Interview - Sir Tony Hawkhead, chief executive, Groundwork UK

Since Sir Tony Hawkhead took over as chief executive 15 years ago, Groundwork has grown from a charity with a £20m annual turnover delivering 800 projects a year to one with a £150m annual turnover delivering 6,000 projects a year.

Tony Hawkhead...Groundwork UK chief - image: HW
Tony Hawkhead...Groundwork UK chief - image: HW

In 2003, he was awarded a CBE for services to the environment. This year, he was knighted for services to environmental regeneration.

Q: How did you react to the news of your knighthood?

A: It was a huge surprise - I never saw it coming. I am very humbled by it. I did think about it for 24 hours before I accepted. I see it is a reflection of Groundwork and the work that we do and the way we deliver it. There is no point in pretending this won't open doors and I intend to use that wisely. I believe that used maturely it will create opportunities for the whole environment and green space sector - not just for Groundwork.

Q: How has Groundwork weathered the recession?

A: Groundwork saw that we were facing a decade of austerity, although I don't think anyone could have foreseen the depth of impact the banking crisis would have combined with years of public overspending. We took the view that every penny spent here at Groundwork UK head office was a penny we couldn't spend on our front line so we took a bold decision and reduced our staff by half, leaving us with 40 on our national team.

Q: How is the organisation dealing with the immense pressure now facing the communities you serve?

A: Income for voluntary sector organisations has fallen following the public sector spending cuts at precisely the moment when demand for our services has risen. It's a complex problem. We are channelling every penny we have into our front line and we are looking at range of new and innovative approaches to delivering our services. We are looking at how we can combine different programmes and funding pots and how we can collaborate to train unemployed people in horticultural skills, get them into work and improve our green spaces at the same time. It's a very powerful idea.

Q: Are you looking to attract more corporate partnerships?

A: Definitely. Groundwork is exceptionally good at forging relationships with businesses. We put a lot of work into it and manage those relationships from the chief executive down to make sure we meet our customers' expectations. We are also really honest with our commercial partners about steps we won't take and about finding a balance between their commercial objectives and our charitable objectives.

Q: How do your future aspirations for Groundwork fit with the 'Big Society' agenda?

A: I feel the problem with a debate like the "Big Society" is that it is fantastically shallow. It is a generally positive vision but I don't think the Government has done enough to recognise that the Big Society approach has been mainstreamed by organisations such as ours for many years.

In volunteering we have a great opportunity to make the most of those people who are retired or working part-time, but given the pressures of simply surviving now there is a danger that volunteering will be difficult for some to be involved in. Our role is to make sure that communities are provided with clear, long-term support. If we don't have a world where we all help one another I don't see how the nation can carry on, because the public spending of the 90s and early noughties was not sustainable.

Q: What new initiatives are you working on?

A: We are thinking about apprenticeships and trying to work out whether we can link the Government's national apprentice scheme to our idea of joining up our unemployment work with our environmental and green space work. That could produce a number of spin-off social enterprises that could be bodies in their own right. They would need to recruit and bring in apprentices, which could be extremely effective. We are also interested in mutuals as a method of creating a positive framework for what will be a quite rapid change in the way public service is delivered. One of the key things we are working on in our mutual model is that the young people themselves drive their services.

Q: What are your key priorities for the future?

A: To make sure that we sail smoothly through these choppy waters and that means continuing to generate and attract resources, which will increasingly involve collaboration with partners in the private and voluntary sectors as well as the Government. We will focus on getting every ounce of effectiveness out of this as a federal organisation - the great advantage of the federal model is its localism. We must also ensure Groundwork continues to have strong delivery arms as well as a strong centre. In the long term, I see Groundwork playing a critical role working alongside communities and helping them get through what will be really very challenging times for the people and the places where they live.

CV
1991-96: Chief executive, East London Partnership
1996 to date: Chief executive, Groundwork UK
2006-07: Climate change commission member, Local Government Authority
2008-09: Chair, Welfare to Work task force, Department of Work &
Pensions
2011: Knighthood and appointed to Defra board as non-executive director


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