Corporate Peer Challenge: Cheshire West and Chester Council

Feedback report: 5, 6, 7 and 8 July 2022

1. Executive Summary

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This is an impressive and ambitious Council with an established track record of providing high quality services, strong financial management and robust governance.

The political and officer leadership of the Council is highly regarded both internally and externally. The Council benefits from healthy, pragmatic cross-party working and well operating member-officer roles and relationships. These characteristics play a key role in enabling the Council to maintain and develop high levels of performance. They also create a platform from which the Council can tackle the additional challenges and pressures faced by councils outside of what might be described as the typical ‘day job’.

Over the last three-year-period, the need for councils nationwide to step forward and provide local leadership against new challenges has been a significant, consistent feature. The Council is highly regarded by partners for the way in which it has done this. Examples of which include leading the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as the way in which the Council co-ordinated the local response to the Ukraine resettlement programme.

The Council has stepped forward to lead the borough in many other ways too, where it aligns with the key priorities. For example, a unanimous, cross-party political message was sent out from the Council to declare a climate emergency in May 2019. The response to this has been impressive with the Council confidently stepping forward, working with others to start to see this realised across the borough. This is one of the areas of practice, where many others in the sector could learn from the approach taken here.

The Council has taken a leading local role in health and social care integration with the Deputy Chief Executive becoming the designated place lead for health and social care across the local Integrated Care Partnership footprint and the Leader playing an important leadership role at the Cheshire and Merseyside level. This next period of change represents a significant opportunity to reduce health inequalities locally, through a more integrated, efficient and effective approach to health and social care - based on a system which works closer than ever here, with partners and the wider community.

Realising all of the opportunities presented from this change is without doubt a major challenge, not least due to the scale of change to manage which includes existing financial deficits in health providers locally, as well as the impact of rising demand, complexity of need, inflation and cost of living pressures.

The Council will also need to deal with its own, emerging financial pressures - a picture that is continuing to develop further. Whilst the Council has been successful in dealing with its financial challenges over many years to date, the challenge at this time is different and will require different solutions, not least around demand management. Dealing with this new challenge will require dynamic models which help to understand in real time the extent of this challenge as it emerges further. This financial challenge will also require timely, collective and difficult decisions.

While the Council and health and social care system is reliant upon further clarity and guidance being provided to it, there is a need to ensure a more detailed, phased delivery plan for health and social care integration clearly marking out the steps required and the capacity needed to make the opportunities of integration a reality – including the opportunities for ‘quick wins’. Doing so can help the Council and all partners prepare for the wider requirements and challenges that the system may need to deal with on this journey and help ensure the right level of capacity, capability and resilience is in place to see this through. It can also help to ensure, wider plans and strategies developed across the place are built upon a well-informed view as to the changing health and social care needs, pressures and opportunities over this period. Whilst the short and medium term of this plan are likely to be dominated by the need to bring closer integration in terms of ways of working, resource, leadership, spend and assets (for example), the plan should also factor in space to shape current ways of working across the system and to build the foundations for future ways of working through the local care communities.

The Council is particularly keen to grow further in its approach to working with communities. A clear political message from the leadership of the Council can be seen in this regard and has been responded to with a number of examples of steps taken to do this – not least in tackling the Poverty Emergency and Climate Emergency.

There is a significant level of ambition for working differently in this way, moving more and more from informing, to engaging and involving. This will mean working closer than ever with communities and community groups from the earliest design stages. The Council is in a position to accelerate its approach further as a means to meeting the wider ambitions for the borough. Doing so will require the Council to be clear about what it means by “community engagement” and work on making this a collectively held instinctive mindset.

Achieving this is not easy and will require a cross-cutting, multi-faceted approach. Enabling this for example has implications for the way in which the Council develops members, officers and the corporate culture/identity towards seeking to work in this way, wherever possible. It has implications for communications and community development, as well as governance – for example. It also means taking further steps to ensure that there is a consistently good customer experience and ‘no wrong door’ when engaging with service customers and that the experience of doing this – not least for elected members – embodies the type of organisation that wants to work closely with its communities. This means being consistently 'brilliant at the basics' of outward facing service delivery as well as the journey and experience had by members, residents and 'customers' when dealing with those services (whether that be in planning, transport, housing or wherever). Bringing further member oversight of this agenda, supported by robust performance information can assist in this regard.

All of the above can be made possible by building upon what has already been achieved in Cheshire West and Chester. Doing so is key to truly enabling communities, partners and community groups in playing their part to thrive.

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2. Key recommendations

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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:

Recommendation one:

Further develop the type of live, dynamic modelling which will help the Council to understand and keep abreast of the changing financial pressures currently being faced, linked to rising inflation, cost of living and increasing demand. Use this to inform timely decision making and enable ongoing responses that address the financial pressures this is creating in sustainable ways.

