Ian Thomas – Joining The Dots
All content and photos by Joff Alexander-Frye
I can’t imagine the logistics, complexity and pressure of being responsible to over 150,000 people. However, I recently met with Ian Thomas, Leader of East Devon District Council (EDDC), who has exactly that challenge every day. With responsibility for everything from waste, recycling and housing to the local economy and strategic development, Ian and his team at the council have to balance urgent response-based services with strategic growth forecasting – and everything in between. It’s common to see councils and their councillors getting a bad rap, but I rarely see anyone talking about how difficult a job they must have. With all of the above in mind, I’m sure you’ll agree that it must be a thankless task at times. With an interesting and varied career in the world of commerce before stumbling upon a political career in 2009, Ian has been around the block a few times and has the stripes, wisdom and scars to prove it.
Born and bred in Huddersfield (and still a staunch fan of their football team, “for his sins” as he told me), Ian attended university in Reading where he studied Geology & Physical Geography before securing a Graduate placement at Royal Dutch Shell Group – or Shell as most of us know it. Much of Ian’s early career was then spent working for Shell in the North of England and parts of Scotland, as a Retail Market Analyst and then Operations & Planning Manager for Shell’s Stanlow Refinery Group Terminals, where he managed complex road haulage networks and was thirty years younger than any of his peers at the time. Ian stated,
“Stanlow was a great opportunity to gain skills in the theory of complex logistics, but there was nothing better than working with the Ellesmere Port Branch of the TGWU, to ensure I never forget the crucial importunate of human interactions and soft-skills learning to business success”.
Ian went on to become Business Manager and then Acting Head of Shell’s Indirect Trade division whilst still in his twenties – an impressively senior role for someone as young as he was at the time. Finally, before leaving Shell in 1987, he moved into a non-traditional business division of Shell, called Shell Ventures, an innovative ‘hot house’ of talent from across the Shell Group, which Ian lovingly referred to as “the oddballs and misfits brigade” due to the variety and unconventional nature of the projects which they worked on. Shell looked to this team to spawn ideas for large new businesses in embryo market sectors, for the long term and Ian led the Strategy Team in the GB (Going Beyond) Project. His team worked on the development of a new online, home shopping business, based on a set-top consumer box, with a CD based multimedia catalogue. Customers would order ‘on line’ and collect groceries and other goods from their local Shell filling station on their way home. Sound familiar? It does in 2019, but this was in 1986, a full four years before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.
Looking back on his time at Shell, Ian reflected, “We are all good at something, but none of us is good at everything”, an approach which he has carried with him into other parts of his career and, more recently, in building his team as Leader of EDDC.
Ian’s exit of Shell was, in itself, a controversial event as, in the late 1980s, people who left university tended to enter an industry and stay in it for the long-haul. To have been such a promising young talent and then decide to leave was, at the time, the ultimate corporate act of swimming against the tide – a habit that Ian has continued throughout his career. Ian commented,
“By this point I had met and married my amazing wife Sue, moved to Guildford and we had both accrued some top-level experience in our respective fields. As a result, we took the risk to set up Pangaea Ltd, our own ‘new media’ company, which primarily dealt in corporate communications, presentations, cutting edge business solutions and sales tools. We were a ‘young thinking’ business – creative, risky and at the forefront of what was a fast-growing industry. We grew quickly ourselves and gathered an impressive portfolio of blue-chip clients from around the globe, something that Sue and I are still proud of to this day (despite no longer owning the business). Oh… and I forgot to tell you that Sue is, by far, the best sales person that I’ve ever met. She’s a real force of nature!”
Towards the end of their tenure as owners of Pangaea, the business mushroomed in the ‘dot-com boom’, which made them a valuable and attractive proposition for a corporate buyout, something that happened in 2000 when they sold their business to Compel Group Plc.
