Understand that university is a life experience, it's not just a learning one

Photo of Ben Lockwood
Ben Lockwood
Director of Finance & Economy - Ashford Borough Council
BA History
Ben Lockwood describes the reasons behind why he decided to study History at Sheffield, including the fantastic music scene at the time. Ben also talks about his role at Ashford Borough Council, the projects he's been involved in with them, and how his degree has helped him in his leadership role.

A transcript of the video: 

Hi there, My name is Ben Lockwood and I graduated in 1998 with a BA in History from the University of Sheffield. Since then I've embarked upon a career in local government finance and I'm a chartered public finance accountant. My current role is that I'm the Deputy Chief Executive of Ashford Borough Council. 

I decided to study history at the University because I loved the subject at school. History was always my favourite subject and I still enjoy history today. I enjoy reading and watching documentaries and learning about all sorts of things. So it's always been something that I've carried with me all my life at the time and still today, the University of Sheffield's faculty was highly regarded. So it was an obvious one for me to apply for. The course covered the long 19th century. And that was something I had a particular interest in at the time, although perhaps didn't retain during my degree, I kind of went back in time as my course went on. But I'm also a keen mountain biker and the Peak District was a really strong attraction to me. And I really wanted to ride my bike in the Peak District as well as study in Sheffield and also I joined the university in 1995. And at the time, there was a fantastic scene going on in Sheffield with great Brit pop music, bands like Pulp were right at the top of their game, and they were based in Sheffield. And also we had the full monty came out I think the year before I went so that really set a great scene and environment for Sheffield. And it made it a really wonderful place to go and very attractive for me to apply to them. 

So I always needed a job. And I think there's a degree of pragmatism in my decision about which career I was going to apply. I think I decided at the time that I wasn't going to necessarily work in London and become a commuter. But I was then prepared to pretty much do anything anywhere. So I had quite a wide cast my net quite widely when it came to looking for jobs. However, I'd always loved and enjoyed working with maths and business, and I did maths and business studies at my a levels. So working in accountancy and finance is actually quite a natural fit for me. But also working in the public sector really appealed to me. I was able to make a difference in the community where I live and actually that concept serving a community and service was actually quite, quite important to me. And so I think when I saw the job advertised at Kent fire brigade, it was something that I was really keen to do. I went into the interview with that attitude that that was gonna be my job. Then it combined finance and combined a place that I was interested in and the service dimension with a degree of pragmatism as well because I really needed a job. And so that was where I went. And fortunately, they said yes, and I've had a great career since. 

So first steps of my career. Well, I was very lucky that I got a graduate trainee position in my first role. That was brilliant because it meant I had a degree of training thrown in at the same time. So I was able to do a day release college course at the Centre for Education and Training Centre in London. It was day release for about four years while I've got my articles. And during that time as well, I was able to rotate through the department at the fire service and actually learn the skills that I needed to do to do my job. So I was doing budget monitoring, closing of accounts, financial planning, contracts, insurance, and actually working some of the other exchequer functions as well. So it gave me a really broad grounding in my career. So it's really important for me that I got that traineeship at the beginning. And it really gave me a boost and a headstart in my career. And it's something that now I try to offer that to graduates as they come forward. 

I've held number of roles in Ashford Borough Council. My current role is the deputy chief executive. So I have a pretty diverse set of responsibilities. My primary one is that I'm the one of the statutory officers of the council, I'm the Section 151 officer. So I have a particular responsibility for ensuring proper arrangements are made for the management of the council's finances and the elected members when they make decisions, especially budgetary decisions, they're given the correct information and those decisions are made properly in accordance with the regulations and legislation in which we work in. I'm also a lead on a number of corporate projects. So delivering a corporate plan which are set by members, I'm one of the officers that has to step up and lead those initiatives and champion them not only through the organisation but to the community. And I'm one of the main points of contact between the elected members and the officer corps. And a lot of my time at work is spent managing the relationship. That relationship and that interaction, because it's important that the politicians are able to get their message across to the officers. And equally, we are able to communicate and work effectively with the elected members. So that's a real critical role for making sure that the organisation runs smoothly. 

So what do I enjoy about my role? Well, I mean, I think ultimately it's the people that I work with and actually I'm in a position I can make a difference. Where I'm also very lucky in my role is I'm actually able to set a lot of my own priorities and actually kind of determine where I get involved in, and what I get involved in. And that's a real privilege. And it's taken me a while to get to that place. But it is actually a really good place to be. And so I can actually choose where I spend my time to a greater or lesser degree. So that freedom that I get as a result of that is actually really quite rewarding and quite entertaining. But I have actually got to influence the way in which the town I live in is actually shaped and has developed. And that's actually a really rewarding thing. And that's something that you can get to look at and share with your family. And actually, that's something I'm incredibly proud about. 

