By Sam Macrory

15 Feb 2017

Once credited as the woman who “smashed Whitehall’s glass ceiling”, Bronwyn Hill spent four years as Defra permanent secretary until she stepped down in 2015. She tells Sam Macrory about her new role, Brexit expectations for her former fiefdom, and one minister’s time in the mire

Bronwyn Hill left the civil service in 2015 after four years as permanent secretary of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs. 

Her career in Whitehall began in 1988 when she joined the Department for Transport to work on a review of traffic law. She spent two years as regional director of the Government Office for the South West, before returning to the DfT as a director general in 2007. She now sits as a non-executive board member at the Office for Nuclear Regulation and as a member of court at the University of Greenwich. She is also chairman of her local rowing club.

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We discussed
Life after Whitehall
I’ve had some time with the family, which is lovely. Part of the reason behind stepping back was to help my sister: she looks after my mother, who is very elderly. So I’ve been spending time in Yorkshire, where I’m from. I also have more time to do voluntary work, and I am involved with my local rowing club.

Why she wanted to work for the ONR
It’s a way of using my skills, and my experience: my role is about ensuring good governance, working with the senior team on strategy and challenging them on their performance. I wanted an organisation that was facing some challenges, and there’s the expansion of new nuclear and dealing with the legacy of places like Sellafield. Hinkley has only just started, and that’s the first new nuclear in decades. It is a genuine renaissance.

The challenges of working with the Chinese
One of the key issues is thinking about cultural differences, and making sure they have a good understanding about how regulation works in this country. There’s been a lot of preparatory work, with our regulators going over to China, and them to us, to try and pave the way so they understand the process they are going to go through.

What worries her about nuclear
Strangely, I worry less about nuclear safety than I did about some of the Defra risks. It’s a different world: Defra’s risks used to materialise fairly frequently. In nuclear, the aim is for the risk never to materialise. Because they have never had a big incident in this country, I volunteered to do a day taking them through what running an emergency in Whitehall is like. I hope they will never need to use it.

The similarities with her civil service role...
It’s very much about having that eye on the bigger picture. What are the next five years for? Where does the organisation need to be? What are the key things it needs to do to get there?

...and the differences
One is it that is not 24/7. Hallelujah! So that gives you more time to reflect on what the big issues are, and you get less distracted by the day-to-day stuff. The ONR is like a microcosm of a big Whitehall department. It’s much more single issue. I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but it’s nice to be able to focus on one organisation rather than 30.

What she misses and doesn’t miss about the civil service
The biggest shock was changing from being an executive to a non-executive. It takes a while to realise that the things you are helping to influence, or deciding, someone else will take away and do – and you won’t see what has happened for a month or so. I also miss all the support services I used to get as a permanent secretary. I really miss my office. I don’t miss how long it took to get things done. I found that endlessly frustrating. To get collective agreement on anything, whether it’s the sound of ice cream van chimes or flood defences, needs buy-in. Sometimes it did take a very long time.

Her proudest moment in the civil service
From the last five years it would be the 2012 Olympics. I had just joined Defra. The animals behaved themselves at the opening ceremony, and I also did a lot of work on the transport, the funding and the preparations. I was so proud and relieved when it all went to plan. I just had a great summer.

Her biggest regret
Rural payments: I really wanted to deliver that on time and on budget, and we didn’t. I regret that. I still reflect as to whether it was possible to do it, given the challenge. It was delivering major reforms to the system at the same time as changing most of the IT and we didn’t do it as well as I would like to have done it.

Stand-out ministers
The one who stands out, maybe because, a bit like me, he wasn’t showy, was Alistair Darling at the DfT. Stephen Byers had just left (as secretary of state), and the department was in a difficult place. Morale was very low, and he had been sent in to get a grip. He listened to what people had to say, and he was unflappable in a crisis. He was immensely tolerant of things going wrong. There were other colourful characters that I worked for, like John Prescott and Owen Paterson, but Alistair Darling was great in a crisis.

Leading the cuts at Defra
We focused on doing the things that would help the organisation in the long term. It’s amazing how much people welcome reducing the size and shape of offices if you preserve the frontline ability. It seemed very tough at the time, but Defra was slightly cushioned in the sense that we still had the rural payments money from Europe.

Defra and Brexit
I’m confident my colleagues in Defra will rise to the challenge, but it’s certainly true that Defra has one of the most challenging jobs ahead, given how much law and regulation comes from Brussels, and how much interest there will be in preserving the good things about environmental protection whilst making us implement it in a cheaper, quicker, more effective way. But there are also opportunities there as well. I used to bang my head regularly against the wall in trying to get reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe. Twenty-seven member states: it’s quite difficult to change.

I think Defra does have a golden opportunity to think through Brexit into: how do we support and encourage good quality sustainable food and farming while protecting the environment? I am sure they are up to that job, but I’m happy to observe the struggle from the outside…

On the headline: “Bronwyn Hill: The woman who smashed Whitehall’s glass ceiling”
It was great that we had more or less even numbers of female to male permanent secretaries. I think it dipped after that, and it was noticed. That’s the important thing: it was noticed. People were choosing to do other stuff too, which was their right. I very much hope that all the work we did on talent development and encouraging people means that we will have some great talent coming through to be the future female perm secs. It’s about encouraging everyone who has the ability to do it to think of themselves in that role.

How Whitehall has changed over 30 years
It is transformed. You wouldn’t recognise much about it, even physically. I had a little office off a long corridor, and nobody would ever come and see you. There was very little induction, apart from for graduates, and there wasn’t much leadership development. All of those things have turned round 360 degrees.

Her most Yes Minister moment
There are lots. Most of them aren’t repeatable! My favourite was with Owen Paterson. He went to the West Country during the height of the floods. A hostile crowd had gathered around his Land Rover, and he was in such a rush to get out that he made the fatal mistake, that no floods minister should ever make, of forgetting to put his wellies on. He had his best Westminster shoes on. It was his private office’s fault for forgetting to tell Owen to put his boots on before he got out of the car.

Why senior officials need to find ways to unwind
Do whatever you can to keep you sane. Despite being a hands-on Defra perm sec, I still managed, most weekends, to get out in my single scull for an hour, but occasionally had to row back hard to dial into the latest flood briefing session.

The venue
The Vincent Rooms Brasserie: A canteen-style dining room on the corner of Vincent Square that is staffed by students at the neighbouring Westminster Kingsway College. Tasty and creative three course meals come at a palatable price.

The menu
Starter: Pumpkin soup; Midori and port marinated melon plate
Main: Pan-fried Norwegian fjord trout and mushroom and chestnut pithivier
Dessert: Chocolate mousse with shortbread and – appropriately – mandarin sauce.
We drank: Tap water

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