LGA Corporate Peer Challenge: Council of the Isles of Scilly

Feedback report: 3 – 6 October 2022


1. Executive summary

Decorative graphic featuring arrows

 

Many local authorities in England would describe themselves as ‘unique’ – and in the case of the council of the Isles of Scilly (CIOS), there is no more apt description. It is the smallest unitary authority in the country and the council serves 5 populated islands. An obvious challenge is consideration of the delivery of the depth and breadth of high-quality services on these special islands, given the limitations of their geography and population size and make up which is not only ageing but also declining in number:

  • Current population - 2226 – 23 per cent are under 25 and 28 per cent are over 65
  • 40 per cent of people aged 16-74 are in full time employment
  • 14 per cent of people have life-limiting, long-term illness

In addition, given the unique social and economic context of island life the CIOS have to operate as the provider of last resort and in a number of cases have to operate what would otherwise be provided by the private sector such as direct delivery of services such as residential/domiciliary care.

Against this undeniably challenging backdrop, we found a council that is performing well, delivering a broad spectrum of services which are valued by residents, and playing an influential role on local, regional, and national partnerships. This is the third Corporate Peer Challenge to be undertaken in the CIOS – and the Peer Team found an organisation that has wholeheartedly embraced Sector Led Improvement to support a commendable, and ongoing, improvement journey.

The chairman and chief executive are well regarded in all quarters by both colleagues and partners. Given the fact that the chief executive is only employed for three days per week, both he and the chairman are visible and effective leaders, who by example, have created a strong sense of pride, integrity, and ambition within the council.

In what could be a challenging environment with only 16 elected members all living and working in the same sparsely populated place, we found that Members and officers work well together and appear receptive to, and responsive of, each other’s needs and expectations. The capability of lead members is impressive, with them all working across wide ranging briefs. There are some issues that should be addressed around how the workload could be more fairly distributed across all members to ensure all residents benefit from the same level – and quality – of elected member representation.

The council has moved from a section 24 notice (a Section 24 is issued by external auditors and is seen as a warning of financial mismanagement issued under the Local Audit and Accountability Act and are rarely issued. The auditor, Grant Thornton, lifted the notice following substantial improvements in the way the authority manages its finances.) scenario to financial stability. Whilst clearly not immune from both the public services pressures on the islands as well as the wider sectoral financial pressures – and they are clearly significant, the fact that they are able to set a balanced budget and plan into the future is highly commendable and should not be understated.

The council is doing good work and is delivering valued services for its residents, businesses and communities such as securing significant Levelling Up funding for the islands’ sea transport as well as prevention and early intervention for children’s services. However, it sometimes does not communicate how well it is doing this, and the positive impact it is having on the daily lives of those who live and work on the islands.

The council is proud to be described as ‘punching above its weight’ in regional and national partnerships. Members and officers frequently have to grapple with issues, deliver services and address complex needs that far exceed the size and scale of the council – and they embrace these challenges. The council’s willingness to engage external advice, support and capacity is positive and shows both a good level of self-awareness, but also a willingness to seek out advice and challenge.

Fairly recent changes to governance arrangements following Boundary Commission recommendations in 2016 which reduced the number of elected members on the council and the introduction of monthly Council meetings and more robust scrutiny arrangements, have been well received by members. They feel they have plenty of opportunities to engage effectively in decision making. However, there are a number of committees and boards that require member representation and continuing to look for opportunities to streamline these would impact positively on member and officer capacity, whilst ensuring responsibility for decision making isn’t blurred.

The council is seen as trusted, and respected partner, and moving forward will need to recognise that (due to financial and other resource constraints) it will need to work more closely with community organisations as delivery partners.

The council would benefit from reviewing operating arrangements to provide greater clarity, particularly for staff, on the future vision for the organisation, and in particular the concerns around the future location of staff and services i.e. mainland versus island. We heard unequivocal commitment from senior officers and members to maintaining a strong CIOS presence on the islands and this needs to be communicated as part of a clearer corporate narrative.

The council has been successful in securing funding through national funding streams such as Levelling Up Fund (LUF). The next key task in delivering these high profile and complex projects that are essential to the future sustainability of the islands, will be to ensure there is a strong corporate approach to programme and project management to help marshal resources and manage risk across a range of capital projects.

