LGA Corporate Peer Challenge: Swindon Borough Council

Feedback report: 1 - 3 March 2022


1. Executive summary

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Swindon is a borough with both a proud history and an exciting future. There is an impressive set of housing, infrastructure, economic growth and regeneration activities underway or emerging in the borough. We see a need for this to sit at the heart of a bold and compelling vision for Swindon that is easily understood amongst the public, partners and staff and grounded within the ambitions of local communities. 

The council and the borough have the building blocks that are required to help to fulfil the potential and the ambitions of both the organisation and the place. These building blocks would be the envy of many. Things are at a key juncture in capitalising upon them, though, and this necessitates appropriate leadership responses politically and managerially. Increased engagement and collaboration, both internally and externally, are key.

There are a clear set of overall strategic priorities reflected within the council plan, underpinned by the pledges that the administration have made. This forms only part of a huge amount of activity that the council is engaged in and aiming to deliver. A set of capacity pressures emerges from this which it is proving challenging to manage. This generates the need for a clearer focus for the organisation, founded upon a more comprehensive evidence-base that informs decision-making. Within this needs to sit a deep and rich understanding of what is important in communities; the enhanced use of data and insight; and a focus on outcomes. A clear ‘golden thread’ is crucial, aligning ambitions and political imperatives with available resource and underpinned by robust mechanisms to manage and monitor delivery of agreed objectives. 

We saw and heard that cabinet and the wider administration could be more visible in their collective leadership of both the council and Swindon as a place. There would also seem to be the opportunity for increased time being dedicated to informal discussions between the council’s political and managerial leadership, focusing on strategy and horizon-scanning. 

There has been successful delivery against the financial challenge to date. The Medium-Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) outlines where the significant financial gap across the next three years will be met from. Clear plans and leadership are required to deliver this, along with robust monitoring by both the managerial and political leadership. The council needs to ensure that it has the mechanisms in place to enable this.

Councils operate a lot on the goodwill of their people. Staff at all levels in Swindon want to feel an increased sense of being invested in and more valued and engaged. The pandemic, its response to which the council can be very proud of, has seen the organisation come to operate in very different ways. Confidence and learning can be taken from this. As with many authorities, it provides the opportunity for a fundamental re-consideration of how the organisation operates, with a need for a vision around the future shape and ways of working of the authority. There is much to be gained by ensuring a balancing of the benefits from the revised ways of working during the pandemic with the way things were before.

2. Key recommendations

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The following are the peer team’s key recommendations to the council, with these arranged under four themed areas of focus that the peers identified for the authority over the coming months:

Engagement and collaboration

  • Enhance engagement and collaboration with communities and partners – building upon the positive elements already in place
  • Develop a bold and compelling vision for Swindon that is easily understood by the public, partners and council staff and grounded within the ambitions of local communities
  • Ensure greater consistency in the timeliness and quality of responsiveness by officers to elected member casework issues – with councillors needing to be realistic in their expectations and understanding around the constraints being faced
  • Enable greater engagement and involvement across the elected membership
  • Enable councillors and partners to navigate their way around the organisation more easily, knowing who to contact and how
  • Put overview and scrutiny on a different footing
  • Dedicate increased time to informal discussions across the political and managerial leadership

Insight

  • Develop a much clearer focus for the organisation founded upon a more comprehensive evidence-base for decision-making

Workforce

  • Provide more recognition of the capacity stresses and strains across the organisation
  • Ensure staff feel more valued and engaged
  • Develop a vision around the future shape and ways of working of the organisation
  • Develop the next iteration of the ‘At Our Best’ programme and then implement it at pace
  • Clarify the intentions in relation to the pay and reward review and then move forward accordingly

Grip and rigour

  • Establish the ‘golden thread’ that aligns ambitions and imperatives with available resource and is underpinned by robust mechanisms to manage and monitor delivery
  • Ensure the clear plans, leadership and robust monitoring are in place to secure the planned savings
  • Develop greater corporate approaches in key areas

3. Summary of the peer challenge approach

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The peer team

Peer challenges are delivered by experienced elected member and officer peers. The make-up of the peer team reflected the focus of the peer challenge and peers were selected on the basis of their relevant expertise. The peers were:

  • Nick Page, chief executive, Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council
  • Councillor Alan Jarrett, leader, Medway Council
  • Councillor Darren Rodwell, leader, London Borough of Barking and Dagenham
  • Victoria Lawson, executive director of Environment, Culture and Customer Services, London Borough of Hounslow
  • Shokat Lal, executive director of Core Services, Barnsley Council
  • Chris Bowron, Peer Challenge manager, Local Government Association

Scope and focus

The peer team considered the following five themes which form the core components of all corporate peer challenges. These areas are critical to councils’ performance and improvement.

