Portsmouth City Council’s strategic director stops, looks around his office and says: ‘The problem with these offices is that if you want to do a good job, you spend so much time in them, they really do fill up with things.’
Roger Ching, 60, who steps down as strategic director and Section 151 Officer in August, has been at the council for almost 42 years.
He joined as a 19-year-old trainee accountant in 1969 and climbed to the role in which his hands have been on the city’s purse-strings for most of the past 20 years.
He said: ‘I have been here a long time, and I’ve been able, thanks to the help of lots of people and the excellent teams around me, to get into a position where I’ve seen a lot of exciting things happen in the city, and help a lot of them to happen.’
In his office, facing Portsmouth Guildhall from the Civic Office building’s top floor, he works long hours.
We meet late in the evening, and around a desk flanked with paperwork sit vintage safes (‘I hope to take one of them with me,’ he says), family photos and assorted memorabilia.
‘I’ve reached the magic age,’ he says, explaining his reasons for retirement. ‘I think it’s time for me to step down, and, of course, the council’s financial state is such that a strategic director standing aside is something that’s necessary, I think. I have enjoyed my time here, but I think it’s time for me to leave.’
Roger’s decision to go comes at a time when the council predicts it must save a further £22m between 2012-15, having already been forced by government cuts to slash £15m from its budget for this year.
His salary, between £105,000-£109,999 per year, makes him one of the six highest-paid people in the council, behind chief executive David Williams, on £145,000-£149,999.
Roger says: ‘The budget report made clear that further redundancies would be needed, as it’s a dodgy time. So I’m stepping aside. I think it’s time. But I’ll miss what I’ve been doing.’
His future role may have been indicated as early as 1974, when, after five years at Portsmouth City Council, local government reorganisation saw him move to Hampshire County Council.
Despite working for the county just two years, he was appointed personal assistant to the council’s treasurer.
He says: ‘He was president of the County Council Association, so a lot of my job was briefing him about things that had happened in his absence. It was a pretty good introduction to how councils work.’
He was appointed the council’s chief accountant in 1980, then assistant city treasurer.
This was followed by what he describes as a ‘series of similar jobs’ with different titles, including head of exchequer, director of finance and resources, director of corporate resources and services, and now strategic director.
He has overseen the last 18 council budgets, offering advice on how much money is available to be spent on services – £600m this year.
But he says: ‘There’s not a great deal of difference between the main political groups, in my experience, which is because there’s a consensus the vast majority of the money available should be spent on vital services such as education, children’s services and adult social care. So mostly, it’s tinkering round the edges.’
He adds: ‘I do understand there are times when people ask what our role as officers is in the budgeting process, but our role is solely to advise. The elected politicians’ job is to make the decisions. As long as we’ve done the best job we possibly can to help them make those decisions, we have done everything we are supposed to. I have never had a problem with any of the city’s political groups. But part of that is because I understand my job is to advise, not to lead.’
But another strand of Roger’s work has brought more controversy – overseeing ‘landmark’ projects in the city.
The council has taken criticism for some decisions it has taken on projects such as Spinnaker Tower, the Northern Quarter and others.
But by far the biggest picture in Roger’s office, of Spinnaker Tower itself, offers an insight into his view of these schemes.
He says: ‘I’m immensely proud to walk around this city and see what’s been done here. I’m delighted with the part we played. I was in at the start of the tower and I’m delighted about it. Yes, there were arguments we overpaid for it, but the city loves it now. It’s one of the things which makes us what we are.’
Some of the controversy over the tower centred on the fact that, despite planning starting in 1995 and work beginning in 2001, it wasn’t completed until 2005, six years after it was due to open.
It cost £35.6m, and the council, which was not supposed to pay any money, contributed £11.1m of that figure.
Other projects which have been hit by delays or increasing costs include the £500m Northern Quarter scheme, where the north section of Portsmouth city centre was to be redeveloped by the end of this year.
Instead, the economic crash meant developer Centros said it couldn’t develop the 80 shop, reastaurant and cafe scheme, though it has promised to resubmit plans.
And the city’s Millennium Walkway, from Old Portsmouth’s Round Tower to the historic dockyard, also hit problems as it must go through Portsmouth Harbour railway station.
But Roger says: ‘Unfortunately, that’s how lots of these things go. When people ask why private firms aren’t redeveloping Tipner, for example, we say they had the chance. But it proved difficult, so we are doing it instead. When things are hard, or look like they’ll cost more than expected, we step in. Because private industries need us to.
‘But the Northern Quarter will start moving again very soon, by autumn I hope, the Walkway too. And in terms of the Tower, I think we’ve been proven right. It’s something to be proud of, and it’s here to stay.’
When he steps down, on August 31, he hopes the projects he’s overseen will be well on the way to completion.
And he hopes it won’t be the last he contributes to the city.
He said: ‘I have two children and four grandchildren, so it will be good to see more of them.
‘But I think with the experience I have I won’t just stay at home in Southsea.
‘I hope to work, too. Not five days a week, because there’d be no point stepping down.
‘But in some capacity, I hope to keep working for the city.’
AS A HIGH-ranking strategic director, Roger Ching has had to step forward to deputise for the authority’s chief executive on occasion.
He recalls two months in 2000 which he’ll never forget.
He says: ‘In 2000, he made something of a habit of being away. In August that year he was away on holiday when the press descended on the city because of riots in Paulsgrove, where people thought a paedophile was living. It was a very sensitive situation.
‘A month later, when floods hit the city, he was away again. It was remarkable. In all my years in this city I’ve never before or since seen firefighters travelling the streets by boat.
‘It’s not at all what you’d expect, and certainly something I wouldn’t have predicted as a 19-year-old trainee. But they’re things I’ll always remember and the variety is part of what makes the job so good.’