Recommendation two:

Revisit the revenue and capital budget plans in light of these new financial pressures over the immediate and medium term, making change as necessary, based on the priorities for the borough.

Recommendation three:

Further develop the detailed plan for health and social care integration, taking into account the pressures around the system as well as the needs and objectives required in stages across the short, medium and longer term.

Recommendation four:

In line with the recommendation from the Future of Adult Social Care Commission, develop and agree a definition of co-design and a strategic approach to co-production with the key local stakeholders. This is a recommendation which should be applied to the Council’s wider activities and helps shape how the Council as a corporate body works with others in future as picked up in the below recommendation. Use this time to have honest conversations about opportunities and obstacles to working in this way using potential scenarios.

Recommendation five:

With this definition, develop a multi-faceted approach to making engagement, co-design and co-production a collectively owned part of the cultural mindset of the Council. This may include - but will evolve further based on the above discussions:

  • A renewed programme of organisational development.
  • Supporting members and officers with the skills and a toolkit of different approaches to working in this way.
  • A methodology to assess resource impact and delivery timescales to inform operational planning and prioritisation.
  • An approach to communications which consistently connects together and spotlights this way of working in action as well as the results from it and the future opportunities.
  • The potential to differentiate the approach to governance, where needed, to support this way of working.
  • Making the Council’s wish for a ‘no wrong door’ experience for customers and residents more of a reality and making greater progress around being consistently ‘brilliant at the basics’. As well as access to services, this includes continuous improvement of the outward facing services provided, the customer experience and journey. Doing so could be supported by further member oversight and the use of robust performance information. 

Recommendation six:

Refresh the approach to member case management and reporting of service issues which may involve putting in place new case management and reporting systems underpinned by new processes which support timely updates on queries.

Recommendation seven:

Look for further opportunities to utilise the partnerships that exist locally to make progress against the wider priorities for the borough. Looking at the next set of challenges creatively as ‘How could this be delivered?’ rather than ‘How can we deliver?’.

Recommendation eight:

Given some of the really strong practice that exists here, look to step forward and share your corporate learning and experiences with others across the sector.

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3.Summary of the peer challenge approach

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The peer team

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

  • Angie Ridgwell (Chief Executive and Director of Resources – Lancashire County Council)
  • Cllr Shaun Davies (Leader – Telford and Wrekin Council
  • Cllr David Renard (Leader – Swindon Borough Council)
  • Jennie Stephens (LGA  Associate)
  • Paul McKevitt (Deputy Chief Executive – Wigan Council)
  • Piali Das Gupta (Strategy Director: London’s Future – London Councils)
  • Shadow – Rebecca Ireland (Senior Regional Adviser – LGA)
  • Peer Challenge Manager – Dan Archer (Senior Regional Adviser - LGA).

Scope and focus

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.

  1. Local priorities and outcomes - Are the council’s priorities clear and informed by the local context? Is the council delivering on its priorities? 
  2. Organisational and place leadership - Does the council show good local leadership? Are there good relationships with partners and 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:

  • Community capacity building, engagement and co-design - including the ambitions of the Council in this area, the approach taken to date and the capacity to deliver this on an ongoing, consistent basis.
  • Health and social care integration and health inequalities – as the Council is adjusting to new ways of working, feedback was sought on the approach taken to date in this new landscape as well as the plans for the future.

The peer challenge process

Peer challenges are improvement focused – they are not ‘inspection’ and the process is not designed to provide an in-depth or technical assessment. 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. The team then spent four days at Cheshire West and Chester, during which they:

  • Gathered information and views from more than 50 meetings, in addition to further research and reading.
  • Spoke to more than 120 people including members, officers and external stakeholders.

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

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4. Feedback

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Local priorities and outcomes

In February 2020, the Council gave universal cross-party support to the new vision and Council Plan – ‘Play Your Part To Thrive’. This new Council Plan outlines seven key priorities for the Council which include tackling the climate emergency, the poverty emergency, the economy, children and young people, adults, neighbourhoods and an efficient and empowering Council.

The priorities of the Council are understood by members and officers and the response to this political prioritisation is clearly evident. A great example of this is through how the Council continues to respond to the Climate Emergency.

The Council unanimously declared a Climate Emergency in May 2019 – with cross-party recognition that the climate emergency is not a party political issue but a crisis that requires working together to help resolve. A target for the Council to reach ‘net zero’ was set for 2030, with a target for the borough of 2045. Whilst it is recognised that the sheer cost of achieving this via the quickest possible means is not available to the Council, the Council has still invested significantly in this priority. This has included £1.6m in revenue spending alongside £12.7m in capital spending within its four year budget plan. Continuing to support the response to the climate emergency will have long term implications for capital and revenue budgeting. However, given the scale of social and economic change required, the Council has committed to a strong place leadership role working alongside others.