  1. Local priorities and outcomes - Are the council’s priorities clear and informed by the local context? Is the council delivering effectively on its priorities? 
  2. Organisational and place leadership - Does the council provide effective local leadership? Are there good relationships with partner organisations and local communities?
  3. Governance and culture - Are there clear and robust governance arrangements? Is there a culture of challenge and scrutiny?
  4. Financial planning and management - Does the council have a grip on its current financial position? Does the council have a strategy and a plan to address its financial challenges?
  5. Capacity for improvement - Is the organisation able to support delivery of local priorities? Does the council have the capacity to improve?

The council also asked the peer team to provide observations and feedback in relation to the approach to addressing climate change and delivering carbon net zero ambitions. 

The peer challenge process

Peer challenges are improvement focused; it is important to stress that this was not an inspection. The process is not designed to provide an in-depth or technical assessment of plans and proposals. The peer team used their experience and knowledge of local government to reflect on the information presented to them by people they met, things they saw and material that they read.

The peer team prepared by reviewing a range of documents and information in order to ensure that they were familiar with the council and the challenges it is facing. The team then spent three days onsite in Swindon, during which they:

  • Gathered information and views from more than 40 meetings, in addition to further research and reading
  • Spoke to more than 100 people including a range of council staff, elected members and external stakeholders.

This report provides a summary of the peer team’s findings. In presenting feedback, they have done so as fellow local government officers and elected members.

4. Feedback

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4.1 Local priorities and outcomes

Swindon, with its distinct communities, is a borough with both a proud history and an exciting future. Comprising the main town of Swindon plus the market town of Highworth and a number of villages, the borough combines both urban and rural. The Joint Strategic Needs Assessment indicates a population size, based on data from 2017, of just over 220,000 people, of which slightly under 23 per cent are aged below 18; nearly 62 per cent are between 18 and 64 years old; and more than 15 per cent of whom are 65 or older. The population has been projected to increase by 11 per cent in the 10 years up to 2028 and by a further 7 per cent in the ten years thereafter. 

Average life expectancy across the borough is similar to the national average, at 79.8 years for men and 83 years for women. However, women in the most deprived areas of Swindon live 12 years less in good health than those in the least deprived parts of the borough, with the equivalent figure for men standing at 14 years. The latest Census data, from 2011, reflected a population increasing in diversity with a Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) population comprising just over 10 per cent of the total population and 13 per cent of residents indicating they were born outside the UK. 

The town of Swindon has its origins in the development of the Great Western Railway during the nineteenth century. This also saw the town establish its proud traditions around social innovation, including the co-operatively funded Mechanics Institute providing education, healthcare and the UK’s first lending library for the railway workforce and their families. Swindon developed from the railways of the nineteenth century to become a centre for the automotive industry and home to a range of major national and international businesses across the manufacturing, electronics, engineering, retail and insurance sectors. This includes a new £400m logistics centre for Amazon which has created 2,000 local jobs. Swindon also hosts the headquarters of national organisations such as the National Trust, Historic England and the Research Council. The council played a major role in supporting the borough manage the impact of the recent closure of the Honda factory and the sale of that site which it is hoped will see £700m investment and 7,000 new jobs being created.

The borough is well located and has good road and rail connections. It is less than an hour by train from London. The borough sits at the cusp of two significant economic sub-regions – at the eastern end of the Western Gateway (which extends through to Bristol, Swansea and Cardiff) and the western end of England’s Economic Heartland (an arc stretching from Oxfordshire to Cambridgeshire). Swindon itself sits within the county of Wiltshire but also borders both Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire and is very close to Berkshire. The different geographies Swindon sits within offer tremendous opportunities – albeit there is complexity and challenge there too.

