Ahead of the launch of North Yorkshire's new unitary authority tomorrow, Hannah Chapman spoke to the long serving chief executive of Richmondshire District Council, who retires today after a near-46 year career in local government.

Chatting on Monday afternoon, with just four days to go until his retirement, Tony Clark freely admits to having mixed emotions about the big changes ahead.

At Christmas, he handed over his strategic responsibilities to the new management team at North Yorkshire Council, which will replace the old two-tier local government structure when it is launched tomorrow. Since then, he has been working on tying up loose ends, and making sure outstanding projects are on target to be completed by the end of today.

But that three-month winding up process does not mean saying goodbye to his workplace of 34 years will be any easier.

"Part of me, because of where I am in my career and my age, it's exciting to look at the next stage of my life," he says. "But I have a little bit of melancholy at the moment, because I'm leaving a lot of colleagues and friends that I've worked with for a lot of years, and it's coinciding with the ending of Richmondshire District Council as an organisation. It really is the end of an era for local government in North Yorkshire."

When he retires today, Tony will have worked in local government for almost 46 years, starting as an office junior in the Darlington Education Office of Durham County Council in the summer of 1977 after completing his A-levels at Richmond School.

"I remember getting lifts to Darlington from people who lived in Colburn, before saving up enough money to buy a Honda 50 moped to get to and from work," he says.

His long association with Richmondshire District Council started in the spring of 1978, when he was offered a post as a trainee committee clerk and administrative assistant under the guardianship of David Lawrenson, who he is still in contact with more than 40 years later.

READ MORE: What will change for residents under new North Yorkshire council?

He moved to Hull City Council after three and a half years to broaden his experience, while also studying for qualifications in public administration. He stayed for five years before joining Darlington Borough Council in his first managerial role, but it was back to Richmondshire in 1989 when the then chief executive Malcolm Tooze invited him to apply for the position of principal assistant clerk. Other senior roles followed, and in 2008, when Richmondshire shared chief executive Peter Simpson with neighbouring Hambleton District Council, he became deputy chief executive of both authorities, with responsibility for all of Richmondshire’s services.

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Four years later when Peter left, Tony was appointed the head of paid services for Richmondshire, the role he has undertaken for the last 11 years. Tony had planned to retire at 62 – he will turn 64 in July – but when Covid put paid to most travel plans, and local government reorganisation in North Yorkshire became a likelihood ahead of a potential devolution deal, it seemed logical for him to see it through to the final days of the district council.


Tony Clark, retiring from Richmondshire District Council

Tony Clark, retiring from Richmondshire District Council


Much has been said about how the new authority will function, but one common theme is how it can retain the feel of a "local" council while operating across England's largest county.

Tony agrees that this – and delivering the savings to the public purse promised as part of the new structure – are the two biggest challenges it faces.

"How do they maintain that feeling of being a local deliverer of services in a consistent manner across a vast area of North Yorkshire?" he says. "The second issue is the level of savings that they have said they are going to deliver as part of the establishment of the new larger authority. That is now under pressure because the large inflationary cost of living increases.

READ MORE: New North Yorkshire Council launches with ambition to be ‘local’

"Delivering cost efficient, local services that people want against the background of savings that have been highlighted as being deliverable, and increasing costs due to inflationary pressures, that's going to be a real competing dilemma for the new politicians and leadership."

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Another issue is how it can maintain support for its most isolated communities. Tony says some of his biggest achievements at Richmondshire relate to the council's help for infrastructure such as village halls and sports facilities, either through direct funding, or guidance on accessing grants. He is also proud of his contributions to the establishment of the dual use leisure centre on Catterick Garrison, and the shared sports facilities at Richmond and Wensleydale schools. "I will also remember the amazing days when world sport came to the district via the Tour de France, Tour de Yorkshire and World Cycling Championships," he says.

He believes these types of facilities are crucial for the sustainability of small villages, and the new council will have to find a way of fairly and consistently providing support.

"One of the main challenges for the new authority will be how those small, rural, if not deeply rural communities are able to maintain their own infrastructure, and the infrastructure I can relate to are the village halls and the sports pitches and the changing facilities that these small villages and communities hold dearly and rely on," he says. "Sustaining those communities in these areas is a challenge. It's not just about schools, it's about having those support facilities to look after the people as they go beyond childhood into adulthood.

"To underestimate the importance of those types of facilities would be a mistake and hopefully the leadership and the politicians who will be looking at these issues will see that and provide that hard found funding to support those communities."

He is full of praise for how local government staff across the whole county have handled the merger, and all the resulting changes over the past few months. "Once the announcement was made, it does send a shockwave throughout an organisation and increase the level of uncertainty, but what I have seen and what has been true of all the other authorities, has been a massive amount of professionalism where people have rolled up their sleeves, and supported the direction that the new authority wanted to go," he says. "It's been heartening to see, but in saying that, part of me does worry about those individuals who are left behind. In any level of change like this there will be some people who will prosper, they will be successful they will get promotions, and there are others who will find it difficult."


Tony Clark, retiring from Richmondshire District Council

Tony Clark, retiring from Richmondshire District Council


Local government reorganisation is far from the only major period of upheaval Tony has experienced during his time at Richmondshire. Most recently, he cites the devastating floods of 2019 which severely damaged homes and businesses. "In those early days it was tough trying to respond to people and to provide them with their basic needs," he says. "And look after them in that period of recovery afterwards, which has taken some considerable time. Then Covid came along, and that required us to step up to the plate in many ways, from a business continuity point of view to maintain services, and the staff at the council did that in an unbelievably professional way.

"Once you've been through that you'll never forget it. It was a very challenging period and I was very proud of how the council at all levels responded."


The aftermath of flooding in Grinton in 2019, where part of this house collapsed Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

The aftermath of flooding in Grinton in 2019, where part of this house collapsed Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT


Does he have any regrets? Only not seeing major projects over the finishing line, such as the retail park under construction at Scotch Corner, and the new town centre in the pipeline for Catterick Garrison, a scheme recently awarded £19m from the government. He says: "It would have been nice to have seen those, but as I'm still living locally, I will see them."

Indeed, his links with the area run deep. Born in Ripon, he moved into the district at a young age with his grandparents who worked for a farmer at Sowber Hill, East Appleton. They lived in a tied cottage which was in a poor condition and were rehoused in the 1960s by the former Richmond Rural District Council to a newly constructed housing estate in Colburn, known as Piper Hill. He lived with his grandparents in several properties on the estate, until he left for Hull at the age of 21. He met and married his wife at Hipswell, has lived in Richmond and Brompton on Swale, and played football for a variety of local clubs. In retirement, he plans to keep fit through walking, running and golf, continue researching his family history, and spend time at his new holiday home in County Mayo to get to know his newly-discovered Irish relatives. He will also spend any spare time with his two young grandsons.

Reflecting on his career, going from answering the phone in a council office in Darlington at a time when he had only ever used a phone in a phone box because his grandparents' house didn't have one, to leading a local authority in this increasingly technological age, he says: "In those 40-odd years everything has moved on at a pace, technology has moved on, people's expectations have moved on as well. People have greater levels of expectation of what they want from public services.

"For me, I've had a wonderful career, I do feel blessed that I've been able to work in and influence as a public servant an area that I call home, that I've grown up in and spent all my formative years, and had my family in. Hopefully the quality of life for people in and around Richmondshire is better than when I was a young person first joining local government, and we've been able to provide good quality services for people against a background of some quite severe austerity years. I'm pleased to have been part of that process."