The additional costs of delivering services and the challenges of demonstrating value for money in an island context are very evident and well-articulated by members and officers. There are good examples of where officers have developed positive relationships with civil servants resulting in appropriate recognition of these challenges. Pursuing an Isles of Scilly ‘Deal’ seems well justified.

There is consensus that housing is amongst the top priority issues and many challenges track back to the lack of available housing. This is a complex issue to which there is no simple solution. The council is seeking to address this challenge as innovatively as possible through self-build projects, creation of units for affordable rent etc. The council is aware that the issue cannot be addressed in isolation and that opportunities to refresh the working relationship with the Duchy of Cornwall should be exploited to maximum effect.

The peer team would like to thank the members, officers, and residents of the Isles of Scilly for welcoming them to the Island and for the honest and positive way the council engaged with the process.

2. Key recommendations

Decorative graphic featuring arrows

 

There are a number of observations and suggestions within the main section of the report. The following are the peer team’s key recommendations to the council:

Develop, at pace, a proactive Communication and Engagement Strategy which will create an environment where all staff are empowered (and equipped) to use all channels to both promote the work of the council, and also engage meaningfully with all parts of the community. Such a strategy should ensure also seek to support a partnership approach to comms and engagement where appropriate and look to proactively engage with communities through social media, alongside more traditional communication channels.

With and through partners, develop a collective plan for Scilly focussing on delivery and outcomes. This should help enable all partners to align their own plans thus helping to focus collaborative effort. This could be overseen by a partnership board (perhaps a rescoping of an existing board) and would provide clear governance (and a seat at the table for partners).

Conduct a review of partnerships, boards and networks looking at roles, function, accountability etc looking to ‘declutter’ the governance landscape and ensuring the best use of member and officer time and energy.

Initiate an open conversation with internal and external stakeholders around future operating models, looking to create a more planned approach to where staff and services are based now and, in the future, to ensure the needs and aspirations of your residents, members, and staff and partners are acknowledged

Expedite work already underway to develop a Workforce Strategy to inform discussions around operating models – and as part of this consider conducting a skills audit across the organisation.

Support members to continue providing effective organisational and community leadership through:

  • Ensuring clarity around the roles and remit of the newly formed Governance Committee.
  • Supporting Scrutiny members as they continue to develop a more a focused approach to monitoring outcomes and consider producing an Annual Scrutiny report
  • Reinvigorating regular monthly meetings between Lead Members and senior executives to support a ‘top team’ approach.
  • Considering ways of enhancing their engagement with residents e.g., through public participation in meetings and/or councillor surgeries, and the 6 monthly public engagement meetings
  • Use opportunity of new management locally with the Duchy of Cornwall and the new Duke to continue the efforts being made to refresh the relationship with the Duchy.
  • Use your engagement in the newly formed UK Islands Forum to maintain energy and momentum around lobbying for an ‘Island Deal’.

Explore opportunities to revisit service delivery arrangements to ensure value for money and that providers are being held to account for the services they are providing.

3. Summary of the peer challenge approach

Decorative graphic featuring arrows

3.1 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:

  • Councillor Craig Browne, Deputy Leader, Cheshire East Council
  • Pippa Milne, Chief Executive, Argyll and Bute Council
  • Mark Barrow, Executive Director of Place, Shropshire Council
  • Cath TurnerCivil Servant, DLUHC LG Engagement Lead, South West
  • Emily McGuinness, Peer Challenge Manager, LGA

3.2 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?

In addition to these questions, the council asked the peer team to provide feedback on the unique context of serving island communities and the challenges this can represent both in terms of delivering an ambitious place shaping agenda and ensuring the realities of island governance and service delivery are recognised by government.

3.3 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 they were familiar with the Council and the challenges it is facing. Over the course of four days, the team:

  • Engaged with nearly 100 councillors, officers, and partners across three days of interviews in addition to further research and reading.
  • Collectively spending over 105 hours to arrive at our findings, the equivalent of one person spending three weeks with the Council of the Isles of Scilly

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

4. Feedback

Decorative graphic featuring arrows

4.1 Local priorities and outcomes

The council has taken heed of previous peer challenge recommendations and has invested time and energy in a corporate planning process that has seen enviable levels of community engagement (over 1500 community responses were received) and is one of the most genuinely member-led processes that the team has seen. This has resulted in a sound corporate plan, with a clear set of priorities that all stakeholders, both internally and externally, are well sighted on and where residents generally feel the priorities are the right ones. This clarity of purpose around the new corporate plan is providing the organisational stability that was missing in the last peer challenge, and is now providing a strong basis for the Council to move forward with some ambitious delivery targets.