There are a clear set of overall strategic priorities reflected within the council plan, which was adopted in October 2021 and covers the period from 2022 to 2025:

  • Build an economy that works for you
  • Protect and enhance our heritage, cultural and leisure facilities
  • Deliver sustainable growth – affordable homes and the required infrastructure
  • Equip all our young people with the education and skills they need
  • Make Swindon greener and more sustainable
  • Make Swindon safer, fairer and healthier

These are underpinned by 27 pledges that the administration has made, with examples including:

  • Ensuring good broadband connectivity
  • Creating a new cultural quarter
  • Enhancing the roads infrastructure
  • Continuing the “war on potholes”
  • Enabling and delivering hundreds more quality homes
  • Ensuring every child and young person has a place at a good or better early years provider, school and/or education placement or apprenticeship
  • Facilitating the move to sustainable travel
  • Delivering a greener waste strategy to reduce residual waste and increase recycling
  • Promoting healthy lifestyles to reduce obesity and the prevalence of smoking

This forms only part of a huge amount of activity that the council is engaged in and aiming to deliver. Clearly the authority is simultaneously continuing to contend with the pandemic; address the financial challenges it faces; bring about organisational change; and ensure effective day to day delivery of services. A set of capacity pressures emerges from all of these commitments and ambitions which, based on our discussions with staff at different levels and elected members, are clearly proving challenging to manage.

We therefore see the need for a clearer focus for the organisation, with this founded upon a more comprehensive evidence-base for decision-making. At the heart of this needs to sit a deep and rich understanding of what is important in communities which ensures the voice of ‘the many’ is heard. We recognise that the authority undertook a residents’ survey in August 2021 and used the key findings from this – a desire for the council to ensure a focus on road maintenance; improving the town centre; reducing traffic congestion; clean streets; parks and open spaces; and tackling crime – to inform the council plan. However, we didn’t develop a sense of a council steeped in its communities and using this, supplemented with data and insight, to drive policy and service delivery. Within this, there is a risk that a vocal minority on any given theme may have a disproportionate impact if not set within a clear understanding on the part of the council around what the wider community feels. There is a crucial role for elected members as community leaders as part of the council establishing the deep and rich understanding that is required.

Linked to this are questions around what data the council and partners are drawing upon and what it is telling them. The council acknowledges that it needs to develop further the way in which insight is used to inform and shape priorities and focus. The potential of data and insight is reflected in the council’s emerging data strategy and the council has committed significant investment around this but that only comes on stream in 2023. If the opportunity existed, we would encourage the council to expedite this.

Developing a clear evidence base informed by both data and insight and a deep and rich engagement with communities will aid decision-making and help prioritise. Into this gets woven the need to balance political imperatives with the demands presented by a range of other key drivers including national policy, statutory delivery requirements and the budgetary position. As is highlighted in the council plan, more than 80 per cent of the authority’s funding is dedicated to adult social care and services to safeguard and support children. All of this means there is a need for clear and informed discussion across the senior political and managerial leadership around what the really key areas of focus need to be in the coming few years within the resources available. This forms part of an over-arching theme for us around the council being at a key juncture over the coming months, with the potential to re-position the organisation and develop a new focus and new approaches post-pandemic which will aid the potential of the council and the borough to be fulfilled.

4.2 Organisational and place leadership

We met many highly committed and passionate staff and elected members during the course of our work. The opportunities made available to us to engage with communities and partners were more limited. This feels symptomatic of a wider issue relating to the extent to which the council is externally engaged at senior levels locally, sub-regionally and regionally. There were mixed views regarding the council amongst those partners that we met. Where good relationships exist, much of this rests upon individuals – with a need to ensure something more systemic that can transcend inevitable changes in personnel across different organisations. 

The council has much to be proud of in the way it has responded to the pandemic. We heard of the good work that had gone on in and with care homes in order to protect residents – with huge sacrifices and true dedication being shown by staff. We also learnt of the enhanced relationships that had emerged from the work with schools to manage through the different phases and support the most vulnerable in being able to maintain learning and contact. The council’s public health team hosted community connections forums and an interfaith recovery and resilience group to ensure public health messages were disseminated in a clear and timely way. These groups provided insight and links to local people and aided the development and delivery of key support activities for individuals and communities.    