At this point, it was 2006 and Ian and Sue had six children. In what he described as a “completely spontaneous moment”, they upped sticks and moved to Lyme Regis. He recalled,
“We had sold our business and had been talking about possibly moving away from Guildford. I popped upstairs for a shower and, in the time that it took for me to do so, Sue had decided that we were moving to the Devon/Dorset border, accepted a school place for one of our children at Colyton Grammar School and, when I came downstairs, she turned and said to me, “Darling, we’re moving to Lyme Regis!”.”
Fast-forwarding slightly and, in 2009, one of their neighbours came up the drive one day and said “We need someone to do the last 18 months of this council term as a councillor. Would you be interested in standing?” That neighbour was Minnie Churchill, the first wife of Winston Spencer-Churchill MP (grandson of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill)!
Ian was not part of a political party and had never worked in local government but, after thinking about it, decided to put himself forward. It turned out that there were three people running for the Conservative nomination and Ian’s competitive streak kicked in, fighting hard to win the nomination, which he did. Such was the drive for Ian to become the conservative nominee, that no-one had checked to see if he was a member of the party (a condition for all aspiring nominees). So, to avoid any possible embarrassment, he quietly joined the party on the Wednesday, before winning the nomination on the Thursday and was then elected as Local Councillor on the Friday. He was elected as (and still is) the Councillor for Trinity Ward, the largest single-member ward in East Devon. Covering Axmouth, Combpyne Rousdon and Uplyme, the ward sweeps across rural East Devon, along coastal paths that eventually tumble into West Dorset.
Quickly appointed to the Cabinet (effectively, the senior leadership team of the member wing of the council) Ian became the Corporate Services Portfolio Holder and Cabinet Member. He subsequently held cabinet posts for Economy & Finance before being elected in May 2018 as Leader of the Council. At that point he was also appointed to Chair the Exeter & East Devon Enterprise Zone Board and, to avoid any conflicting interest in an Enterprise Zone company partially owned by EDDC, Ian resigned his Directorship of the Exeter Science Park Company.
The Science Park, come to think of it, is a great example of the approach and scope of EDDC. They are a 25% shareholder of Exeter Science Park Ltd, alongside other stakeholders Devon County Council, Exeter City Council and Exeter University. Encouraging indeed to see local authorities and organisations collaborating towards a greater good with joined-up thinking and positive partnership.
Ian agreed, stating
“In East Devon District Council, with the addition of Teignbridge District Council, Mid Devon District Council and Exeter City Council, we have four councils – three Conservative led and one Labour – working together on the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan (GESP). There is hope yet in partisan politics! Local authorities can work together when the people involved want to make that happen. It also makes us a much more attractive proposition for attracting funding from organisations such as Homes England, when we work together”
When I asked Ian to expand on the challenges that EDDC faces around development and housing, he commented,
“We’re not in the business of simply building houses. Our wider objective is to secure the health, safety, prosperity and happiness of the people who we represent and those who work in East Devon. This can only be achieved by building sustainable communities, where homes are supported by all necessary hard and soft infrastructure. We are building a system, rather than solving one problem at a time with no joined-up thinking.”
As set out in his Christmas letter to East Devon residents last year, Ian summarised the priorities of the Council, saying,
“Our focus as a local authority is to provide a safe and affordable home for all, an economy that works for all and services that East Devon actually wants.”
“Our Waste and Recycling Service is probably the most obvious example of that third priority. So much so, in fact, that I was proud to receive a congratulatory letter from Dr Thérèse Coffey MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Environment. She was writing to commend us on our Waste and Recycling services, particularly our weekly kerbside collections from over 70,000 properties, where our ‘running rate’ of 60% recycling is at levels higher than the 2030 targets set by the EU for councils and local authorities. That said, we are not resting on our laurels with further environmental initiatives and recycling trials due to launch in East Devon in March.”
So, what does the future hold for Ian Thomas and EDDC? Well, with a move to their new purpose-built offices at Blackdown House in Honiton just been completed, they are now ideally located to further improve service delivery and continue to work towards securing the health, safety, prosperity and happiness of all people in East Devon.
Follow @eastdevon and @cllrIanThomas on Twitter to keep up with Ian Thomas and the good work of EDDC.