AN upbeat note on the future of North East Lincolnshire has been sounded by the top man at the council, Rob Walsh.
Addressing Grimsby, Cleethorpes & District Civic Society's annual meeting, he enthused: "I am proud and honoured to be chief executive - North East Lincolnshire is a great place to live, to work in and to visit.
"I came to the area 24 years when I fell in love with the woman who became my wife.
"We have three sons. I am happy to stay here as long as I am still wanted."
Mr Walsh started his career with the authority in 1996 - on April 1! - as a child care lawyer. The welfare of vulnerable and disadvantaged children has always remained an issue close to his heart.
He steadily rose through the ranks to become deputy chief executive, succeeding Tony Hunter in the top job some 20 months ago.
Reflecting on almost quarter of a century of local government life, he struck a note of humility, commenting:
"I've seen a lot, done a lot, learned a lot - and made a lot of mistakes."
During a question-and-answer session lasting almost an hour, Mr Walsh's key message was the importance of "aspiration and ambition".
He insisted: "We have to set out our stall for the next five, 10, 15 years. There will be distractions along the way, but we have to stick to a plan.
"Take the example of Greater Manchester - it is now being talked up by the Chancellor, George Osborne, as a potential northern powerhouse, but is a journey that has taken the city 20 years."
It is councillors, not officers, who make the policy decisions, but that did not prevent the chief from being lobbed a series of tough questions by civic society members on such lightning rod issues as:
- The rubbish-strewn state of the River Freshney
- Derelict heritage buildings in both Grimsby and Cleethorpes
- The controversial Top Town paving scheme
- Slow progress on finalising a Local Plan
- Empty shops in Victoria Street
- Consultations with the public on issues such as the proposed closure of Scartho Baths
- Relations with private sector partners such as the education improvement consultancy, Serco
Mr Walsh insisted that NELC was improving and becoming much more "focused" in its approach to tackling challenges.
He acknowledged that the authority had, in the past, missed opportunities for external funding from national and European sources, but he claimed it was now achieving more success.
He cited, as an example, the award of a £1.9-million grant which is likely to see the back office activities of North East Lincolnshire Council merging with those of neighbouring North Lincolnshire Council by the end of next year.
Asked if this would lead to job cuts, he said "fewer staff" would be required, adding that - with funding pressures set to increase - the council had to ensure it remained "sustainable".
He cautioned: "We can't solve every problem.
"For one thing, it's not affordable and, for another, sometimes we get things wrong - as you will tell us!"
Mr Walsh said he spent much of his time out of his office - for instance, speaking to staff and senior figures at external organisation partners, among them John Fitzgerald, his counterpart at ABP.
Historically, the relations between NELC and the port operator have not always been harmonious, but a new leaf has been turned, with the prospect of closer arrangements in the future.
"It's important that we put our skin in the game,"said the chief.
On the back of NELC's existing contract with private sector partner Cofely, he hoped there might come significant investment from the latter's parent company, the French giant, GDF-Suez.
"We have to demonstrate to them our potential,"he said. "We have to schmooze them, but in the right way."
Inevitably, the question of Grimsby Town FC's proposed relocation to a site off Peaks Parkway also came up during the meeting, held at Grimsby Town Hall, but the chief would not be drawn, preferring to leave this particular hot potato to the councillors.
"Rest assured, I''ll evade that question here, there and everywhere!"he quipped.
What about The Mariners' prospects of securing a return to the Football League?
Here the chief was happy to strike a more typically forthright and confident note. "I predict promotion for Town."
But he did no say when . . .