The above provides a flavour of the positive elements that can be built upon in relation to engagement with partners and communities. Involvement with parish councils provides a further example. It is clear from our discussions, and indeed the council acknowledges, that relationships at this level are variable and there is a need to deepen trust and develop greater mutual understanding. There is a shared appetite for dialogue and to move things forward.  This is important in a context of the whole borough being parished and organisations at that level having remits, albeit to varying degrees, around service delivery. 

There would be some valuing by partners of an over-arching partnership body for Swindon moving forward. This would supplement those good bi-lateral relationships that exist between the council and individual organisations and the partnerships that exist for specific spheres such as safeguarding and community safety. Again, there is a positive example to build upon here in the form of the ‘Team Swindon’ approach being devised under the Integrated Care Alliance arrangements and the ethos that this is seeking to establish.

We referred earlier to the borough having an exciting future. There is an impressive set of housing, infrastructure, economic growth and regeneration activities underway or emerging in Swindon that reflect real ambition and are crucial to fulfilling the major potential that exists.  The council has an impressive track record of securing investment and external funding to support this. One example of what is taking place is the council’s leadership of over £100m of investment in Swindon town centre during the next four years, working with partners across the private, public and voluntary sectors. This sits alongside £19.6m of towns fund monies, overseen by the Swindon Towns Fund Board which includes MPs and the Swindon and Wiltshire LEP, and a £33m injection from the Future High Streets Fund to enhance pedestrian connectivity between the railway station and town centre. 

A cultural quarter is being developed, incorporating a theatre, art pavilion and centres for media and dance and a Heritage Action Zone has been created which sees the Royal Agricultural University and the University of Bath establishing a base in the town. Major infrastructure work is also underway, with £170m of investment in large highway schemes resulting from successful bids for government funding. This includes enhancement of Junction 15 of the M4; creation of the Wichelstowe southern access route; and development of the White Hart junction. Major new housing development has been taking place in Wichelstowe, which will be supplemented by 6,000 new homes in the New Eastern Villages whilst the £34m regeneration of Queens Drive will deliver nearly 150 affordable homes by next year. More school places are being created, country parks are being enhanced and there are emerging ambitions around the former Oasis leisure centre facility.

We see a need for the above to sit at the heart of a bold and compelling vision for Swindon that is easily understood by the public, partners and council staff and grounded within the ambitions of local communities. A vision was previously established for 2030 reflecting Swindon as demonstrating the positive characteristics of a British city; supporting and improving new and existing communities; being physically transformed; and representing a place of fairness and opportunity. However, based on our discussions with staff at different levels and partners, this vision isn’t proving compelling for them.

 We see also the need for a vision around the future shape and ways of working of the organisation. The pandemic has seen the council come to operate in very different ways, with officers feeling, and welcoming, an increased sense of trust having been placed in them. They have also experienced greater autonomy, combined with a requirement for innovation, creativity and managed risk-taking. Delegated decision-making, clear accountabilities and being ‘fleet of foot’ have been crucial. Retaining the ‘upsides’ of all of this forms part of a wider theme around the council avoiding simply ‘drifting back to pre-Covid’. Confidence and learning can be taken from the adaptations and adjustments of the last couple of years and provides the opportunity for a fundamental re-consideration of how the organisation operates.  

Developing a clear ‘golden thread’ is crucial as part of this, with the ambitions for the borough and the political imperatives that sit at the heart of this aligned with available resource and underpinned by robust mechanisms to manage and monitor delivery of agreed objectives.  Core components of this include the clear evidence base, including data and insight, that we touched on earlier; accelerated decision-making; and increased robustness and rigour reflected in a performance management approach that focuses on outcomes. That performance management approach needs to include good people management, which is supportive and enabling but also holds people to account. Staff that we met reflected that managing individuals’ under-performance, where it exists, hasn’t traditionally been a strength of the council. 

Monitoring progress is an important element of the ‘golden thread’, as is effective executive member oversight, and it is therefore positive that cabinet is due to start receiving a regular performance report from this month. Robust project and programme management will be key in ensuring the ambitions for the borough are delivered and this, combined with progress monitoring, will help to ensure the avoidance of any ‘optimism bias’ in the way that the council believes it is performing or delivering. 

This is all essential in ensuring the council can reassure itself that it is delivering effectively.  The council acknowledges in its position statement produced to inform our work that it “has a history of trying to do a lot and not always succeeding in managing it in the optimum way”. 