Maintaining the high levels of public trust and engagement garnered through such an inclusive corporate planning process will be vital. The council needs to develop a planned communications approach based on ‘you said – we did’ so that staff, residents, and partners are kept informed of progress – even if this progress has been limited due to factors often beyond the control of the Council. This will keep the dialogue going and ensure the Council continues to be held in high regard and seen as a trusted partner, as it seeks to create a partnership plan for the islands.

The council recognises that challenges remain as it strives to match resources to ambition and risk. Further development, beyond the current delivery plan, of a route map for delivering outcomes would help to provide focus on phasing and resourcing. The programme management approach the council has committed to will assist with this. Given the capacity issues we’ll talk about later, spending some time focusing on which priorities are deliverable within existing resources – given an ever changing national context- will be important – as will how this contributes to a stronger and more well defined corporate narrative.

There is consensus internally and externally, that housing is clearly a top priority issue and many challenges track back to the lack of available housing. The council’s plan for around 30 new homes shows positive intent, but the geographical and demographic challenges of the island context can impact on the delivery of this target. However, CIOS, working with partners such as the Duchy of Cornwall, Live West and the Cornwall Community Land Trust, has adopted innovative approaches to bring forward solutions. These include 12 self-build sites at the Ennor Farm site, 27 affordable rent and shared ownership properties at Carn Thomas and working with Homes England, the purchase and conversion of a holiday property into three affordable homes. Given the scale and impact of the issue, exploring further innovative policy options and partnership working may offer further opportunities, building on the successes achieved to date. Such opportunities could include the potential use of rural burdens and the provision of key worker housing (with leases held by the Council or other public bodies). The council may wish to explore options beyond the classic social rented option such as shared equity and affordable market rent.

The Duchy of Cornwall (The Duchy), not least because of its significant landowning presence on the island, is evidently a key local delivery partner. There have recently been changes in personnel within The Duchy, and of course the arrival of a new Duke and more locally, the appointment of a new steward for the islands. These changes we heard offer a fresh opportunity for both the Duchy and Council to engage more proactively, for example, exploring the potential to align emerging plans and visions for the islands and identifying synergies. Regular, scheduled council agenda items would provide another forum for the Duchy and the council to collaborate on emerging plans and activities–Members should consider scheduling regular council agenda items that provide an opportunity for the Duchy to update on emerging plans and activities so that a more collaborative and iterative relationship in pursuit of common goals can continue to develop.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the nature of the island context, we found council members and officers to have a strong sense of place and an impressive affinity for the communities they serve and are part of. Members and officers are visible to residents and because of their impressive local knowledge – and passion for place – they are able to advocate effectively locally, regionally and nationally. This strong place based approach means that CIOS is often described as ‘punching above its’ weight’ by regional and national partners and has achieved significant success in securing national funding for key projects. Nowhere is this more evident than with recent successes in Levelling Up Funding (LUF), Arts Council (ACE) and Community Renewal Fund. The council has secured over £48 million to ensure a sustainable sea link and £440K to develop a new museum and cultural centre. Whilst these are once in a generation opportunities to improve life for residents of islands – they represent significant organisational capacity challenges. Developing a delivery route map as mentioned above, will help match resources to risk and vice versa.

In key priority areas we heard that a bolder approach from the full range of partners would sometimes be welcome. In relation to climate change, the island setting offers opportunities to consider options within a defined geography such as sustainable on-island transport and circular economy models.

4.2 Organisational and place leadership

LG Inform

The council for the Isles of Scilly is an organisation which is well led by members and officers. The current chairman and vice chairman pairing have been in post since 2018.and the chief executive since 2019. The council has undoubtedly benefitted from having had leadership stability throughout this time. We saw an organisation where members and officers have an effective, and productive working relationship, that is built on mutual trust and respect, and where open and honest conversations are welcomed. Such positive internal organisational leadership means that the Council is well placed to speak coherently – and persuasively – in a number of partnership arenas.

The islands have a significant and powerful voice (viewed from the mainland, the Isles of Scilly punches well above its weight) on all statutory partnerships, most of which are shared across the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly footprint. This includes the Local Enterprise Partnership, Joint Health and Wellbeing Board, Local Nature Partnership, Safeguarding Adults Board, Safeguarding Children’s Partnership, One Vision (joint Children’s Trust Board) and the Integrated Care Board (ICB). The council has been particularly influential in the establishment of the ICB with support for the appointment of the chairman, chief executive and non-executive directors.