My main challenges that I have at the moment, well working in the public sector, cost of living crisis is something that is very much in the news at the moment and that affects my organisation as much as it affects individuals. And we have limited ways of raising money. And we've obviously had to deal with ten years of austerity. So that's something else that we have to cope with. Political change is another challenge. We've got a new Prime Minister. But also that means new policies, new ministers that come through and that then affects the way government or what government expects of my organisation. But I also have political change locally to manage, so that's quite important. Other main challenges are relationships and maintaining those relationships. Quite often, people come to me when those relationships between organisations, or between people are broken. And part of my role is to try to put them back together and actually make them work again and make them work effectively. And finally, another challenge I'm really facing at the moment is managing and leading an organisation and adapting to the new normal. All leaders are facing those challenges about how they project themselves and how they run an organisation. When you've got a lot of remote working and hybrid working. And it's how, how do you actually lead and manage in an organisation now that's disparate and spread geographically. And that's a real challenge that we're having to face. 

I believe that my history degree has actually equipped me really well to do my role. And perhaps the further I've got in my career, actually, the more those skills have come into play. I think the historical method that we employ as historians seeking facts, sources, looking to triangulate information is actually really important in the realm I work in, because quite often you have to actually balance numerous opinions, numerous facts, and actually kinda determine what really happened and what the appropriate solutions are for that. And I think that studying history really equipped me with those skills to kinda filter that information, order it and structure it in a way that I can just develop a narrative and then develop, develop a solution for those sorts of things. Equally, I work in a political environment. A lot of the history I studied was about politics. And therefore, you actually look at, look for commonalities in history and that help you actually explain the events of today by using the past. And I think that was really, that's been quite useful for me. Especially when I kind of try to work out what's driving people, what their motivations are. Falling back on my study of history is really important for that. I think the other thing is, as well, you learn how to put an argument together and how to then communicate that through to a group and a persuasive argument. And quite often I have to present my opinion or what I think the right strategy or structure is to a group of people and influence them. And I think that was really useful in seminars, in history. You develop those skills. Those argumentative skills and actually putting cases and presenting things. And that's served me really well. So actually, surprisingly well, it's served me. Also I think the whole research and professional curiosity that you get or I developed studying history has also stood me well in my career. 

Particularly favourite piece of work I've done has been a project that has transformed the town centre of the town of Ashford. It delivered a cinema, complex with restaurants and a hotel. And it's really transformed the town centre. It's a real exercise in place-making, that's something in local authorities we are really trying to pick up as an agenda. It's transformed the night-time economy and actually kinda looked to build a whole new night-time economy within the town. And also repurpose the town centre as people move away from retail to leisure experiences within town centres. We've had to provide a new infrastructure for that and that project's done that. Equally. we had to work with major developers, architects, financiers, and work through lots of really complicated, complex processes, procurement regulations, funding agreements, and it was a really rewarding project. But I think now I see the, the complex being built. It's a real architectural statement. People are using it and it's delivered a new vibrancy to the town centre. And that's been a real key project to me and something that I've been really, really enjoyed. 

I think the other projects that I've done, it's about seeing the impact it has on people and communities. So the way my organisation responded during COVID and support we gave to our community and help that we actually put in place. We were really at the sharp end of that. And it was really rewarding to see how the community rallied round and the organisation rallied round. That's something that I'm incredibly proud of. I'm incredibly proud of my organisation and way that we supported our community. I think the other things that we do, things such as building affordable housing and remodelling our sheltered accommodation units. When you actually see the change that makes on people's lives when they actually move into a quality house, that's well-insulated, well-designed, dementia friendly design. That's really important and really rewarding. And a thing that I really enjoy about my role. I'm working on a levelling up project, which is fascinating because it's regenerating the largest Brownfield site in the town centre. Um, actually it's an old railway work, so a bit of history comes into that as well. Researching the history and thinking about how we can tell the narrative of the site as well as tell the future of that site. And ultimately we're looking to build a, a film studio complex in the town centre. I'm really excited to see where that takes us. 

I think the first thing, have a great time and enjoy it. Understand that university is a life experience, it's not just a learning one. Don't spend too much time worrying about learning and actually make sure you live that experience because it's really precious to me. And I think that I've taken a lot more out of it. And not just from a learning perspective, but also from a life perspective. So don't miss out on the opportunity of using it as a life experience. I think the other thing I'll say is a degree in history is no barrier to you having an interesting career. So when the time comes to apply for jobs, be confident in your search and that you have a degree that gives you a marketable profile, a set of skills that actually people in industry are keen to have. And actually it will unlock a really interesting career for you. And I wish you the best of luck. 

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