Motivation, confidence and reputation will all be enhanced by the council ensuring that achievements and success in delivering against the ambitions are communicated and celebrated. This is a council that people reflected moves very quickly on to the next challenge without necessarily taking stock of what has been achieved. 

The following reflects performance information drawn from the LG Inform system that the Local Government Association hosts for the sector - The data is the latest available, which is from 2020/21, and the comparator group (‘nearest neighbours’) are the fifteen other unitary councils nationally that Swindon is deemed by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) to be most similar to.

Areas where Swindon can be seen to be performing well include:

  • The proportion of children who are being looked after by the council
  • The proportion of care leavers in education, training or employment
  • The proportion of vacant dwellings
  • The time taken to process housing benefit new claims and change events
  • The processing of planning applications
  • The percentage of adults who are physically active

Judgements in relation to children’s services in recent years have been positive, including overall effectiveness being judged as ‘Good’ by Ofsted in their inspection in July 2019 and the Local Area SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) Inspection in October last year indicating sufficient progress had been made in addressing previously identified weaknesses.

Areas of performance that the council needs to be mindful of, based on the information drawn from LG Inform, include:

  • The proportion of 16 and 17 year olds not in education, employment or training
  • The number of affordable homes delivered
  • The percentage of household waste sent for reuse, recycling and composting

For a number of other areas of performance, including collection rates for council tax and non-domestic rates; delayed transfers of care; households on the housing waiting list; and the quantity of residual household waste per household, Swindon can be seen to be ‘in the middle of the pack’ within its comparator group.

4.3 Governance and culture

It feels to us that a set of tensions exist across the organisation both politically and managerially that can be eased through increased engagement and better shared understanding. 

There would seem to be much to be gained from enabling greater engagement and involvement across the elected membership. The cabinet member advisory groups that the leader and some portfolio holders have to support them provide a good example of a mechanism by which to enable wider councillor input. Cabinet Open Forum is another example. Whilst these arrangements have been formally established through the council’s constitution, we weren’t able to gain a sense as to how they are operating in practice but the fact that they exist is positive and they can be supplemented by other approaches.

Overview and scrutiny is one of these and clearly has a crucial role to play, both internally and externally, although this doesn’t seem to be being fulfilled currently. There are examples of the way this key aspect of the council’s governance arrangements has sought to probe issues of importance in the borough, such as air quality; obesity; homelessness; empty homes; performance around Great Western Hospital and NHS Bath and North-East Somerset, Swindon and Wiltshire Clinical Commissioning Group; and littering and environmental crime. However, we noted that a lot of what comes to overview and scrutiny forms ‘updates’ for councillors and the sense is that greater value can be gained from the capacity already being dedicated to it. 

There is a set of shared responsibilities between the executive, overview and scrutiny members and senior officers to put things on a different footing with overview and scrutiny. This needs to balance providing committees with sufficient independence to focus on what they feel is important with ensuring they are supported corporately to make a meaningful difference in key aspects of how the council and others deliver for the borough.  It is positive that the leader delivers an annual report to scrutiny, along with half-yearly updates. This demonstration of the valuing of the role overview and scrutiny is important and can be built upon.

There is a shared and collective responsibility around ensuring an environment exists that enables good governance to flourish and in which behavioural issues that arise are addressed. Within some of our discussions, there was an undercurrent of tensions arising from some elected members’ desire to see things getting done and officers’ ability to respond in a context of diminishing resources and increasing demands upon the organisation. The sense is that the expectations of some councillors haven’t adapted in line with the pressures the council is under, with the need for a better understanding of the constraints being faced.  At the same time, the approach for councillors raising and monitoring progress on casework issues doesn’t appear to be working. Central to getting this right needs to be clarity on the timescales on which councillors can expect to receive a response. There then needs to be greater consistency in both the timeliness and quality of responses from officers. At present, a series of ‘work arounds’ have been adopted by elected members seeking to get things delivered and tension is arising as a result.

