Farewell to Falkirk's chief executive

When she walks out of Falkirk Municipal Buildings for the last time this week Mary Pitcaithly will be leaving behind a role that has consumed her life for the last two decades and one which has changed dramatically since she became the district's chief executive in 1998.

Her announcement earlier this year that she was intending to retire took many by surprise. For the last 20 years she has been the public face of Falkirk Council.

While elected members may come and go by the decisions made at the ballot box, she has been a constant – and the one overseeing those ballot boxes and ensuring that the democratic process is carried out properly and fairly.

Taking time out to reflect on her career, she said that as her final days approached she was somewhat surprised that she wasn’t regretting her decision to go now.

“I wondered if I might be apprehensive about leaving but as the time gets closer, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to take up 
some new challenges,” she admitted.

She had never envisaged a career in the public sector when she studied law at Edinburgh University after six years at Falkirk High School. However, after a time in private practice she joined the then Falkirk District Council’s legal team.

“It was fascinating work and I really enjoyed the variety of opportunities it presented.”

When Falkirk Council was formed she became assistant to chief executive Walter Weir, taking over the role on his retirement. She was the first woman to hold the post of chief executive in any of Scotland’s 32 councils and, at 41, one of the youngest.

“The role really has changed a lot in 20 years,” she said. “Then you were the head of the paid service with a responsibility for looking after everything that was going on within the council.

“Now it’s more about dealing with all the partnerships that the council has with police, fire, health, Scottish Enterprise and working with them. I spend much less time on the day-to-day running of the council and that is carried out by the service directors.”

Streamlining that management team has been a major focus over the years and, after several reshuffles, she believes that it is now the correct structure to take the local authority forward.

Another priority of her tenure was to make Falkirk a more attractive destination – whether it be to live, run a business, be educated or spend leisure time.

“There was a perception 20 years ago that Falkirk was a place to travel through and there was no reason to go there. Work was needed to change the area. We had to give the area a better reputation and make it more attractive for young people to stay here. We needed an outward focus.”

Born in Camelon and with many family still in the area, she says they have always been quick to give her feedback on how the council is operating.

It also gave her a conviction that she wanted to make Falkirk a great place for future generations and she admits that she takes a lot of pride from the work the council has done on the two projects which saw all its secondary schools replaced with new buildings.

“It was all about investing in our young people, not just the buildings, but what goes on in these schools.

“There has also been tremendous growth in tourism with the Helix, Callendar House, the Falkirk Wheel and Kinneil. There is a lot more we can do – I want it to continue to develop – but that’s a job for someone else.

“I would never say that it’s my legacy, but it is the legacy for everyone who contributed to these projects over the years. A lot of those people are still with the council but others have left.”

Mrs Pitcaithly has acted as returning officer for countless elections over the years, including the infamous 2007 Holyrood and Scottish council elections where electronic counting machines were used – unsuccessfully – for the first time and her frustration at things not running smoothly moved her to tears.

In 2014 as chief counting officer she ran the count process for the Scottish independence referendum and, with the eyes of the world on her, made the historic announcement of the result.

However, a much more important role that year was mother-of-the-bride at her only daughter Sarah’s wedding.

Looking back on her 20 years, she said: “A great responsibility comes with this role: I’ve always been aware of the people who work for the council and those who rely on the vital services. Yes, there have been difficult times and sleepless nights, particularly over but I’ve worked with some great people and it has been very rewarding.”