The chairman is also the standing vice chair of the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Leadership Board, chaired by the leader of Cornwall Council and comprising MPs, Local enterprise partnership, Local Nature Partnership, Police and Crime Commissioner and the Chairman of the Integrated Care Board.

However, the partnership landscape is complex, and the role and function of each body, primarily below the statutory partnership level, is not always clearly understood. The new Governance Committee has ‘To keep under review the decision-making arrangements in place for relevant partnership bodies where the Council are represented’ within its Terms of Reference. As this committee develops, there is an opportunity for members to review the role and function of partnerships, the extent to which they are truly ‘partnerships’ as opposed to networks etc and establish clarity around roles and responsibilities, and crucially, where accountability lies. In doing so, care should be taken to ensure that the role of the Governance Committee remains separate and distinct from the Audit and Scrutiny Committee roles.

The delivery of positive outcomes for the Isles of Scilly will require partnership working to maximise opportunities to share resources, knowledge and capacity. Whilst we heard that the corporate plan is intended to reflect activities that can be achieved directly by the council, working collaboratively through a series of clearly defined partnerships will increase the chances of successfully delivering an ambitious set of priorities, alongside maintaining service delivery. We are suggesting that developing a partnership outcomes plan to provide a focus against which all partners can align their own plans will help to focus this collaborative effort. The recently rejuvenated Island Futures Board is ideally placed to co-ordinate partnership activity, and has the added benefit of providing a seat at the table for partners, so that aims, objectives and importantly, efforts, are truly shared. We found that partners are sometimes operating in the relationship space rather than in true partnership mode and formalising arrangements will help make best use of available resources.

As part of exciting plans for the new Museum and Cultural Centre, the existing building, which was co-located with the Town Hall, has been closed. The building was not fit for purpose and is being replaced by a much improved facility. However, the loss of the town hall has had an impact on a sense of ‘belonging’ for some staff – and means that there is no focus point for the community. As part of the stronger corporate narrative and comms and engagement piece which we are suggesting throughout this report, communicating the plans the Council has for the future will help address any uncertainty and reassure both your staff and your communities that you have a plan. Even when it feels like there is nothing new to say, keeping up a dialogue during a time of change is vital.

The council is doing many great things, including but by no means limited to key infrastructure projects. The positive contribution the Council is making to life on the islands needs to be communicated more effectively as part of a planned and co-ordinated approach to communications and engagement. The council has a great story to tell, not only about plans for the future, but its achievements to date. There is a need to develop a strong corporate narrative clearly setting out the vision of the council and progress on key projects and activities – even when this is limited. Given the capacity issues of the council – and the fact that staff and members are the council’s greatest asset – encouraging a more inclusive approach, where staff and members are equipped and confident to contribute to the council’s narrative would be helpful.

In the absence of a more proactive approach to comms and engagement from the council, communities are using social media to fill a vacuum that the council isn’t sufficiently filling, and we heard it is too absent from the conversation. Staff and members are wary of commenting for fear of ‘saying the wrong thing’ and so say nothing, and residents are filling this void meaning the council is missing opportunities to own this narrative and share its perspective – and that of its partners – in a more dynamic and responsive way. Developing ways of ensuring all staff and members feel confident and able to play an active role in delivering comms, creating a ‘whole council’ approach is easily achievable and will deliver significant impact.

The peer team found that staff at CIOS are enthusiastic about their individual and team contributions and are passionate about the work they do and the difference they make – this is perhaps all the more tangible given the island context, but is nonetheless something the council should be proud of. We often refer to local government staff as having a ‘can do ‘ attitude and nowhere is this more evident than in CIOS where staff regularly multi-task, and given their visibility in such a small community, are rarely off duty ( this can present its own challenges in terms of achieving a balance between personal and private lives, especially for senior officers). Staff are positive ambassadors for the council and the wider place.

We were told of some speculation amongst staff (and residents) around future working arrangements, particularly the question as to whether the council intends to move away from a primarily island based presence and become more mainland focused. As we explore in the ‘Capacity’ section of this report, the council is facing the same recruitment and retention issues as the rest of the sector but exacerbated by the geographical context and so we fully appreciate that all options must be considered to ensure the sustainability of the council. Staff and members accept and understand this too and would welcome an opportunity for a mature and honest discussion around future arrangements. We heard senior officers and members unequivocally commit to maintaining a strong, visible and independent presence on the islands – making sure this message is effectively and consistently communicated to staff and residents will be an important next step.