There is a further matter linked to the subject of progressing casework which, if addressed, is likely to offer benefit. Councillors we met indicated that they would welcome being able to navigate the organisation more easily. For those recently elected, the council represents a large organisation that is complex and unfamiliar – a situation compounded by remote working during the pandemic. Even those longer-serving councillors we met reflected that the organisation has changed considerably, in both structure and personnel, in recent years. All indicated that they would welcome a basic structure chart outlining the key functions of the organisation, who leads them and how to go about contacting them. Partner organisations echoed this sentiment, again in a context of a changing organisation.

We saw and heard that cabinet and the wider administration could be more visible in their collective leadership of both the council and Swindon as a place. Simple examples include a limited amount of involvement and engagement with external partnership bodies; their absence from the council’s regeneration board and infrastructure delivery board; limited engagement in certain instances in overview and scrutiny; and the need for some to be clearer on their ‘briefs’ as portfolio holders. Also, and whilst the council indicates that “governance over capital spending has been significantly improved over the last few years”, the extent of Swindon’s capital ambitions and expenditure (whether that be the council’s own resources or external funding secured by the authority) mean significant risks continue to exist. There would also seem to be the opportunity for – and significant benefit to be gleaned from – increased time being dedicated to informal discussions between the council’s political and managerial leadership, focusing on strategy and horizon-scanning. We would encourage the council to explore all of these closely related issues, and how to address them, more.

The council’s electoral cycle featured in many of our discussions. Whilst changing the cycle, from the current elections by thirds, is a potential option it is important that this doesn’t distract from what the council needs to get on and deliver. Inevitably any such change would take time to come about and, even then, it would not represent a panacea for the challenges that the council is facing.

4.4 Financial planning and management

The council’s net revenue budget for the coming financial year is just under £157m. There has been successful delivery against the financial challenge to date, with £30m of savings secured in a period of 30 months under ‘The Swindon Programme’ which ran from 2017 to 2019 and focused on creating a more modern, efficient and effective organisation. The council is confident it is on track to achieve 91 per cent of the £14.2m savings planned for the current financial year and it has worked to increase its level of reserves in the last few years.

The Medium-Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) was agreed last month and mirrors the time horizon of the council plan. It outlines where the significant £28m gap across the next three years to 2024/25 will be met from and that £11.3m of the £28m is required in the forthcoming financial year. Much of the savings is predicated upon reducing demand, revising care packages and changing the way the organisation works. Clear plans and leadership are required to deliver this, along with robust monitoring by both the managerial and political leadership and the council needs to ensure that these are in place. 

In relation to the savings to be gleaned from changed ways of working, some of this comes in the form of establishing cross-cutting corporate approaches under concepts such as ‘Modern, Effective and Efficient’ and ‘Swindon Communities Together’. The latter combines what were originally established as ‘Place-Based Working’ and ‘Strength-Based Working’ which respectively centred upon join up across the organisation and partners to focus on localities and increasing residents’ independence and the resilience within communities. Securing savings through this type of approach is dependent upon the successful delivery of complex change in spheres over which the council doesn’t fully have control. It is a very different, albeit probably a more appealing, proposition than delivering a percentage saving from within a service’s budget. However, operating in this way feels less tangible to managers currently. On top of this, the cross-cutting nature of what is being sought risks accountabilities being unclear. This means a set of risks are being faced that need to be managed effectively in order to ensure the delivery of what the MTFS outlines. The council will wish to reassure itself that it has the mechanisms in place to enable this.

4.5 Capacity for improvement

Our sense is that the council and the borough have the building blocks that are required to help the organisation to progress and to fulfil the ambitions that exist for the borough. These building blocks would be the envy of many and they include the potential of, and the exciting plans for, the development of the town centre and the wider economic growth of the borough; highly committed and passionate council staff and elected members; a relatively stable financial position combined with a track record of savings delivery and the source of the required savings over the medium-term already having been identified; the potential of partnerships; and the confidence and learning that can be taken from the period of the pandemic. Things are at a key juncture in capitalising upon these, though, and this necessitates appropriate leadership responses politically and managerially.

Councils operate a lot on the goodwill of their people. This has been taken to a new level during the course of the pandemic.  There needs to be more recognition of the capacity stresses and strains that are appearing across the organisation. Staff at all levels in the council want to feel an increased sense of being invested in. They also want to feel more valued and engaged – with greater opportunities to be listened to, to be able to input their perspectives more and to have visions for the borough and the organisation that they can buy in to. 