The approach taken thus far to reducing the Carbon footprint of the area is essentially locally specific. Being home to one of Europe’s largest oil refineries, with Ellesmere Port at peak periods being able to consume as much as 5% of the UK’s energy, this challenge is massive. To lead the response, the Council has successfully co-produced a Climate Emergency Response Plan with members, partners, external experts and communities. Examples of the successes seen on-the back-of this plan have included, but are by no means limited to:

  • Supporting the development of HyNet, which secured Cheshire West and Chester as the base of one of the Government's low carbon industrial clusters or 'superplaces'. Large scale low Carbon Hydrogen production will begin here in 2025, subject to planning and consultation – which will then reduce CO2 emissions by 10 million tons per year by 2030.
  • The above will be used to create a new circular economy around Hydrogen production locally which aims to see renewables powering Hydrogen production, as well as wider industry and local homes. There is significant potential from this as more and more business will be encouraged to feed from this low Carbon network.

The above is only a small sample of the results seen from the steps taken here.  There is learning from this approach that many others in the sector could benefit from in looking to address their local climate emergency declarations. The team encourages the Council as part of its role in supporting the wider sector to seek opportunities to share this experience.

The Council is also proactively seeking to address its own 2030 target. The organisations Carbon footprint has reduced from 26,779 tons of CO2 per year (2019/20) to 17,196 tons (2020/21). Continuing to make progress against this ahead of 2030 will require this to become more mainstreamed across all areas of the Council with each individual service area being able to identify within their service priorities the ways in which they are reducing their Carbon footprint. This is a thread that can then continue into the responsibilities of individual staff members and be reflected in annual service planning and staff reviews.

Throughout the course of this peer challenge, the team were able to speak to a cross-section of staff who were excited by the ambition of the Council and proud of the track record of delivery. Beyond the seven priorities in the Council Plan, staff often expressed a view that focussing on fewer priorities/objectives could be a useful step for ensuring they are fully embedded and more sustainably delivered.

When looking at the priorities and performing this task, the team would also encourage the Council to look further into the roles that others, outside the Council but with a similar mutual interest can take. This can include the WeCan network of anchor institutions, wider partners, businesses and communities which has been put in place to take a collaborative approach to retaining and enhancing community wealth and high quality, local employment. It can also include the roles that they can take directly, or in supporting the activity of others – whether that is in connecting, amplifying, influencing, mutually agreed aims to the benefit of the borough.

Essentially when considering the longer list of priorities and objectives, rather than focussing on ‘How can we deliver this?’ think more about ‘How can this be delivered?’ creating the mindset to draw on the wider range of resources and assets available across the borough. Opportunities to do this through the business planning process are also included within the below ‘Capacity to improve’ section.

The Council has a track record for considering equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) within decision making and an equality and diversity team supports the Council with this agenda. The Council has previously engaged with the Equality Framework for Local Government, has achieved the Navajo Merseyside and Cheshire LGBT+ Chartermark and has been reaccredited as a Disability Confident Leader. The Council’s gender pay gap compares favourably with the wider sector. The EDI team observed that the priority given to promoting equality and inclusion by the Chief Executive has been pivotal.

Organisational and place leadership

The Council operates the Cabinet model from a current position of ‘no overall political control’. At the time of the peer challenge, the Labour group held 33 seats, the Conservative group held 29 seats, with 2 Liberal Democrats, 1 Green Party Councillor and 5 Independents (3 of which formed a group). The Council has a minority Labour administration with a Labour Cabinet and a Leader who has been in post since the last set of ‘four yearly’ elections in May 2019. The next set of local elections are due to take place in May 2023, when all council seats will once-again be up for election.

The Leader of the Council is highly praised by many the team spoke with. There is recognition for the way in which the Leader works with others inside and outside of the Council and the borough. An example of which is the leading role taken by the Leader to support the integration of health and social care locally, as well as the role she has taken in representing the interests of the borough sub-regionally and nationally.

Members work together particularly well cross-party despite the position of no overall political control, working in the best interests of the borough and Council. Political challenge clearly must be a feature of all well-functioning democracies and the Council can point to those examples. The Council can also give various examples where members have been able to provide consistent support including the new Council Plan and the Climate Change declaration. These healthy member-member cross-party working relationships have been built by having open working relationships, respect and consistent sharing of information.

