Corporate Peer Challenge Report: Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council

Feedback report: 11-14 December 2023

1. Executive summary

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Rochdale Council is an ambitious organisation with clear and ambitious plans to improve the borough and lives of residents. Central to the council’s work is the ethos and values of the Cooperative movement[1], as reflected in the strong partnerships that the organisation has developed at a Greater Manchester, borough, and local level. These values are also reflected in the narrative and behaviours of the council’s employees. 

The council has a clear vision for the future of the borough and the organisation which are set out in aligned updated borough (2023-2033) and council plans (2023-2028). This includes ambitious regeneration schemes such as the Atom Valley, Northern Gateway and town centre improvements which will have a significant impact across the borough over the coming years and present an exciting opportunity for regeneration and inclusive growth ambitions. The council is moving forward with the plans and ambitions through their Rochdale Development Agency, a wholly owned, independent organisation. This approach presents unique opportunities to the council to shape this work but will require ongoing consideration regarding issues of alignment and governance as plans progress. 

To support the delivery and oversight of these plans, further work is required to refine the council’s performance management framework and the corporate oversight of the council’s approach to transformation. This will ensure that outcomes reported are aligned to the vision and will improve political oversight and assurance of progress. The development of this framework will require joint work and ownership across councillors and officers, to better evidence progress, and further inform future decisions and focus. Whilst the council has several high-performing service areas and has been recognised through national awards including for their work on the integrated health system, SEND alliance, and web accessibility, there remain pockets of practice which are outliers and require additional focus and shared ownership to support improvement, most notably the current OFSTED judgement of children’s services as “Requires Improvement to be Good”, or the recently declared ‘Housing Crisis’ within the borough. Without this focus, costs could spiral and outcomes for vulnerable groups could worsen in these areas.

The contribution of Rochdale Borough Council as an organisation is well-appreciated by those they work with. Examples include the leadership role within their integrated care system, as well as the leadership provided on the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan. These relationships have been supported by the council’s values of cooperation and pragmatic approaches to addressing issues and overcoming barriers to change. Going forward, the council is keen to work under the framework of this spatial to progress their local approach and proposals to address the ‘Housing Crisis’ that they have declared in the borough.

The delivery of the council’s priorities is supported by their approach to locality working, through five township committees. These are well established and respected, and the peer team heard recognition for this model from the residents and partners and how it helped direct funding toward local priorities. This includes the emergence of new delivery models and integrated approaches at local level with health, adults and children’s service footprints now being aligned to the same geography to support better collaboration across key services. However, the potential exists for further improvement in this area, with the simplification of funding arrangements, and further clarity on communication and branding. 

The council benefits from constructive and productive political relationships across groups that are focused on the delivery of local priorities and place shaping. There are also strong relationships across the senior political and managerial leadership of the council and a sense of ‘team’ across cabinet and the senior leadership team. However, further work is required to consistently establish professional boundaries across all tiers and all services of the organisation, with current practice including examples of officers being directly approached to resolve issues outside of established processes. This should include further work on clarity of roles, responsibilities, and relationships of members and officers, and linked to the council’s member-officer protocol. The use of joint training across members and officers could also support improvement in this area.  As context for this review, the council has 60 elected members, with seats equally split across 20 three-member wards. The current distribution of seats across political groups is Labour 46, Conservative nine, Liberal Democrats three, and Middleton Independent Group two. The Labour administration of the council is led by the leader and cabinet model, with nine cabinet members. 

The council has made financial planning and management a clear priority. This is reflected in their track record of delivering balanced budgets, monitoring performance against agreed budgets, and taking appropriate action when required, and production of annual accounts. This has put the council in a relatively strong financial position evidenced by healthy reserve levels and has allowed the council to invest in the administration’s priorities and ambitions. However, given the financial pressures in people services like adults, children’s and housing, there will be a continued need for savings, clearer prioritisation of resources and further transformation over the coming years, and the council may need to revisit services which have previously been protected. Importantly, the council’s current sound financial position provides the time to develop further proposals for future savings and ensure that resources are in place for their delivery. 

The council is aware of areas that require further improvement and have proposals in place to address this. This includes their improvement plan for children’s services. The children’s improvement plan is comprehensive, and progress against this plan is monitored by the Health and Schools Scrutiny Committee and a dedicated members working group. Going forward, the council may wish to consider the relationship between these arrangements and the development of a wider performance management framework for the council, this will provide continued assurance that OFSTED observations are all being addressed and outcomes for children are improving, importantly, this will also capture the contribution of wider service outcomes to supporting this agenda.

The peer team would encourage the council to consider the contribution of internal scrutiny and external challenge to support their approaches to improvement across these services, recognising the positive impact that this approach has had in health and Adults social care. The adult’s directorate has used a modular approach to improvement over the past 12-months, inviting external perspective on areas to support their preparation for Care Quality Commission Inspection. This approach has supported the directorate to consider areas of improvement and refine their principles and approaches towards co-production with staff, partners, and service users. The refinement of the council’s performance management framework, to align with the new borough and council plans, will support the organisation to best focus its capacity and efforts in the areas of greatest need, and demonstrate how key tools such as digital can support the transformation programme and assist in releasing capacity. The refreshed framework will then inform the senior manager team’s decision and focus and allow scrutiny forums to maximise their contribution and impact. Alongside this, the council should consider the benefit of further member development to support chairs in these forums.