4.3 Governance and culture

Member/officer and member/member relations within the council are good. By virtue of all members sitting as Independents we found that members are motivated by a strong sense of place and community. It is worthy of note the high regard both the chairman and chief executive are held in, by members, officers, partners and the community. Their visibility and evident integrity ensure they provide strong leadership of the council and have created a culture where respectful challenge is welcomed, and there is an evident sense of inclusive decision making.

The unique nature of being an island Council is again evident in the governance structures of the council. As a Sui Generis Council (The Common Council of the City of London, and the Council of the Isles of Scilly, are often described as ‘sui generis’ (unique) authorities. In functional Local government in England: structures 8 Commons Library Research Briefing, 7 October 2022 terms they are unitary authorities, despite their very small populations (they are included in the figures given in section 1.1 above). It is common for Acts of Parliament to mention specifically that they extend to each of these areas.), Governance arrangements have been put in place which include establishing Full Council as the main decision-making body and a strengthened Scrutiny function which both fulfils the statutory requirement for a Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee and also conducts ‘deep dives’ into service delivery across sectors. Following a 2016 Boundary Commission review, the number of elected members has been reduced from 24 to 16. The reduction in the number of members and the relatively streamlined governance arrangements allows for responsive and collective decision making that is positively regarded.

Lead members are committed, engaged and hard-working, often having wide remits. Although Lead Members do not have delegated decision making powers, they are well-informed in their areas of responsibility and are positive ambassadors for their service areas both within the council and the wider community. Lead members as a cohort, would welcome more structured engagement with the council leaders and CEO to further enhance a ‘top team’ approach and build on the already positive working relationships between members and officers. Many Lead Members have taken advantage of development opportunities e.g., LGA Leadership Academy and make a very positive contribution to the council.

However, not all councillors are fully engaged, nor do they share the workload evenly, and this can mean that some communities – particularly off-islands are not always effectively represented. Similarly needing to rely on a core group of members means that lead members are sitting on the Scrutiny Committee – which is in line with the council’s governance arrangements, but does not always allow for effective challenge. All members have the opportunity to influence should they choose to engage and working with communities to encourage people with the time and energy to make the most of the role of an elected member of the CIOS ahead of the next elections, for example, through the ‘Be a Councillor’ programme, could prove beneficial.

Scrutiny in the council has significantly improved under the guidance of the chief executive, chairman and chair of that committee, with members now better able to shape the agenda. Work is ongoing to develop a stronger focus on how items for Scrutiny are selected– but needs to be maintained. Scrutiny is currently missing some dedicated resource due to staffing vacancies, and we would encourage the council to ensure that this post is retained to support the continuing development of the function – particularly in relation to supporting members with monitoring the impact of decisions and outcomes.

Public participation in the democratic process could be improved, through engagement directly in meetings or through targeted scrutiny reviews, harnessing progress made in virtual engagement made during the pandemic could be part of the solution. The planned reinvigoration of the 6 monthly public meetings will be welcomed by residents, and will form an important element of an improved corporate approach to comms and engagement – providing tangible opportunities for meaningful two-way engagement.

In the same vein, we are recommending that the council considers enabling the public to speak at council meetings with a view to improve engagement and transparency.

The introduction of the new Governance Committee is broadly positive, but some confusion exists over its role and purpose, especially amongst members and particularly in relation to project and programme governance. Some early clarity on this will help ensure this new committee adds maximum value to the council from the outset and fulfils its intended function - to formalise arrangements that underpin development of policy and procedure.

As already stated, some staff are concerned about the direction of travel for the island being set ‘off island’ with a perception that there are plans for more staff and services to be delivered from the mainland – as part of efforts to address this, the leadership of the council will need to ensure that as part of conversations around operating models, staff are clear on reasons for change. Members and staff accept the need for some roles to be ‘off island’ but there are some concerns around maintaining a separate identity – accelerating work to map roles that council leaders are committed to retaining as island based will help allay these fears as will a clear statement of political intent to remain a standalone entity.