The relationships between members and officers are also seen as strong here by both members and officers alike. Roles are well established and consistently worked to. Within the officer cohort, the CEX leads with an open, honest and supportive culture, which is also seen across the managerial top team. Senior management are visible and are seen as taking a ‘one team’ approach which is highly valued by staff.

The strengths identified above have been and will continue to be essential foundations for high performance. They give the Council the ability, when needed, to lead the borough through new challenges and opportunities with confidence. The importance of this openness and the mature working relationships cannot be understated. The borough would ultimately be weaker without them.

The way in which the Council led the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Ukraine resettlement programme is recognised by members, officers and partners. The response required people to work in unforeseeable new ways, taking on challenges that have not been encountered before at pace. During this period the Council was able to lead a local response that:

  • Supported 13,800 residents who were required to shield.
  • Provided over 32,000 grant payments to local businesses
  • Worked with partners to roll-out a vaccination programme which has led to a higher vaccination rate than the national average (for two doses).
  • Led a localised rollout of Test and Trace as one of the eleven national Beacon Councils across England.

The above gives just a handful of examples, of which there are many, many more. All of which was aided by partner relationships which have been – and are increasingly since COVID-19 – positive, with an openness to working together more.

In terms of partnership working, the Council is regarded as a leader, influencer and trusted partner locally, in the sub-region and wider region. Our challenge to the Council would be to build on the partnerships and partner relations that exist, to see where there are further opportunities that can benefit what the Council is hoping to achieve for the borough. This includes looking further at the opportunities beyond the traditional roles perceived of some partners and into the wider impact they can have on the outcomes being sought for the borough. Examples of which might include further delivery and impact from partners around the wider regeneration agenda as well as their contributions towards increasing the number of ‘residents who live longer, healthier, happier lives’.

Governance and culture

The Council has a strong approach to governance. An approach which is both well managed and supports wider cross-party engagement. Members report feeling well briefed and engaged around Council decision making and service performance.

In particular throughout this peer challenge, members and officers of the Council were able to reflect positively on the role played by Overview and Scrutiny and the improvements seen in recent years. Both members and officers identify how scrutiny is adding real value to local decision making both in terms of the work on ‘pre-scrutiny’ and support for policy design, as well as the challenge provided around service performance. In any council, improvements can always be made. One example here might be, given how the Council more widely is moving towards increased community engagement and co-design, how the Council engages communities and community groups in scrutiny.

The role of Overview and Scrutiny is valued by the Cabinet. Chairs of scrutiny report feeling supported in their roles, with productive relationships and are well briefed. In particular, as the Council is entering into a new era of health and social care integration, the Chair of Health Scrutiny as well as the other members of this committee are receiving regular briefings and support around the changes to the healthy system, to support their work.

A scrutiny board covering the Cheshire and Merseyside Integrated Care System footprint is being established which will operate alongside the existing health scrutiny boards in each Council. It is important to ensure that the board works effectively in tandem with the scrutiny that happens at a borough level and does not lead to unnecessary duplication or gaps emerging. Across the scrutiny functions it is essential that the health and care needs of the communities in the borough are suitably reflected, wherever is most appropriate.

Officers of the Council report feeling relatively empowered and engaged. In particular, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have seen a conscious effort to engage more with them, coming from senior leadership. Relationships with the Trade Unions are also seen as strong and the Trade Unions feel well engaged. These relationships will always be significant, so it is important to continue working in this way.

The Council’s approach to governance overall is strong. Later in this report, specific feedback is given about how the Council can make further progress in developing a closer working relationship with the community through engagement and co-design. How a more differentiated approach to governance can help aid this shift is an important point to consider.

Cross-party, members also flagged with the peer team that the approach to ward case management is less developed, often leaving members chasing queries they have raised. A new system and process for case management and reporting may therefore be required, which can give members more confidence in how issues and queries raised are being dealt with, supporting the communities’ experience of engaging with the Council.

Financial planning and management

The Council has developed a reputation for strong financial management over a number of years and is something that was highlighted positively in the Council’s last Corporate Peer Challenge in 2017.

In the period since April 2009, the Council has achieved gross savings of £241m, has re-invested £157m into priority services and has generated net savings to the tax payer of c£84m. The Council’s current budget plan has an estimated budget gap of £1.3m over the next two years, which was based on all budget plans being delivered and predicated on a reduction in demand.

However, councils are now also facing a perfect storm of increasing demand for council services and a significant sharpening in the level of complexity presented within that increased demand (which is then exacerbated by placement and agency costs). This comes at a time when the cost of providing services is also escalating dramatically due to a sharp rise in inflation, a cost-of-living crisis, as well as the potential for an increased pay award. The extent of these challenges and the effect they have when coming together could not have been predicted when councils agreed their budgets in March. Cheshire West and Chester is no different to other councils in this regard.