The directors group that has recently been established and the creation of the wider management team comprising 200 managers across the organisation provide good examples of opportunities for engagement and input that are being created.  These can be built on by taking stock of how those groups are developing and the role they are fulfilling and also thinking about the most effective mechanisms for engaging the wider council workforce. Things also need to be made more meaningful for staff. Certain concepts currently aren’t resonating with them, for example ‘Swindon Communities Together’ and ‘Commercialisation’.

Implementing ‘hybrid working’ effectively, as people start to return to the workplace, requires a proactive approach. There is much to be gained by ensuring a balancing of the benefits from the adaptations and adjustments to ways of working during the pandemic with the way things were before. It will be important to understand the desires and ambitions of the workforce around this and how these are balanced with business need. Significant recruitment and retention challenges are being faced and what the pandemic has brought to the way the organisation works offers benefits here if the council is pragmatic and able to offer prospective employees the flexibility they may be seeking – recognising, however, that won’t be appropriate or feasible across all roles and circumstances.

‘At Our Best’ was established in the period prior to the pandemic as a culture change and leadership development programme.  The senior staff that we met who had participated in this indicated they valued what it offered. The question on their minds is how this develops now. There is certainly a desire and an appetite for its’ continuation or the establishment of something equivalent. Once the future thinking for such a programme has been determined, implementation needs to move at pace.

Various commitments have been made over the years around a pay and reward review. There needs to be clarity around what the council’s intention is now on this and then to move forward accordingly. 

The development of corporate approaches in key areas would have much to offer. Currently there seem to be diffuse approaches across the organisation to aspects such as communications; community engagement; data and insight; and procurement that in many councils would be facilitated and enabled from a single point. There are also inconsistencies in management approaches as people see their responsibilities around managing people and budgets differently. This extends into the training and development sphere as well, with the need for a clearer offer to staff at all levels and greater consistency in the way people are supported and enabled to access it.

Our sense is that the range of factors we have outlined in this section of the report is generating a risk of the council starting to lose its really good people. This needs to be responded to quickly. As part of this, the council needs to determine the competitive advantages it has to offer in order to retain and attract the best.

4.6 Climate change and carbon net zero

The council has not declared a climate emergency but does have stated ambitions to achieve net zero as an organisation by 2030 and as a borough by 2050. There is dedicated political leadership of the agenda reflected in the ‘Climate Change, Finance and Commercialisation’ portfolio, supported by other councillors forming a cabinet member advisory group for climate change. A net zero emissions action plan and a carbon reduction strategy were both established last year and practical action has been taking place, including switching 25,000 streetlights to more energy efficient LED lighting; expanding the number of electric vehicle charging points within the borough; and managing the council’s fleet of vehicles in a way that sees low emission alternatives replacing conventional types over time.

The council recognises it is at the outset of its thinking and activity in relation to fulfilling the ambitions that exist. At present it is difficult to see how the stated commitments are to be achieved, with both resourcing and expertise being required. As the council acknowledges in its position statement, “we need to reconcile and translate ambition into clear corporate understanding on the realistic level of progress in proportion to the level of resource we are corporately able/willing to invest in this area”. 

It is important for the council to recognise that it isn’t alone here. Communities and partners have key roles to play and there are real opportunities for the council to engage more extensively in national networks, including UK100, the LGA Climate Action Group and the Association of Directors of Environment/Economy/Planning/Transport (ADEPT). 

This agenda represents a huge opportunity for the organisation and the borough. It needs to come to be seen as integral to the future of both. It cannot be viewed as an ‘add-on’ – it has to be central and the many co-benefits it offers, not least in relation to health and well-being and the economy, have to be fully recognised and capitalised upon. This needs to be reflected in corporate drive and ownership.

5. Next steps

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It is recognised that the council’s senior political and managerial leadership will want to consider, discuss and reflect on these findings.

Both the peer team and LGA are keen to build on the relationships formed through the peer challenge. The corporate peer challenge process includes a ‘check-in’ session a few months on from the initial activity, with this providing the opportunity for the council’s senior leadership to update peers on its progress against the related improvement planning and discuss next steps.

In the meantime, Paul Clarke, principal adviser for the South West region, is the main contact between your authority and the Local Government Association. He is available to discuss any further support the council requires – paul.clarke@local.gov.uk