4.4 Financial planning and management

The steady journey of improvement the council has made from a previous s24 notice to now being able to set a balanced budget with sound financial management arrangements with good levels of member engagement and oversight should in no way be underestimated. Although not immune from the financial pressures facing the sector either now or in the future, the fact that the council is better placed than most should be commended.

As part of your planned approach to ensure sustainable service delivery, s151 arrangements with Cornwall Council provide the council with access to professional advice which is particularly important given the extent and compacity of your capital programme and projects.

The council’s stable financial position means they are relatively well placed to deal with challenges such inflation and pay pressures, but the future is so uncertain that the council must remain vigilant and continue to balance the need to deliver core services against significant capital projects.

Given the size of the council’s revenue budget, the council is also particularly vulnerable to unexpected events such as a complex SEN case. These risks are mitigated to some extent through effective senior officer relationships with government departments and ongoing dialogue around the genuinely unique circumstances within which the council is operating.

We found that members are well sighted on the current financial picture through the provision of robust professional advice, allowing them to provide effective political leadership alongside the chief executive and the operational leadership team.

The fact that the council holds monthly council meetings, which enable collective member decision making ensure key decisions are taken at an appropriate pace with good levels of member engagement.

The council is aware that the most significant risks it faces are associated with ambitious and high profile capital projects (e.g.Cultural Centre and Museum and vessels). There are concerns around cumulative risk – but the s151 is ensuring this is appropriately considered and is confident members are sighted. The s151 is providing advice and advocacy in discussions with government with a view to mitigating this risk. Introducing more rigour around project/programme management and governance will help manage these risks and provide a framework for monitoring and review. An approach that considers the cumulative risk of projects is positive.

Statutory officers are providing timely and effective advice to members around these levels of risk, and have proactively sought to mitigate Council exposure e.g., DfT support for next phase of bid preparation for LUF funded projects. Members are well supported and informed on these matters.

The council makes well-articulated arguments for a single grant for the island in recognition of a truly unique context – and the peer team have seen why this would be advantageous. Continuing to make this case through as many channels as possible will hopefully amplify the message, as will your engagement in the newly formed Islands Forum.

The council’s internal auditor made positive comments which corroborate the positive progress the council is making and an opinion that the council is better placed than many to face future challenges. In particular, the council’s willingness to engage appropriate external resource to manage big projects provides assurance.

Moving forward, opportunities exist to revisit service delivery arrangements with partners and stakeholders to ensure value for money for CIOS and its residents to ensure that providers are being held to account for the services they are providing – and the costs they are accruing.

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​4.5 Capacity for improvement

Despite the challenges presented by the island context outlined in this report, service delivery is strong with some significant improvements across the piece most notably waste management, SEND, the water undertaking, (In April 2020, the monitoring and management of all private water supplies was transferred under new regulations to the Council of the Isles of Scilly. This means that trained and authorised officers from the cios environmental health team will manage the quality of private water supplies across the islands, ensuring the water is safe, enabling the council and supply users to meet their legal responsibilities. The regulations require officers to risk assess and sample private water supplies when legally required or when requested. Risk assessments are initially undertaken to identify any vulnerability in the supply before any further action is taken. Officers are also able to advise on how best to protect a water supply from contamination. All water samples taken will be analysed by a UKAS accredited laboratory which works to internationally agreed standards. Any supplies found to fail the water quality standards will need remedial intervention to ensure the water is safe to consume.) the airport, fire and rescue service and financial management.

There is significant focus on supporting the development of the leadership team and wider workforce including a recent programme of top team development sessions, a stronger focus on health and wellbeing initiatives (including better use of occupational health), coaching and mentoring and restorative practice (for both the strategic director level and extended leadership team) to complement existing council employment relations policies (such as disciplinary, grievance).

Without doubt, members and officers at CIOS are driven by a desire to deliver the best possible services to the communities it serves – and are innovative in using the skills of staff for maximum impact – and the same can be said for members, with many leaders and managers working across service areas that require both a depth and breadth of legislative expertise which is unlike service delivery in most other councils but also offers an opportunity to innovate and work across service areas.

‘A mile wide and an inch deep’ is a well-used phrase, recognising the breadth of services the council provides alongside limited organisational capacity and resilience. Senior managers are well regarded and seen as largely supportive of staff, but there are challenges to recruitment and retention that given the island context, go beyond those experienced in the sector as a whole.

The council recognises that there are potential single points of failure and the need to plan for business continuity. Continuing the ‘grow your own approach’ and ensuring a focus on succession planning (for officers and members) will be important to minimise the risks these challenges pose as far as possible.