The delivery of the council’s ambitions will require the careful sequencing and prioritisation of corporate services and capacity, recognising that some corporate services are currently both stretched and dispersed across different directorates. The current capacity may not be sufficient to support corporate oversight and priorities and may need to be revisited. This prioritisation needs to take place within the context of the findings from the council’s most recent staff survey, and the request for more visibility of senior managers, and an improved understanding of the operational pressures facing junior roles in the organisations. 

[1] The co-operative movement was founded in 1844 in Rochdale and is underpinned by the Rochdale Principles which were later adopted by the wider co-operative movement, promoting the belief that economic growth and industrial activity should be owned, controlled, and benefit the people working in these areas. 

2. Key recommendations

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The main body of this Report contains a range of findings and recommendations relevant to Rochdale Borough Council. The following are the peer team’s key findings for prioritisation by the council:

  • Recommendation One: Refine the council’s approach to Performance Reporting: The council should ensure that performance reporting reflects the vision and aims in the new council plan, but also the outcomes for people to ensure that interventions are having the required impact especially for residents and vulnerable groups. This performance reporting should be presented to cabinet in one comprehensive report to support increased political oversight and dialogue regarding agreed priorities and areas for improvement and not just the finances. 
  • Recommendation Two: Maximise the contribution of scrutiny to policy development: The refocusing of the council’s performance management framework will support scrutiny committees to focus their time, attention, and capacity towards areas of underperformance and the pro-active development of policy proposals. 
  • Recommendation Three: Review member officer relationships through training and refreshing the member-officer protocol: The council should provide additional training to both officers and councillors to support a better understanding of relationships, roles, and responsibilities. The review of the council’s constitution provides an opportunity for this work to be aligned to the new member-officer protocol. 
  • Recommendation Four: Revisit the council’s approach to member development to best support councillors in their roles: Beyond training on member and officer relationships, the council would benefit from further dedicated training and support for councillors in their roles. 
  • Recommendation Five: Review capacity in the council’s ‘corporate core’: The council should assure themselves that key corporate services such as performance, communications, policy, ICT, and human resources are appropriately aligned and resourced for the delivery of key ambitions of service improvement, inclusive growth, and increased resident engagement. Progress will be delayed without this.
  • Recommendation Six: Create a clear proposal and plan to addressing Housing issues: Responding to the “Housing crisis” will require an evidence-based partnership approach, which aligns with the emerging opportunities under the GM Places for Everyone Plan. While the growing need is clear, a corresponding comprehensive plan is not yet in place to address this, and costs could escalate quickly.
  • Recommendation Seven: Continue to assure yourself that the governance arrangements for Rochdale Development Agency (RDA) are fit for purpose: There are significant growth and regeneration ambitions in the borough and the Council should be mindful of the implications of working through RDA in progressing these. This includes ensuring that the model maximises potential benefits and is best aligned to wider ambitions. 
  • Recommendation Eight: Consider implementing a more focused approach to service improvement: Consider further use of external support and advice to continue service improvement at pace in key areas building of the benefits that external expertise has brought elsewhere. A wider use of benchmarking in these areas could also be beneficial.
  • Recommendation Nine: Ensure the alignment of the council’s established Township Model: The opportunity exists for this model to be further aligned to the new council plan, as well as new approaches to Social Value Procurement and the “Rochdale Pound”. 
  • Recommendation 10: Improve communication regarding transformation and priorities: This will support residents to better understand the council’s direction of travel, the relationship between Townships and the wider council, and the wider context in which decisions are taken. The council is doing great things and taking hold of the messaging could help showcase this and move the narrative on from past issues.
  • Recommendation 11: Utilise and repurpose content from the council’s Leadership Academy: The content of this programme was widely praised for those who had been given the opportunity to attend and has supported attendees to better understand the council’s vision, priorities, and transformation ambitions. The council should consider how this content can support an increased understanding of these across the wider workforce. 
  • Recommendation 12: Socialise the council’s Care Quality Commission Assessment with scrutiny and cabinet members: The peer team believe that increased dialogue across officers and members will support the council in the preparations for this work and help to maintain a focus on improvement.

3. Summary of the peer challenge approach

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Background and Overview

Corporate Peer Challenges are a well-established, respected and rigorous process to support improvement in local government. In July 2023, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published draft Best Value Standards for Local Authorities. This document set-out the expectation for all local authorities to have a peer challenge every five-years, enabling organisations to benefit from external challenge, scrutiny, and ideas.

The CPC process enables experience and expertise to be shared across the sector collectively and is a central to sector-led improvement. The CPC process is designed to be locally led, with councils requesting the Peer Challenge and engaging pro-actively with the LGA to support reviews to be locally tailored.

The Peer Challenge team

The make-up of a peer team is carefully planned to reflect the host council’s context, challenges, and the wider scope of the review, drawing on relevant experience and expertise to support shared learning across organisations. Ahead of the Rochdale CPC, the LGA developed a potential peer team members which were presented to the council for approval. This team was designed to include both Labour and Conservative political peers, financial expertise, and a dedicated peer to consider issues of health and social care transformation. 

  • Anna Earnshaw (Chief Executive, West Northamptonshire Council).

  • Cllr Sir Steve Houghton (Labour Leader, Barnsley).

  • Cllr Abi Brown (Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent).

  • Alison Barker (Director of Adult’s, Health, and Housing, Swindon Council).

  • Balvinder Heran (Deputy Chief Executive, Dudley Council).

  • Mark Nicholson (Section 151 Officer, Newcastle City Council).

  • Matt Dodd (Peer Challenge Manager, Local Government Association).

 The Peer Challenge Methodology

Peer challenges are improvement focused; and 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, proposals, or specific services. Instead, the peer team used their experience and knowledge of local government to reflect on the information presented to them by people they met, documents they reviewed, and the culture which they saw.

