‘I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather have spent the last 20 years’ - Great Yarmouth council boss steps down
16:39 22 March 2013
(C) Archant Norfolk 2013
Stood aboard HMS Dauntless as she drew into Great Yarmouth’s newly-built outer harbour in 2010, he felt a glow of pride.
For Richard Packham, managing director of the borough council, said a passion for Yarmouth got “under his skin” in almost two decades in post.
But next month will mark the end of an era for the 62-year-old as he has decided the time is right to step down from the authority.
“There’s never a dull moment and I’ve loved it here,” he said. “It’s a very honest town that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I can’t think of anywhere I would rather have spent the last 20 years of my career.”
He joined the council as chief executive in September 1993, moving from nearby Norwich City Council where he was assistant chief executive.
The shift of style was vast, from a focus on abstract policy to a council “lower to the ground” and focused on “real action”.
Before this he completed a geography degree at University of Swansea, a post-graduate degree in planning at Edinburgh and started his career as a town planner in Livingston, Scotland.
And he recalled facing his first major challenge as soon as he took the reins at Great Yarmouth Borough Council in the wake of manufacturing recessions.
“Holidaymakers still came, but prices had to be kept down and quality began to slide and we had this downward spiral,” he said.
His first move was to build relationships with neighbouring authorities, and get to know key figures in the town.
And he attributes some of the town’s later success to this building of strong foundations.
“I think we hit the bottom in the late 1990s until late 2002-3,” said Mr Packham. “Then good things happened. A lot of the work we had done promoting trade within the town and going to exhibitions was starting to pay dividends.
“In the 1990s it was very much about improving the environment, but in the early 2000s we were given more flexibility in the way we used funding.”
The funding in question was around £20m for the InteGreat scheme development of Regent Road.
“Previously people came within spitting distance of the town centre, but as the pavement changed they assumed they had got as far as they could and went back to the seafront,” he reasoned. “Suddenly from having a declining offer we had investment and an improving offer.
“Suddenly the spiral was upwards rather than downwards, and we made our investment at exactly the right time.”
He speaks warmly of the tourist authority – established in 1994 - and of people rallying together.
“A good measure of the support is managing to fill a 50-seater coach and go off to see what the competition’s doing each year,” he smiled. “It’s hard work but good fun, and everywhere we’ve been our hosts say ‘we don’t know how you do this’.
“That’s a pretty strong show of how strong relationships are in this town.”
Tourism aside, Mr Packham said a “turning point” came when the long anticipated outer harbour was built.
“Although there are some people who are still a little bit cynical about it, it will be part of the infrastructure of this town for 100 years if not more than that,” he said. “We’ve already seen activity linked to the Sheringham Shoal development, and I’m sure we will see more of that as more wind farms come on stream.”
He conceded it has been a difficult start for the port, but said the town is fortunate to have the facility at all.
“We were very lucky as with another six months the recession would have bit and we wouldn’t have got the private investment,” he said. “And before we didn’t have the public funding.
“We had a very narrow window to jump through.”
To stay in the top job for so many years, Mr Packham said he had to “re-invent himself every four or five years”.
He added he started building strong external relationships, “but then there came a period when there was a lot of focus on everyday services like grass cutting and street cleaning” and he “went through a period where [his] main role was internal, head under the bonnet, hands on all the levers”.
He does not deny that there have been mistakes over the years.
“What I would say is even mistakes are positive in that you learn from them,” he furthered. “I hope I’ve had the honesty with myself to recognise them and learn from them.”
There are still “huge challenges” facing the authority, but Mr Packham said he is leaving it in “a reasonably strong place”.
When he retires he will continue to work on the boards of several voluntary groups, and will enjoy time playing cricket and at his holiday cottage in Lincolnshire where he grew up.
Mr Packham is on the books at the council until April 7.