This presents significant additional financial burdens ‘in-year’ for both the revenue and capital programme. A latest ‘live’ estimate of this impact for the current financial year equates to a £22m pressure against £17m provided for this in the budget plan, although those projections are very much dependent on the live, wider economic forces at play.

This is a new budget challenge, very much different to and compounded by the budget challenge the Council has successfully managed since 2009. It will require different solutions.

The Council has a strong and capable finance team who are highly regarded by members and officers and have already commenced work to try to understand the scale of the challenge and ways in which to deal with it. The Council’s approach to risk management and internal audit have also been highlighted during this peer challenge as a strength. All of the above will be a great aid to the Council in dealing with the budget challenge ahead.

The scale and nature of this budget challenge will require the Council to now revisit its priorities, revenue and capital budget. It will require dynamic modelling to understand the financial scenarios linked to this challenge as they develop further to support the most timely and well informed decision making possible in the circumstances. The strength of relationships that exist at the Council will be important as these financial challenges will require making some difficult decisions in a timely way.

The approach to demand management plays an unavoidably crucial role and requires considered attention and ownership from officers and members, given the growth in amount and complexity of demand seen in recent months. However the first quarter of the financial year has seen demand in social care increase. There may be opportunities to look at the resource base of the Council and opportunities to utilise further fluidity between funding streams to provide some support with this, albeit the impact will be wide ranging and highly significant. This is set within the context of a wider health and social care system locally that also has financial challenges amongst providers, which may present further financial risks. Further detail around this is provided within the below section.

The amount that the Council was required to spend on Adult Social Care increased by 41% between 2015/16 and 2020/21. Increased demand in both adult and children’s services have also been seen in particular, in recent months too. Compared to the Council’s CIPFA nearest neighbours, data from 2020/21 shows that the Council spends a similar amount per person (adult) on Adult Social Care, whilst spending more than CIPFA neighbours on children’s services. Clearly in both cases, making robust and timely decisions around the demand for services is going to be crucially important.

Capacity for improvement

The Council provides many good quality services. This includes children’s services where the Council is graded ‘Good’ by OFSTED and is also a ‘Partner in Practice’, using business intelligence proactively to support these levels of performance. Latest published data on LGinform shows that education, employment and training outcomes for 16-17 year olds are also more typically positive here than in similar council areas. Libraries are well used, the level of physical activity amongst the adult population is higher and levels of adult obesity are lower than is found elsewhere within the most similar council cohort. The percentage of the principal road network that requires maintenance is around 1% (2020/21) compared to an average of 4% amongst the CIPFA nearest neighbour group. This figure is 4% for the non-principal road network compared to 5% for those most similar areas.

Conversely, the Council has the longest waiting times for people who are claiming housing benefit that is found currently in the CIPFA nearest neighbour group and has a smaller proportion of the population who can access employment via public transport than is found in similar areas. Smoking is more common here amongst adults than is the case in the most similar areas to Cheshire West and Cheshire, whilst the conception rates for females aged both under 18 and under 16 are also high.

Performance management is well established at the Council. Regular performance discussions take place at Cabinet and Scrutiny, as well as with senior officers. An online, interactive performance dashboard gives easy public access to the latest performance position which can be easily navigated either by priority or service area and includes commentary about performance and planned remedial action as required.

Those officers from individual service areas that the team met with speak highly of the quality of support they receive from those in the ‘corporate core’ of the organisation. Staff from corporate services are seen to both take the lead on priority areas, whilst also being well connected to the activity and change programmes led by service areas. A close, supportive working relationship is clearly evident.

Periodically looking to refresh the relationship between corporate services and service areas is a healthy exercise to do and can help the Council in managing the needs and priorities of the organisation corporately at different stages, as well as the needs of those in individual service areas. Work has already commenced to develop a new ‘Datahive’ which has been put in place to help services gain direct access to more of their key data needs as they arise. This is an example of the corporate core investing in building up capability across the organisation and freeing up corporate services to support in other ways.

How the Council adapts future ways of working between the corporate core and individual service areas could also come through in the approach to business planning and service reporting where there may be opportunities to release any unnecessary bureaucracy for individual service areas. Equally is there an opportunity to use service planning as a way in which service areas can put forward more specific areas for support? These can include objectives that contribute to the delivery of the corporate priorities and embedding approaches such as ‘no wrong door’ or the move towards building more consistently close relationships with communities. As the Council looks to mainstream its climate commitment more widely across each individual service area there is also an opportunity to include in service planning how this is being approached and what it will require.

Mainstreaming the climate response into all areas of Council business may require the corporate core to adapt its approach for the next stage, potentially taking on more of an enabling and convening role. The demands of dealing with the climate emergency will need to remain a consideration of future revenue and capital budgets also, which can be further supported from this approach.