The peer team prepared for this work by reviewing a range of documents and information to ensure that they were familiar with the council, the borough, their operating context. This included a position statement that the council produced specifically for the Peer Challenge, which is designed to encourage self-assessment, reflection, and dialogue across the organisation. Alongside this position statement, the council also provided a library of key reference documents.

The LGA also completed an independent desktop assessment of the council. This included reviewing and benchmarking Rochdale’s performance in key service areas as well as the metrics considered by the Office for Local Government, with specific reports produced through the LG Inform intelligence tool. Alongside this use of performance data, the LGA also commissioned an independent evaluation of the council’s financial position, completed using publicly available documents. 

As part of this review, the peer team completed the following stages of the CPC process:

  • Completed one-to-one phone calls with council colleagues to support our understanding before arriving ‘onsite’.
  • Benchmarked performance and finance information against ‘near neighbours’ through the LG Inform tool. 
  • Reviewed the council’s Position Statement which ‘self-assessed’ where the council currently is, and where you are hoping to get to. 
  • Reviewed over 100 key documents, including a mixture of strategies, policies, and performance reports provided by the council. 
  • Gathered information and insight from approximately 32 interviews and 13 focus groups. 
  • Spoke to approximately 145 people including a mixture of councillors, officers, partners and residents. 

The peer team provided immediate feedback to the council on the afternoon of Thursday 14 December. This session was attended by the council’s cabinet and executive leadership team. A copy of the slides which were delivered during the meeting were shared with the council on Friday 15 December support Rochdale Council’s communication of findings, and development of a corresponding action plan ahead of being provided the Team’s written report.

The Peer Challenge Scope

The peer team considered the following themes which form the core components of all Corporate Peer Challenges, which are key to councils’ performance and improvement:

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

Additionally, it was also requested that the peer team offer a view on issues of health and social care in Rochdale. In this context, the peer team recognise that it would not be possible or appropriate for this corporate review to consider issues of practice and it would be a dilution of scope for the review to consider these issues across the wider geography of the Greater Manchester Integrated Care Partnership.

Therefore, this review will offer a view on issues of vision and transformation within health and social care, including alignment to corporate goals, and relationships with key corporate functions. 

4. Feedback

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4.1 Understanding the local place and priority setting

Rochdale Borough Council was established in 1974 and is one of 36 metropolitan authorities in the United Kingdom. The borough is part of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority alongside nine other authorities, sharing boundaries with Oldham and Bury, as well as the traditional borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The council serves a population of approximately 224,000 residents, with the largest conurbations of the borough being Rochdale Town Centre, Heywood, Littleborough and Middleton.

Through this review the peer team met with councillors and officers who demonstrated a connection and understanding of local place, including qualitative information and local relationships. This was supported by a robust understanding of local needs on a quantitative level, including key issues such as:

  • 26 per cent of residents coming from an ethnic minority background.

  • 31 per cent of school children being eligible for free school meals.

  • Retail, manufacturing, and social works are the most common jobs by industry in the borough.

It is clear that the council is ambitious for its place and residents. This vision to “work collaboratively to reduce inequality and deliver sustainable services and opportunities” is set out in the newly developed council plan which is structured around priorities of people, place, and planet. This plan provides a clear framework for the council’s priorities from 2023-2028 and is well aligned to the cross-organisational borough plan. As this plan becomes embedded, there is a need to ensure that it is used for prioritisation across the organisation and all three priorities, as well as supporting communication with residents and partners. 

Central to the council’s ways of working is the value of co-operation, building on the principles which underpinned the establishment of the modern cooperative movement. These values were clear throughout the peer challenge, reflecting the council’s approach towards collaboration, power sharing, and decision making across the borough, including the use of community and neighbourhood forums through the council’s township model. The values were echoed by all staff and reflected in working approaches both internally and with external partners who all described a way of working together to overcome issues and find shared solutions with residents at the centre. 

The council has made progress in recent years through a number of regeneration programmes, reflecting their vision for the borough. This includes the development of town centre masterplans, the growth plan, and the rail corridor (how the six stations in the borough will be used to support regeneration). Through this peer challenge review, the peer team heard of joint work which is being completed with neighbouring councils in Bury and Oldham to support the Atom Valley Mayoral Development Zone in the north of the borough. This ambitious programme is designed to support the development of advanced machinery and manufacturing, including an Advanced Machinery Productivity Institute to support research into this field and sustainable materials. This programme is hoping to support 3,000 homes and 20,000 direct jobs. The council has been successful in securing external funding to support these programmes, including £400 million investment into Rochdale Town Centre, £200 million investment towards growth programmes, and £100 million support for transport projects. Partners recognised the key role the council and chief officers played in building a better future for the region and place and its leadership of the Greater Manchester Spatial plan was highlighted by partners as a key example of this. 

The council’s growth programmes are being delivered through the Rochdale Development Agency, a wholly owned council company which leads on the delivery of regeneration in the borough and includes external input through a board of directors with business representatives. Given the scale of regeneration programmes and ambition within the borough, there will be a need for the council to keep under review the effectiveness of this model, ensuring that it continues to best support delivery. Furthermore, this scale of ambition will bring additional capacity requirements to a number of corporate services, and it will be important that these are appropriately resourced to minimise risks of delay and to support the streamlining and sequencing of this support. This capacity will also be required to best capture the growth attached to these initiatives, and tailor towards the inclusive growth needs of the borough. 