The work to produce a Workforce Strategy which seeks to map future workforce risks and opportunities is an important next step for the council. As already stated, staff showed flexibility and adaptability in the response to the pandemic and a subsequent audit of skills and experience could be helpful as part of developing a Workforce Strategy.

The council has addressed capacity issues pragmatically on a case by case basis, such as supporting flexible working request for staff wishing to reside on the mainland, and this has allowed the council to continue to provide effective services, indeed there have been some notable service improvements in areas such as SEND, waste, water handling, airport management and fire and rescue. However, this piecemeal approach has led to a perception that the long term plan could be to ‘outsource to Cornwall’. We heard senior officers and members clearly state this is not an intention, and so suggest an open and on-going dialogue with staff around options and aspirations. The work currently being undertaken to draft a Workforce Plan to formalise existing processes (such as succession planning within teams) and also to identify future workforce needs and gaps, is a timely opportunity to engage all staff in conversations around future plans.

Given the council’s limited capacity, garnering the support of local groups to help deliver corporate objectives will be essential and will be made easier through a review, and subsequent, streamlining of partnership working. As referenced previously, the creation of a partnership outcome plan will be a route to harnessing and formalising a collaborative partnership approach.

Again, effective comms and engagement has an important role to play both internally and externally to ensure key messages are articulated clearly and issued in a timely manner – for example, a more dynamic, whole organisation approach to issuing press releases could be easily achieved through processes already set out in the Communications Handbook being more consistently deployed.

Rationalisation of brands will also help develop a more cohesive corporate narrative – and more clearly indicate the reach and impact of the council, currently the council is delivering a number of different – and successful – programme of work under various guises, and so the value of the Council of the Isles of Scilly brand can become diluted.

As referred to earlier in this report, elected members are a vital resource and to ensure all parts of your community are represented well – and attracting members with a diverse range of skills and experiences, through programmes such as ‘Be a Councillor’ will be key to the future success of the council.

A way of building capacity for elected members will be to declutter the governance of the partnership landscape (through a review of partnerships and their oversight) this will help address member workload and promote a fairer of work.

The council is undertaking a number of complex key capital projects, which require specialist skills. It is reassuring to note there are plans underway to bring forward a more focused approach to project and programme managements. A more rigorous framework will help marshal resources on a pan-organisational basis and ensure that governance is effective and appropriate. We would recommend this work is expedited.

It is positive to see the ambition of the council. Considering in more detail the pragmatic phasing and resourcing of delivery of the corporate plan will help to manage the capacity of the organisation effectively and increase the likelihood of success.

4.6 Island Capacity

The Peer team saw and heard the reality delivering services in an islands context, they are truly unique, and the council has been successful in embracing the opportunities the context offers whilst addressing the challenges. council officers have been proactive in developing positive relationships with civil servants and funding bodies to get financial recognition of these challenges. For example, the relationship with the Department for Education regarding funding for SEND and the Arts England Island weighting that has been developed. There is strong merit in pursuing the Islands ‘Deal’ that has already been discussed with government.

The council has attended the first meeting of the UK Islands Forum. There are undoubtedly similarities in the challenges that are faced by the Isles of Scilly and the ability to make comparisons to the support that islands get in the devolved nations could be very useful. There is a great opportunity to develop tactics for maximising this opportunity and forming positive links with other island councils – this could be your big chance!

Multi agency forum partnership working on the islands is a real positive showing flexibility and collaborative working across the organisation. There is an opportunity to build on these positive working relationships to apply system thinking – to work beyond the silos of individual services and organisations in a more holistic way. For example, the Health and Care Hub offers the opportunity to pool staff resources and use skills effectively across all the services co-located to reduce points of failure and build resilience. There are already good examples of this happening in the People Portfolio such as early intervention work with families, maximising opportunities for co-locating a care facility with the hospital and potentially looking to make more efficient and effective use of paramedic staff when they are on call.

5. Next steps

Decorative graphic featuring arrows

 

It is recognised that 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 CPC process includes a six-month check-in meeting. This will be a short, facilitated session which creates space for the council’s senior leadership to update peers on its progress against the action plan and discuss next steps. 

In the meantime, Paul Clarke, Principal Adviser for South West, is the main contact between your authority and the Local Government Association. Paul is available to discuss any further support the Council requires. paul.clarke@local.gov.uk