The Council is taking a refreshed approach to organisational development and a new head of service has been recently appointed. Organisational Development is a key enabling activity for the Council’s future direction. As this is developed further, ensuring it has the support and guidance required from across the Council will be important including the advice, advocacy and constructive challenge from different service areas.

In the Council’s position statement for this peer challenge was a sentence that highlighted how ‘…delivering key community services such as waste, highways, transport … and street cleaning are essential to the Council’s reputation…’ (sic). This is clearly the case and a number of members cross-party highlighted to the team how they have experienced challenges with interacting with a number of service areas when looking to progress case work. The Council is keen to improve the customer experience of Council services, which includes the experience members have when communicating with services.

Making the desire for a ‘no wrong door’ approach and a consistently good customer experience happen in a timely way is important given what the Council is seeking to achieve in terms of developing a consistently closer relationship with communities, which features later in this report.  The requirements for a new casework and reporting system for members is important and ensuring that member queries are suitably prioritised in terms of service responses will also be important for this.

The Council currently experiences some of the capacity challenges within its workforce that many other councils are also experiencing – not least, in children’s services, adult social care and planning. The challenges around recruitment and retention in these areas are complex and subject to wider market and labour forces as well as the Council's own financial constraints. Based on the priorities of the organisation, members may need to consider those gaps and agree with officers where mitigations and trade-offs may be required. Clearly this needs to be considered carefully and avoid a subsequent spiralling of market costs wherever possible.

Health and Social Care Integration

Partnership relations across health and social care are seen as a strength across the borough and is something that can be built upon and adapted as required, moving forward with health and social care integration.

The reforms in the Health and Care Act came into effect nationally in the week before the peer team were onsite in Cheshire West and Chester. These reforms come on-the-back-of efforts over many years to further integrate the health and social care offer locally. At a most local level, this has included establishing nine integrated care communities across the borough to bring together care services, the NHS, community organisations and elected members, to collectively identify joint priorities and plans for health and care improvement at a ‘hyperlocal level’. Integrated arrangements have also been put in place to promote faster discharge from hospital (via a Care Co-Ordination Hub), to limit hospital admissions (via a ‘REACT’ team) and the establishment of a new dedicated Complex Care team to enable a more informed review of people’s health and care needs.

The Health and Social Care Act creates opportunities to go further now with health and social care integration in order to reduce health inequalities across the borough and to further develop the approach to health and care, reducing the demand on acute health and care services locally.

This has led to the establishment of a new governance model for health and social care within the borough, which sits within the wider, newly established Cheshire and Merseyside Integrated Care System (ICS). This is one of the largest ICS footprints in the country. At a borough level, the Cheshire West Health and Care Partnership Committee (ICP) has been established as a ‘Committee in Common’ and is in place to integrate the joint planning and funding of health and social care at a borough level. The ICP is required to have a designated officer lead as ‘Place Director’ and the Council’s Deputy Chief Executive (who has responsibility for ‘people’ services at the Council) has been appointed to this role and will operate across both roles in this new structure, whilst remaining employed by the Council. A ‘Place Plan’ has been developed which takes the place of the Health and Wellbeing Strategy and the local Integrated Health and Care Plan. This document sets out the agreed joint outcomes framework locally and includes ‘what the local health and Wellbeing Board refer to as their three 'obsessions'.

In this period of such major change, the demands placed on the Deputy CEX / Place Lead are highly significant and support will be clearly needed, given the scale of the task. Support can be seen from the Leader, Cabinet Member and Chief Executive (amongst others) with this. Further capacity at the Council has also been added, working to the Deputy CEX, reflecting the demands of this.

Naturally, there is a lot to do to unravel what H&SC integration means in action, with less clarity available to the place, at this early stage. There is a lot of work to disaggregate the health budget which is running at a significant deficit, whilst holding the accountability for the contracts and services. The challenges around demand and inflation in the immediate term are also there, as well as existing health provider financial deficits.

“it’s key to contain the health and social care pressures whilst preserving the spirit of integration” is one quote given to the team, which the team are in complete agreement with. Wider, more detailed discussions will be required about what this means for the immediate term and what this is likely to mean in the medium and longer term. This also includes the steps that will need to be taken to have consistently, closer, local co-design with communities and community groups. In essence, dealing with the pressures and challenges in the system as they exist now whilst also building the type of integrated community led approach which will be key to realising the vision for health and care in the borough will be incredibly challenging. Building more of this detail into a phased delivery plan can help the Council and partners to prepare and resource with greater clarity for the demands of this and the requirements of the scenarios this can lead to. This will include the financial challenge, the capacity required and the additional demands on individual roles.