As part of this review, the peer team considered the performance of council services using information held in LG Inform regarding the indicators considered by the Office for Local Government. These illustrated areas of high performance including top quartile levels of recycling in household waste, carers satisfaction in health and social care, and the ease of finding information through the council website. This positive performance is reflected in the council being shortlisted and winning a number of awards over the past two-years, including: Integrated Care System by the Health Service Journal, Best Public Sector Service for the Council’s SEND Alliance by the Municipal Journal, and the council’s website being rated 5/400 on the sitemorse local government index. 

There are also pockets of performance against the council’s stated priorities which would benefit from additional focus and improvement. This includes the following areas:

  • Turnover of staff in health and social care which is currently joint bottom amongst metropolitan councils.
  • The council is in the bottom quartile of metropolitan authorities for the timely completion of major and minor planning applications. 
  • The council’s Attainment eight score (47 per cent) and current level of under 18s not in education, employment, or training are both in the bottom quartile nationally. 

The next step for delivering the priorities set out in the council plan will be the development of a refreshed performance framework and clear and regular performance information that provides oversight and assurance on progress. This would benefit from a clear linkage between plans and the outcomes for the place, people and planet, benchmarking and reporting that allows the council’s senior leadership to maintain pace and intervene when required. It is equally important that the new performance framework develops a clear golden thread down to individual appraisal and performance targets.

The peer team recognises that beneath the council plan there is a full suite of existing directorate plans and performance metrics which report to scrutiny. However, there is not currently a single report which brings this breadth of information together, and the peer team believe this should be presented to cabinet on a regular basis. This single performance report will support increased political oversight, and better officer understanding of priorities and targeted action where required. Finally, the council should ensure that the priorities within the council plan are understood and articulated beyond the organisation, including wider partners and residents. The promotion of these priorities will require additional communication at an organisational and directorate level.  

4.2 Organisational and place leadership

Throughout the review the peer team heard of effective partnership working and place leadership. This included working across different tiers of geography and the complexity that this can bring. This was best summarised to the team as the requirement to “represent Rochdale in Greater Manchester and represent Greater Manchester in Rochdale”.  The peer team were provided with positive feedback from partners across both geographies, including recognition for the personal contribution of the leader and chief executive to these forums. This is demonstrated by the council leading on the culture portfolio at the combined authority level, positive relationships with neighbouring councils on strategic regeneration, as well as leading on a number of significant issues on behalf of the sub-region, including the Greater Manchester Spatial Plan and the approach to asylum support. 

Within the borough, the council has a well-developed a well-regarded approach to locality working which is structured through their five township committees and used as a means to distribute funding and grants to address local issues. These are designed to support engagement with residents and communities at a more local level, with residents encouraged to attend and submit questions. Importantly, these committees have more recently been aligned to areas of service delivery, including the council’s Family Hub model, customer outreach and adults’ teams. 

These township committees are making an important contribution within the borough at a locality level, but the Peer Team were provided with examples when this resulted in the contribution of the council being overlooked. Whilst the contribution of this model remains the most important factor, the council should consider the communication regarding these forums and their achievements to ensure that residents and partners understand the alignment. Furthermore, the council’s current approach of issuing grants through these committees creates a burden on small organisations, and there is potential to simplify these arrangements, or move towards a more strategic approach of commissioning. This would support the ambition of voluntary, community, and faith sector partners to develop more ‘strategic relationships’ with the council, and ‘do more together’.

The peer team heard that the relationships across political groups were effective and built on mutual respect. This includes the effective sharing of information, and appropriate use of political challenge. These characteristics also reflect the relationship of senior officers and councillors. However, the peer team did hear of instances when these relationships were muddled, including examples of members directly approaching staff and bypassing official enquiry systems (further information in 4.3), and believe the organisational leadership would benefit from more clarity on these issues at all levels of staff. 

4.3 Organisational Governance and Culture

The wider workforce culture of the council was illustrated through the all-staff survey that was completed in October 2022. This included several positive results including 93 per cent of respondents feeling trusted to do their job, 91 per cent recommending the council as a place to work to others, and 87 per cent being satisfied with the help and support they receive. However, it should be noted that this survey received a low response rate (895 responses / 32 per cent of staff), when this survey is repeated, the council should consider lengthening the response time, and additional communications to support an improved response rate. 

Even with this low response rate there are a number of challenging findings with only 59 per cent speaking positively of senior management visibility and 54 per cent of senior management effectiveness. An area of specific concern was that only 56 per cent of staff having had an annual performance review. In addition, the peer team heard from staff that they would welcome an ‘increased understanding’ from senior officers regarding the pressures and realities of frontline roles. In response, the council has developed the People Strategy which addresses many of these findings, but it will need to monitor progress and consider the use of pulse surveys or a repeat survey to demonstrate these perceptions are improving. 

The peer team recommends that the council takes a more active approach to Member development. The council’s current approach to member development was approved by cabinet in 2021 and covers the legal requirements for councillors to attend in-person training linked to specific committees and their legal responsibilities. Beyond these four in-person sessions there are a range of online modules which are to be completed on a four-year rota or optional basis. The council would benefit by being more active in the training and development opportunities presented to Members, including increased use of facilitated sessions and the contribution of external training providers. There was an appetite from councillors that the peer team met to take-up these opportunities, this should include consideration of the Leadership Essentials courses available to cabinet members and chairs through the LGA. 

