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Local government in a different hemisphere
Local Government Chronicle – 16 April 2004

Chris Simpkins left Lincolnshire for the Falkland Islands. He talks to Mark Smulian about penguins

After a bad day at the office it's not the pub or gym for Chris Simpkins - he goes to watch dolphins and sea lions, or takes a short stroll to admire the octopuses.

Being chief executive of the Falkland Islands government is in most respects vastly different from the job he left a year ago as chief executive of South Holland DC. Both places are predominantly rural and run by political independents, but there the resemblance stops.

The Falklands are 8,000 miles from the UK, connected only by military flights or a civilian service via Chile. The 3,000-odd population lives almost entirely in the capital Port Stanley and the rest of the 2,173 sq km resembles northern Scotland.

A fishing boom has made it a place of UK-level earnings and considerable "quiet wealth", he says.

Mr Simpkins is the administrative head of all this, although the islands' governor handles foreign affairs and the perennially tricky relationship with Argentina.

Working abroad was never part of his career plan, but he took the opportunity partly as a lifestyle choice and partly because "I've always been in favour of a unitary system of local government and in the Falklands the government is local government, central government and a few more things besides, so it is a very holistic system and I am managing a whole economy".

He was appointed by the Falklands' eight elected councillors, who make up the government and who "see their job as doing their best for the country and do not let party political dogma get in the way".

One thing he immediately noticed was that the sort of performance culture that has become standard in the UK was missing from the Falklands.

"There isn't any competition because there aren't other councils or other government departments," he explains. "One of the things I have been actively doing is introducing a quality system and uniform business planning process right across government."

With 600 staff - almost one-third of the workforce - the government is a very dominant employer, leading to over-dependence on it for services and jobs.

Mr Simpkins says: "This contributes to what everyone calls 'life in the goldfish bowl'. This is a very intimate and close knit society, many of whom are employed by government, and if people are critical of the government's performance they can feel they are to an extent critical of themselves too.

"We have a new management code to address issues like whistle blowing and freedom of speech, as some civil servants appear to believe that if they exercise freedom of speech they may put themselves at risk in employment terms.

"I can understand that, but I'm also confident [that situation] does not exist."

The government's pervasiveness takes Mr Simpkins "back 20 years in UK terms - people used to think if there was a problem the council had to solve it and that is still true on the Falkland Islands".

Port Stanley is on East Falkland, and everything else there - all of West Falkland and some 700 other islands - is referred to as 'Camp', from the Spanish word campo, meaning countryside. Camp is depopulating as agriculture has declined and newer industries based on fishing and tourism have grown around Stanley.

"One of the government's very serious objectives is to maintain life in Camp, and it is very important that we do so," says Mr Simpkins.

Tourism, some cottage industries and agriculture in Camp have been linked over 10 years by a system of stone surfaced-roads, the 2m a year maintenance of which is probably the most visible government service provided outside Port Stanley.

It is supplemented by a government-owned coastal shipping service to all the inhabited islands, and some small aircraft, but this is wild country.

"The number of people in settlements outside Stanley is quite small and scattered, but there are very big farms, one is 81,000ha," he says.

"I used to think the Fens were sparsely populated, but nothing compared to the Falkland Islands. The roads have made a huge difference to people in Camp, because they can get to Stanley when in the past it was several days' trip by horse."

This remote country is where Mr Simpkins and his wife retreat to when the 'goldfish bowl' of Port Stanley becomes overpowering. "I was told to expect life in a goldfish bowl, where everyone knows everyone else's business - and that has many advantages but has got its downside," he says.

"We tend to escape from Stanley periodically and go out into Camp spotting the wildlife. The landscape is treeless and very similar to the far north of Scotland - and hilly rather than mountainous. The wildlife is just spellbinding, and largely has no fear of humans, so you can get very close."

As well as the dolphins, sea lions and octopuses there are immense elephant seals, and killer whales that come in close to the beaches.

The advantage of the goldfish bowl effect is that this is still a society where people leave their homes and cars unlocked and where there is no removals business because friends will always turn up to assist.

"You have only got to shout 'help' and any number of people will be there to provide it," says Mr Simpkins.

Mr Simpkins was at South Holland for 14 years, and had a similar stint with Tamworth BC before that, having started his career at Tutbury RDC, which was swallowed by East Staffordshire BC in the 1974 reorganisation.

His tour of duty in the Falklands is for three years, extendable by mutual agreements for a further two.

He admits there is an issue of keeping up with developments in UK local government sufficiently to resume his career after that, and keeps in touch with former colleagues, with the internet allowing him to feel he is nearer than 8,000 miles from them.

"I really don't want to go back to being a permanent chief executive of a local authority but I am pretty interested in the whole performance agenda and interim management," he says.

"I always said I would never be a consultant, but I guess that is where I'm going to be heading at some stage."

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