Developing this detail as much as possible can support the Council and partners locally in making a strong, consistent case around the specific nature and extent of the needs of the borough. This may then help in exploring what levers the ICS more widely may be able to support the borough with.

At these very early days in this new stage for health and social care integration and as this plan is being developed, making the time to speak with partners across the health and care system locally about preferred ways of working moving forward can be a useful, early step.

The Care Communities that have been established have real potential but there is clearly still lots of work to do in order to realise all of the benefits. They will naturally move at different paces – taking on different ‘hyper-local priorities’ and subsequently requiring different ways of working. The future sustainability and success of health and social care systems is reliant on all partners being able to contribute in the fullest way possible, with open, confident and mature relationships.  Continuing to support partner organisations, most notably those smaller organisations in the Voluntary, Community and Faith Sector, as well as parish and town councils will be an ongoing requirement. This will help in getting those partners ‘up-to-speed’ with the scale of change in health and social care integration, not least in terms of language, structures and culture. Taking the time to work through this with those partners is essential if the vision for fully vibrant Care Communities is to become a reality. The Care Communities will also benefit from stronger links with the Primary Care Networks also being developed.

The service users and carers the team spoke with during this peer challenge spoke very highly of the Council and their involvement. There are clearly many examples of strong practice, leadership and innovations in place locally, which the new system will be looking to build on further. Just a couple of examples include the Council taking steps to further develop a strength-based approach across Adult Social Care with a pilot for a new model of community support in Ellesmere Port. This will initially support 150 people a year to stay in their home, avoiding hospital or respite admission. The Council is also taking a new approach to embedding assistive technology into care practice – supporting at least 2,000 residents from hospital and care settings with a new offer of assistive technology. Social workers working here report feeling very supported and indicate a nurturing, supportive environment.

Community engagement, empowerment and co-design

In recent years, the political leadership of the Council have given a clear message, wanting to see the Council work closer than ever with the community and community groups. Engaging, empowering and involving them wherever possible. “There was a very clear message from the administration to work with communities differently” being how one member of staff reflected on this, which was echoed by many.

This message was brought front and centre when the Council unanimously agreed the new Council Plan in February 2020. The new Council Plan spelled out a position that the priorities for the borough could only ever be achieved if everyone locally was supported to play their part – ‘big challenges need big responses but the days of the Council knowing best are over’.

This political drive has been met with some good examples where the Council has changed its response to dealing with challenges by working with the community differently. A powerful example includes the way in which the Council built on the work of the Poverty Truth Commissions to establish the Poverty Truth Advisory Board, intended to mainstream a co-production approach to ‘inform and support all poverty work across the Council and with local partner agencies’. The Council established a network of ‘Community Inspirers’ who have been able to share their lived experience which has in-turn helped shape both the initial response to the Poverty Emergency – the Fairer Futures Strategy in March 2022, as well as subsequently other wider local policies relating to poverty.

Community Inspirers reported that the experience of working with the Commission and now the Advisory Board had significantly changed their perception of the Council, with a sense that they felt much more respected and that there was now accountability on both sides. There was also a palpable sense of collective ownership of the Fairer Futures Strategy. The commitment to openness and collaboration was similarly recognised by VCS partners. It was acknowledged by council officers, as well as inspirers and partners, that community engagement remains a work in progress. They indicated that residents, community groups and partners often still felt “informed” rather than meaningfully engaged. They also felt that the Council could do better in terms of closing the feedback loop by letting those who take the time to offer feedback know how that input has been taken into account in decisions.   

There are of course wider examples, including in regards to children’s services, health and social care services, climate and neighbourhood services. Across themes relevant to the priorities for the borough, the Council has increasingly used ‘Spacehive’ to promote different grant funded opportunities for local voluntary, community and faith sector organisations to bid into. The partner organisations the team spoke to recognised that “the will is there” to make this shift and the peer team recognise that there are already in place, many platforms to build from.

In order to make the type of shift the Council is seeking in this regard, the steps required are cross-cutting in nature and require an authentic corporate consistency that only comes from this becoming a mainstreamed central part of the corporate mindset and identity, rather than a series of distinct projects and programmes.

The administration has a clear view about this, as part of what it means to be a Co-operative Council which needs to now be brought further to life for officers. This includes more fully embedding into the culture of the organisation why this approach is important and how engagement is not an end in itself, but is central to how the organisation can work best for the borough moving forward.

Whilst the peer team were onsite at the Council, the report from a recent ‘Future of Adults Social Care Commission’ was received by the Cabinet. The report made a series of recommendations, notably the first recommendation of the report was for the Council to work with local communities and groups to develop and agree a definition of co-design and a strategic approach to co-production. The peer team fully endorse this recommendation in particular as a key next stage for the organisation overall.