A key priority within any new approach to member development should be further work regarding the roles of councillors and officers, focusing on how they work together most effectively. The peer team heard that there were a number of instances of councillors approaching officers directly with requests for work and instruction, operating outside of the established processes and approaches. Therefore, the peer team encourages both member and officer training that reiterates the importance of these processes, promotes these internal systems, and supports the review of the member-officer protocol which is being completed as part of the council’s review of their constitution. 

The peer team appreciates that the council has a well-established and regarded approach to developing officer leadership skills. This includes essential training, training for aspiring managers (those who don’t currently manage staff) and the Leadership Academy. The Leadership Academy was established in 2018 and supports approximately 30 officers a year with modules covering leadership styles, resilience, and effective delegation. The peer team heard extremely positive feedback for this programme from staff, reflecting the formal evaluation completed by the council. The feedback that the peer team heard highlighted that officers who had been through the programme felt ‘more informed’ and had ‘a better understanding’ of the council’s transformation ambitions and felt that the content around corporate priorities could be beneficial for all staff to know. With this in-mind, the peer team would encourage the council to consider how the information and materials from the Leadership Academy could be used to support improved understanding across the wider workforce. 

Beyond member development, further improvements could be made to the wider support for elected members. This includes the use of casework systems to monitor requests, the potential of additional capacity to support cabinet members in the development and coordination of policy, and the creation of a clear performance product to support the political leadership’s oversight. These developments would support the council’s political leadership in their roles and enable them to best focus their attention and time on strategic issues and areas for improvement. 

The council benefits from positive relationships with voluntary, community and faith sector partners. However, the peer team heard that there was an appetite from these organisations to ‘do-more’ with the council. This could be supported by moving towards a more ‘strategic relationship’ which considers the potential contribution that they can make towards the council’s wider ambitions, and the conditions which will support their success. This should include consideration of commissioning arrangements for voluntary, community and faith sector organisations, and the simplification of current funding processes, as organisations have to bid many times in different areas and services to provide their services. 

As noted in section 4.2, the council’s work at a locality level is supported by the Township model. This model is well-established and is appreciated by residents and councillors, playing an important role in supporting engagement and tailoring of services. Interestingly, the achievements of the five townships sometimes means that the contribution of the council can be overlooked locally. Therefore, the peer team would encourage the council to ensure how the work of the townships can be best aligned to the council’s vision in the council plan to maximise their contribution and to reduce duplication between them. The council should also consider how the townships communicate and brand their work to ensure that the contribution of the council is best understood, and that council branding is used consistently in these areas of work. 

The council has three overview and scrutiny committees to support internal challenge and the decision-making process. These committees are chaired by the same political party as the administration, and this is something that the council should consider changing as it is good practice for them to be chaired by a different/opposition party. The peer team were presented with clear examples as to where these committees had been used to good effect. This included supporting decision making to bring the Highways Service back in house, considering issues of value for money and performance practice. It also included the sensitive work that was completed by the council’s Communities, Regeneration and Environment Scrutiny Committee which considered the performance of Rochdale Borough Housing (a separate tenant and employee-owned mutual to the council) following the death of a young child in one of their properties. 

The peer team could see that these committees consider performance against service plans as part of their regular work programme. Going forward, these updates should also be reported to cabinet before scrutiny, supporting a shared understanding of performance, and best supporting the attention and capacity of scrutiny on the organisation’s priorities and areas for improvement. Alongside the use of internal challenge through scrutiny, the council may wish to consider the contribution that external perspectives can offer to service improvement. This approach has been well utilised in adults health and social care services. 

The peer team were also made aware of the engagement of children’s services with external opinions and perspectives, including the use of Independent Scrutineers on their Safeguarding Board, and external scrutiny on issues including short breaks, fostering, as well as Special Education Needs and Disabilities to facilitate the council’s ambition to progress from “Requires Improvement” to “Good”. Other examples of this model could help with delivery against the council’s recently declared ‘Housing Crisis’ and known planning challenges. 

A unique feature of the council’s governance arrangements is Rochdale Development Agency (RDA). This model of a council owned but independently operated approach towards regeneration and growth was presented to the peer team as ‘the best of both’ in-terms of supporting the organisation’s approach to inclusive growth. The peer team would like to encourage the council to be live to the challenges that this model could create, and ongoing consideration of these may need to be worked through. Given the scale of the council’s growth ambitions, the council should regularly consider the monitoring, reporting, and capacity required to continue to provide oversight and assurance to officers and members as this work progresses.

The council is currently in the process of reviewing their constitution ahead of the 2024-2025 municipal year. This presents an important opportunity to implement the model code of conduct, create a clear framework for township working, and review the member-officer protocol. 

4.4 Financial planning and management

Financial management is clearly a high priority for the council. This was reflected in conversations with both members and officers and was well summarised through the period of the review as “the voice of finance is heard loud and clear across the organisation.” Therefore, it is unsurprising that the council’s financial health is relatively sound as evidenced by the level of General Fund reserves and effective processes in place for delivering balanced budgets, monitoring performance against agreed budgets and taking appropriate action when required, and production of annual accounts. The council is to be commended for these things especially given the difficult financial backdrop facing the local government sector as a whole.

As context, the net budget of the council in 2022-2023 was £248.9 million and the council maintained its net revenue expenditure within this. However, within this context there was a net overspend on directorate budgets, which was off-set by an underspend on corporate treasury management budgets. Within the net directorate overspend, the Adult Care and Children’s directorates overspent by £0.7 million and £3.3 million respectively. The Children’s directorate overspend was largely due to children’s social care placement costs and SEND transport costs, reflecting wider challenges facing the sector, and partially mitigated through the use of national COVID grants worth £3.3 million.

