 40 years’ of public service.

If you have a story that would be perfect for Local Spotlight, please contact champscommunications@wirral.gov.uk.

David Parr OBE has been the Chief Executive of Halton Borough Council since 2004 and in 2019 was awarded the OBE for services to local government in Cheshire. He has spearheaded many local initiatives during his time as Chief Executive, most notably the £2 billion Mersey Gateway Bridge Project and One Halton, the area’s place-based health transformation programme.

After a local government career spanning nearly 40 years, David is retiring from his role at the end of March. Before David sends his last email and attends his last cabinet, we sat down with him to gather his thoughts as he hands over the reins to Stephen Young from Lancashire County Council.

We firstly wanted to know how he’s feeling and if he’ll be watching his successor from afar. “It feels weird,” he says, “but I think I’m starting to come to terms with it now. I’m really looking forward to starting a new journey in my life and I’m also feeling positive about the future of Halton. The council will really benefit from having some fresh, new ideas and I really wish Stephen all the best. I will of course be watching with interest, but from a distance.”

A qualified solicitor, David read law at university but started his career in 1984 not at a law firm, but at Nottinghamshire County Council, where he was an Articled Clerk. With 38 years of local authority experience under his belt, it may not be the easiest task to select some of the achievements he’s most proud of, but he starts by looking back at how he started his time in Halton. He says: “When I started, I had two commitments. That we’d improve Halton, and we’d create new opportunities for Halton’s people. And I’m really pleased to say that we’ve been able to do that. There’s been lots of economic development with new job and business opportunities, which is an important part of the public health agenda, and we’ve repositioned the borough from relying on chemicals industries to focus more on performance computing, artificial intelligence, science, and innovation, creating more jobs.

“Connectivity is also really important, we have the Mersey Gateway Bridge which I’m really proud of, we have new cycle tracks and walkways, which helps keep people fit and healthy, and we’ve developed our retail offer and improved education, which again is important for public health, as we know this improves wellbeing.”

David’s commitment to the health and wellbeing of the population he serves shines through when he’s speaking, he obviously thinks it’s an important part of being a local authority Chief Executive. “We’re a people business, we are people delivering services to people, in order to improve opportunities for these people,” he says, “so the health and wellbeing of our population is paramount, it’s probably our top priority, because if you’re not healthy and well, then you can’t always take advantage of the opportunities available to you.”

Halton, like other areas in Cheshire and Merseyside, faces challenges when it comes to the health of its population. Life expectancy of both men and women is lower than the national average, it is more deprived and has higher levels of unemployment than the average.

For David, these elements can’t be considered in isolation. He says: “The wider determinants of good health are not always recognised, and we’ve been working hard with our public health colleagues, our Director of Public Health and the Collaborative to ensure we tackle those determinants; from good education to having a nice place to live, living in a clean, green environment, with a decent job, and good leisure facilities to enjoy, it all counts.

“We also need to think about how we can encourage elements of self-help by encouraging a good diet, reasonable drinking, exercising often, to ensure that in early childhood people set the right tone so that they can live long, healthy lives. That sounds a bit like a nanny state, but if we do things sensibly and in moderation, then our life expectancy increases, and our life opportunities increases. We also know that on occasions, people break, so it’s important that we have the necessary support available in the community and in the health and social services, so that they can get back on track if that does happen.”

David has supported the Collaborative as Lead Chief Executive for the Reduction of Harm from Alcohol Programme. As part of this, he has overseen the development of many projects, including the Programme’s Alcohol Citizen’s Inquiry, which sought to learn more about local peoples’ views on alcohol use. Did he have a particular interest in this area of public health? “As a chief executive, you have the opportunity and privilege to cover a vast array of activities,” he says, “and what’s clear is that alcohol has a big impact on lots of things; health and wellbeing, community safety, child safety, education, the workplace – all of which can impact the individual and what they can achieve.

“When you’ve seen the impact that alcohol has on all elements of society, that is why it was important that I took an active role in this. We’ve worked on a number of initiatives under the umbrella of healthy living and having a sensible relationship with alcohol is a really important part of that healthy living agenda.”

One Halton is the borough’s place-based health transformation programme; a partnership between the Council, NHS Organisations, GP Practices, Fire, Police and Voluntary Organisations, that aims to improve health and wellbeing. David played a pivotal role in the development of this programme, working across organisations to ensure that all voices were heard. “The One Halton agenda has enabled us to come together collaboratively to work on key priorities and ensure that the services that we deliver to our community are the best we can deliver, of the highest quality, and are value for money, and that we deliver healthcare and social care as close to home as we possibly can, at the right place and at the right time, at the right quality for the right price,” he says, “as a public servant, that’s really important. I’m a custodian of public money and we need to spend that as wisely as we possibly can to help make a difference.”

With the latest changes in health and care policy and the establishment of the subregion’s Integrated Care System (ICS), the work of One Halton is sure to continue and will be on the to-do list of many future Chief Executives and local leaders. David has some advice for these future leaders: “The key thing is partnership and collaboration, because we’re stronger together than we are individually, and I think the organisations that flourish are the ones that enable their people to flourish. Make sure that you do your research, collect the data – soft and hard – talk to people, engage with people to make sure you make an informed and intelligent decision. Respect is vital, it doesn’t matter where you are in the hierarchy, everybody’s role is important.”

Our last question may produce some envy amongst those who are not quite at retirement age yet, but we were interested to know how David will be spending his. He smiles and says: “I’m going to do what I want to do, because the last 40 years I’ve done what everyone else wants me to do!”. And what does this look like? “Firstly, what I’m not going to do is get up at 5am every morning like I have done for many, many years,” he says, “I’m going to rest, spend time with family and grandchildren and I’m also going to take to some personal time to do some voluntary work and give back to my community, focusing on domestic violence and supporting victims.” A very worthwhile way to spend retirement indeed.

Dr Sarah McNulty, Director of Public Health for Knowsley and current Chair of the Collaborative’s Executive Board, recently wrote to David to thank him for his leadership, support and advocacy during his time in Halton. You can read that letter here