Working with others to establish a clear definition for what co-design and co-production mean and the tools and techniques that would make this come to life in Cheshire West and Chester is an important opportunity not to miss. It also provides a vehicle to discuss the wider opportunities, considerations and any obstacles and barriers to working in this way. openly and from the outset.

Developing this definition with others will help the Council to understand more fully the experience of others when working in this way and therefore what is required in mainstreaming this as a way of working across all Council activity. This can also be used to help ensure that there is a clear view internally and externally of the values, principles and priorities of a Co-operative Council. This should lead to a multi-faceted plan of action which is likely to require some of the following support and changes:

  • Organisational development support to move all parts of the organisation and system (where appropriate) towards the type of culture that more fully and consistently ingrains the needs of working with others into the collective corporate mindset.
  • Supporting more people to understand why this is important for the borough and what this looks like when it is done well.
  • Supporting the new Head of Service for organisational development with the relevant experience from those internally and externally who have worked in this way will be important, as they help the Council to modernise its approach.

In making this type of shift in approach corporately, it should not be underestimated the extent to which employees of the Council are local residents and a part of local social networks and community groups, being able to highlight when the Council is changing and how (if authentic and as they choose).

Continuing to build the trust that leads to an even closer relationship with communities and community groups must however be seen across the full extent of Council business. This includes:

  • Ensuring that the day-to-day customer and resident’s experience when accessing services fully reflects an organisation that wishes to work more closely with residents. This means further progressing the work to improve the customer experience and make ‘no wrong door’ a reality.
  • Communicating the shared activity of the Council, communities and partners when working in this way relentlessly, both internally and externally can help in creating further momentum. This might involve developing a recognised branding around this way of working as a means of putting a spotlight on it. This can help to connect together examples into a more consistently observed way of working. Such branding can also be used to highlight the different funding streams, projects, stories and external revenue and capital investments made possible through this way of working (for example). There are clearly wider behavioural change tools and techniques which can also help further in this regard for example – using the voices of different messengers, the role of recognition, social norms and so forth.
  • Recognising that new ways of working require different skills and will involve alternative ways of developing and implementing policy. This will have resource impacts and it will be necessary to ensure resources are effectively targeted, aligned to your priorities. 

It would also be helpful for members and officers to have a considered discussion about their risk appetite here, for example, when it comes to giving communities significantly more influence over spending decisions. Particularly in a climate of financial uncertainty, there can often be an understandable instinct to use tighter, central controls. The flip-side of this being that such central controls can be perceived by residents and partners as being inconsistent with the principles of co-production. The Council has a good track record of financial management - how can the Council balance its approach to finance with its genuine commitment to engagement and co-production?

The Council has some really good advocates for co-design and engagement already. Linking them into the work to support wider organisational development and a culture shift has already been identified above, however they may also be in a position to help inform the development of skills and techniques amongst the member and officer cohorts.

  • Supporting all members and officers to feel more confident with the skills to frame and suitably host new conversations relative to the decision, audience and environment will be important. This will require developing a framework or menu of options for co-design. It will also include developing ways to build this into other processes, noting the requirements of working in this way can mean additional time and resource at the outset.
  • Discussing the rationale about when and how to co-design – noting that, given the trade-offs, it will never be possible for all decisions to follow the same approach. At times, there will be opportunities to move more quickly, should suitable engagement have happened already (for example) enabling the Council to seize opportunities for the borough. It would be important to discuss scenarios such as these when developing the definition for co-design and co-delivery.

As the Council develops its new relationship with the community and community groups more widely and in-depth, staff will need to feel readily and appropriately empowered to respond in a timely and flexible way, demonstrating a clear relationship between listening and action. This may involve considering whether there is an opportunity to differentiate the approach to risk and empowerment in decision making. Doing so can help to give staff more of the time required to co-design as well as being responsive and agile to the needs of others when working with them in this way.

The above represents some examples of the steps the Council may wish to take. Continuing to listen and learn will naturally be essential to developing this approach further, being responsive to this changing picture over time. All of the activity around this is multi-faceted and cross-cutting, requiring a consistent mindset and expectations in order to achieve the biggest benefits for the borough. The opportunities from it are potentially significant, helping the borough to deal with the priorities ahead, not least in regards to health and social care within individual care communities.

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5. Next steps

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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 session, which provides space for the council’s senior leadership to update peers on its progress against the action plan and discuss next steps.

Claire Hogan, Principal Adviser for the North West, is the main contact between your authority and the Local Government Association. Claire is available to discuss any further support the council requires. Claire can be contacted via email at [email protected]

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