The net budget of the council for 2023-2024 is £275.0 million and the latest in-year monitoring report highlighted a projected overspend of £1.4 million with pressures in directorates of £5.0 million being partially off-set by an underspend in the corporate treasury management budget of £3.6 million. The report specifically highlighted the increasing demand on the Children’s directorate, which is forecast to overspend by £6.9 million. 

The council took the difficult decision to increase council tax by 4.99 per cent for 2023-2024, comprising a 2.99 per cent general increase and 2 per cent through the adult social care precept. However, to mitigate the impact on residents, the council also applied a 2 per cent council tax rebate for all households, resulting in a 2.99 per cent net increase. The Peer Team noted that the council had a specific earmarked reserve set aside to fund the cost of the rebate and had identified options to address the rebate in the future, however, this will need to be carefully and clearly communicated to residents to avoid confusion.

The peer team also noted that the council agreed to increase discretionary fees and charges by 4 per cent in 2023/2024. Whilst it is appreciated that this protects residents from increased costs, this falls below inflation and risks creating a gap between service income and expenditure, in the context of the council having the second lowest levels of fees and charges relative to expenditure amongst metropolitan councils. 

Like in other councils, there has been recent financial pressure because of demand and inflation in both adult care and children’s directorates, which was a concern to everyone the peer team met. The council is aware of these challenges and has financial recovery plans in place for both services. These plans illustrate the council’s understanding of demand pressures and future needs which underpin their budget gap, and their whole-council approach to addressing them. However, in the context of the council’s ambitions to improve children’s social care, there is a need to consider the relationship between financial recovery and the further investment which may be required to support improvement. 

Also like other councils, the council has an overspend against the High-Needs Block within their Dedicated School’s Grant. This cumulative deficit of £7.7 million as of 31 March 2023 is lower than many similar sized authorities, and the council is working with external partners to deliver their deficit recovery plan which is forecast to eliminate this issue by 2030. The council will need to consider the current arrangements for accounting for this spend with the proposed end to the national statutory override due to expire in 2025. 

The peer team observed there is strong statutory financial reporting arrangements in place, as reflected in the production of annual accounts within statutory deadlines both during and following the COVID 19 pandemic. Delays in signing-off the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 accounts reflect wider challenges facing the sector beyond the council’s control. However, at the time of the Peer Team’s visit, the 2021-2022 accounts had been signed off by the external auditor and the 2022-2023 accounts were about to be signed off. The last Annual Report from the council’s external auditor focused on the 2020-2021 financial year and provided an unqualified opinion on issues of sustainability, governance, and improving wider effectiveness. This report highlighted strength of the council’s budget setting process and a comprehensive approach to managing risk. 

A key indicator of the council’s financial health is the levels of General Fund reserves, which as a proportion of net revenue expenditure were in the upper quartile of metropolitan councils in 31 March 2023. These comprise an unearmarked General Fund balance of £17 million, and earmarked reserves of £180 million as of 31 March 2023. Whilst there was a reduction in earmarked reserves during the 2022-2023 financial year, this is clearly linked to specific COVID and Section 31 grants. Levels of external borrowing are also relatively low at £208 million as of 31 March 2023. This was a reduction on the figure as of 31 March 2022 (£215 million) when the council was in the lowest quartile of all metropolitan councils.

The council’s capital programme for 2023-2024 was agreed at full council in February 2023 and totalled £168 million. The mid-year report for progress against these schemes reduced the forecast programme spend to £118 million, with spend to date at £36.2 million (31 per cent of the revised budget, or 21.1 per cent of the original budget). This reflects a recent trend of under-delivery against the capital programme, with £105m being spent in 2022-2023 against a budget of £230 million, the remaining £125 million being rephased into future years. It will be important that the council assures itself regarding the capacity to deliver the remaining and reforecast capital programme, including corporate capacity in key supporting services to enable these ambitions. Furthermore, the council has a strong track record in accessing external funding to support regeneration and may need to consider the commitments attached to such funding as part of any rephasing going forward. 

Beyond the financial health of the organisation, the peer team also heard praise for the corporate support and constructive challenge that directorates receive from the council’s finance team that results in challenges being addressed collectively. 

Whilst the council’s financial management and systems have served the organisation extremely well to-date, given the scale of financial challenges facing the sector, there is a continued need for financial rigour. This will require further development of transformation proposals from officers, and difficult decisions from councillors. The peer team appreciates that to-date the council has been successful in protecting service standards in areas such as environmental services and youth services but recognises that this will become increasingly challenging over coming years. 

4.5 Capacity for Improvement

Central to continued improvement at the council will be the delivery of their newly developed people strategy which runs from 2023 to 2026. This sets out the principles, values, and approaches that the organisation will use to develop and grow the workforce of the organisation. This has been developed in-line with the council’s principles of a co-operative council (the principles of the cooperative movement are often described as the ‘Rochdale Principles’ reflecting their origins in 1844). These principles of co-operation were clear across the staff that the peer team engaged with, with team members recognising their commitment, creativity, and ambition. 

Reflecting national trends the council is faced with a number of direct challenges regarding its workforce profile, recruitment, and retention. This includes an ageing workforce, with 56 per cent of staff being over 45 and only 6.65 per cent aged under 25, and the reliance on agency staff with the council using more than 200 individuals through agency arrangements in 2022-2023. The council also recognises that further work is required to ensure that their workforce better reflects the demographics of the communities that they serve. They are in the process of establishing an Equality Champions network at a senior officer level to engage with existing staff networks, with the ambition to raise awareness and promote good practice in these areas. The council is in the process of producing their ‘Consciously Unbiased’ strategy for issues of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion. There is a need to make sure that this plan reflects these local challenges and is sponsored by senior ownership to support progress. 

The council’s people strategy will be essential in addressing these challenges, and is clearly built around four priorities of equality, health and wellbeing, recruitment, engagement, learning, and leadership. However, the successful implementation of this strategy will also require a targeted and specific focus on HR processes, including ensuring consistency of appraisal process (known locally as ‘Your Talent conversations’) with only 56 per cent of staff having completed one in 2023-2024, and 31 per cent of staff reporting that they did not have regular one-to-ones. The council should consider how repeating their 2022 staff survey (and the use of pulse surveys) could support monitoring progress and oversight of this strategy.

The council has made recent changes to their approach to transformation, including changes to programme governance. The use of an overarching Transformation Delivery Board will support the council to monitor implementation and allocate resources against their priority programmes: Digital Transformation, Behaviour Change, as well as internal Directorate Change. As these programmes are implemented, the Council will need to give further thought to issues of benefits realisation, tracking both the financial impact of these changes and wider issues of service standards and delivery. The current devolved models of transformation support, local performance and support teams may reduce the ability to have corporate oversight and pace and manage dependencies around plans. 

Beyond the governance of change and transformation, the Peer Team heard that many of the key support and enabling services in the council’s corporate core were stretched. While members may not see these functions as a priority the delivery of the council’s priorities and ambitions, as well as the wider challenges facing the sector, will require appropriate capacity and skills to be in-place. In order to get the most from corporate capacity the council may wish to bring capacity together in one place to support joint approaches and reduce the risk of duplication. The council’s current arrangements see these functions spread across different directorates, and therefore creates a risk of duplication or fragmented commissioning of capacity at programme or service level, rather than considering needs across the council.

Beyond capacity, the council also needs to consider the systems and processes which are used corporately. This includes ensuring that HR processes for recruitment and retention are both proportionate and consistent across the organisation, an area highlighted by staff as a blocker to having a skilled and resourced workforce. Further investment into areas such as ICT would release capacity elsewhere and support the transformation of council service delivery at pace and as set out in the new council plan. There are significant programmes of work under development in this area, including the migration to Microsoft 365 and SharePoint online by March 2024, and the recently commissioned Customer Record Management system which is due to go live by April 2024. These programmes will bring practical benefits, including the moving towards cloud storage instead of data centres. However, it will be important that changes in this area are considered alongside wider issues of behavioural change to maximise the benefit of time and investment in this area. 

Finally, in the context of the council’s Children’s Services being rated “Required Improvement to be Good’ by OFSTED in 2023 the peer team were told that this is a priority area for improvement across the organisation, and this will need to remain so for the coming years. These services were previously assessed as Requires Improvement in 2014 and 2018. The council has developed an Improvement Plan and established and Improvement Board to oversee this work. The Peer Team appreciates the approach of the council to engaging proactively with external partners including the Department for Education to support this work as illustrated by Rochdale being one of four authorities taking part in the Special Educations Needs Change Programme, and dialogue regarding Family Hubs, as well as working with the Innovation Unit on the Nest Programme to support improvement, and engage with best practice and approaches elsewhere in the sector, including the council’s move towards the Hertfordshire Family Safeguarding model. The council may wish to consider extending this approach, including the potential use of an external chair for their Improvement Board. 

4.6 Health and Social Care

The council requested that the CPC process consider an additional theme of Health and Social Care Services, focusing on the vision, direction, and transformation of the Directorate rather than issues of practice or direct service provision. The council’s request for this additional theme is in-keeping with the open culture and focus of continuous improvement of the directorate which has been pro-active in seeking external support and challenge to facilitate improvement and preparation ahead of the introduction of Care Quality Commission (CQC) Inspections. A key next step ahead of any CQC inspection will be sharing and engaging elected Members on the content of the council’s self-assessment so that all stakeholders are aware of the council’s strengths and plans, as well as areas for targeted improvement, so that a shared understanding and ownership is demonstrated to inspectors. 

This appetite for continuous challenge and improvement is illustrated through the breadth of reviews completed in 2023. This has included reviews completed by the North West Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (ADASS), Skills for Care, as well as the LGA. Importantly, the Council has consciously structured the areas of focus for these reviews to support a modular approach to CQC preparedness to avoid duplication, minimise the risk of contradictory advice, and focus external perspectives in order to best add value. To this end, these respective reviews have considered CQC preparation, supported year in employment, organisational culture, and vision and transformation. 

These previous reviews have highlighted initiatives which will support service improvement within the directorate, this includes:

  • Several key workforce challenges, including the pace of work, use of deadlines, volume of meetings, and inconsistency on availability of managers and completion of one-to-ones for staff.
  • The re-establishment of the Social Care Provider Forum to support the sharing of key messages with the wider social care market alongside wider issues of market development.  
  • The realignment of specialist services to address current gaps in provision (e.g., learning disability). 
  • The commitment to co-production with service users, staff and residents in order to inform and direct future activity. 

Importantly, there is a clarity to the council’s response to the outcomes of the review activities which include a revised and co-produced vision, priorities and aims along with a clear work programme. It is clear from the peer review engagement that this programme and vision is supported by all staff and stakeholders The 2024 directorate plan sets out a clear plan of work which details, milestones, dates, and actions and is clearly owned by staff and management within the service. In this context, there is a continued need for the directorate to monitor progress in these areas (e.g. their mental health improvement plan) with robust contingency plans if there is not the improvement required within the defined timescales. 

The directorate has had a number of changes in senior officer positions over the past 12-months, and the new officer leadership has been well received by councillors, partner organisations and the wider workforce. This has included an increased focus on ‘co-production’ which has been central to the newly developed vision and strategy which is underpinning the directorates work for improvement. This has been made possible by the clear and visible political ownership of this work, including the contribution of councillors in chairing partnership meetings, and bringing organisations together. 

The peer team heard first-hand praise for this new leadership team with a sense that “it feels like a fantastic time to be working here” reflecting ownership of this approach. Whilst it is a positive that this vision and ambition is understood and owned, this will require continuous two-way communication with staff to mitigate the risk that this is seen as a short-term exercise this will ensure momentum is maintained. 

Through the course of this review, the peer team met with staff from across the health and social care directorate, this included differing levels of seniority. The peer team appreciated the energy and commitment of this workforce. Reflecting the national landscape, the council faces challenges in recruiting and retaining social workers, with staff turnover within the directorate at 40 per cent, the joint lowest amongst the council’s statistical neighbours, with the workforce currently having 341 employees and 91 vacancies. However, the peer team were struck by the length of service of many officers, with one focus group containing over 145 years of experience. This potentially illustrates that the challenge in recruitment and retention is an issue amongst newer staff. The team appreciates that these issues are particularly relevant to the newly developed ‘front door model’ which is currently staffed by agency workers. It is a priority for demand management and financial management that this team lands well and can operate at pace. The Peer Review team would encourage a corporate focus on permanent recruitment in this service area to ensure fidelity and success of the model. 

The peer team appreciate that the council’s health and social care services are part of the wider Greater Manchester Integrated Care Partnership. In this context of integration, there is a natural tension between working on behalf of the larger system and the more local organisation. Through this review, it was appreciated that senior leaders recognise this challenge and are mindful of these issues in their roles. An example of the council’s practical approach to balancing these issues is illustrated through their work on the 2022-2023 Better Care Fund. This included the decision to remove risk sharing arrangements from their pooled budget to minimise the risk of council exposure to overspends elsewhere in the system. It was a credit to the maturity of relationships and the establishment of health and care posts at a senior level which ensured this did not derail the positive partnership working. It was also clear when the peer team met partners that there is a culture of “jointly leaning in to shared issues” across health and social care and that this has resulted in some very successful joined up services and emerging models that align more care around people and not by organisational boundaries. The integration of services that has taken place at a neighbourhood level is well respected and appreciated locally. 

However, the peer team appreciates that there is potential for further improvement through the introduction of more discrete and targeted models for learning disability and neurodiversity which is where the adults service is seeing some of its biggest pressures. Whilst there is further work that will be required to establish the boundaries and parameters of these services, the peer team recognise that this may present the opportunity to improve outcomes for individuals and provide increased oversight of resources and spend. 

The 2023-2024 net revenue budget for these services is £71.2 million, and there are currently savings of £2.5 million which are linked to prevention and new ways of working. Similar to other areas, one of the biggest challenges facing health and social care services in Rochdale is increased demand within the context of delivering financial savings. This increased demand for services is illustrated by the following statistics for 2022-2023:

  • 23 per cent increase in the number of calls to the service.
  • 32 per cent increase in the number of assessments completed. 
  • 129 per cent increase in safeguarding concerns.  
  • 16 per cent increase in the number of people in permanent or residential placements. 

These increases in demand are accompanied by increased costs in provision linked to complexity. This is illustrated by the 20 most expensive care packages of the council costing £3.8 million in 2019 and the equivalent figure for 2023 being £5.7 million. This significant increase highlights the challenges facing the wider sector and supports the recommendation of developing a discreet team for learning disability and neurodiversity to ensure a robust grip on the commissioning of care and its costs and importantly quality of services This will also require the directorate to work closely with corporate services to deliver agreed savings and efficiencies. Given these increased costs and complexity the council has taken a pro-active approach to reviewing cases, the peer team would encourage the directorate to monitor this review activity to ensure quality standards are at the fore of the process and to mitigate the risk of this being seen as a solely financial exercise.

Finally, through this process the peer team heard about recent progress that the council has made regarding transitions to adulthood and would encourage the directorate to maintain this pace and support. Alongside this, the council should also consider strengthening the housing and care strategic approach, including the potential contribution of intergenerational extra care approaches. 

5. Next steps

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It is appreciated that the senior political and managerial leadership of Rochdale Borough Council will want to consider, discuss, and reflect on these findings and recommendations. To promote the principle of transparency, it is a requirement of CPC process that the final report of the peer team is published in full within three-months of the review. 

To illustrate the council’s responsiveness to the findings of this review, there is a requirement for the council to develop and publish an action plan within five-months of the peer team being onsite. This action plan should provide clarity on the activity, milestones, and timelines that the council will work to in responding to the Team’s findings. The action plan will also be central to the peer team’s re-engagement with the council through a Progress Review which is due to be completed in the Autumn of 2024. 

In July 2023, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities published draft Best Value Standards for local authorities. This document describes arranging a corporate of finance peer challenge at least every five-years as a characteristic of a well-functioning authority. The peer team recognises that the council’s previous Peer Challenge was completed in 2015, which left the council out of cycle. In this context, it is expected that the council would commission a complete CPC to take place no-later than December 2028.  

Finally, Claire Hogan (Principal Advisor for the North West) is the primary contact between Rochdale Borough Council and the Local Government Association. Claire is available to discuss any further support that the council may require or any changes in context and can be contacted by email on: [email protected]