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Corporate Peer Challenge: St Albans City and District Council

Feedback report: 28 February – 03 March 2023

1. Executive summary

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St Albans City and District Council (SACDC) is one of the ten districts in Hertfordshire, just 32km north of London with 82 percent of the district located within the metropolitan greenbelt. St Albans is the largest settlement in the district with Harpenden to the north and a number of smaller villages in the surrounding countryside. The district has a rich Roman and medieval history, vibrant pub and restaurant culture, many independent retailers and a charter market attracting around 300,000 visitors each year, with tourism worth £210 million to the economy in 2019.

The business led City of Expertise brings together firms from across the legal, accountancy and financial service sectors to keep work in the district. The area is also home to a sizeable cluster of agri-tech and green technology businesses and employers such as AECOM, Premier and Burton Foods.

The population of 148,200 is mostly prosperous, with 67 percent of residents employed in professional and managerial roles, 53 percent working from home and just 2 percent claiming out of work benefits. The district is culturally diverse with 26.5 percent of residents non-white. Residents are hosting the highest number of Ukrainian guests across Hertfordshire and the area is accommodating Syrian and Afghan refugees. This accords with the district being identified in 2023 as one of the top ten areas in the country with high levels of social trust. SACDC are proud of how its communities come together to support each other and welcome others.

The council has been on a rapid improvement journey over the past two years and has made good progress in modernisation and transformation. New ways of working prompted by the pandemic and increasing financial pressures led the council to reshape its operating model to be more adaptable to the pace of change. The Council is blessed with a dedicated workforce who regularly surpass expectations of their roles.  A new Senior Leadership Team (SLT) supported by new service managers are now in place, laying the foundations for major organisational change, resulting in customer focussed service delivery, digital first technology and increased use of data and insight to track demands and expectations. Peers commended the council for the progress it had made and supported the direction of travel.

There was recognition that to support the improvement journey, a new performance framework needed implementing throughout the organisation, creating a ‘Golden Thread’ from the Council Plan through to the medium-term financial strategy (MTFS), service plans and individual personal development plans. Development of specific measurable outcomes, outputs and targets in the Council Plan would also provide officers with a clear goal to work towards and be appraised against.

Both political and officer leadership teams are widely respected internally and externally. Their active engagement across the district and county on issues including health, education, growth, economy and climate is ensuring the council’s voice is heard and constructive partnership conversations take place. SACDC is absolutely viewed as a trusted systems leader in the locality and across Hertfordshire.

There is further work to do in sharing the council’s vision for place and embedding its priorities across the multitude of partnerships and with staff. Partners said they knew what growth SACDC doesn’t want, they now want clarity on what sort of growth SACDC does want. Peers recommend co-developing and communicating a long-term vision for growth of the district which conveys to partners and communities what the district will look and feel like in the future. What skills, jobs, homes and opportunities there will be, and how they can be involved in shaping and delivering this. SACDC can’t wait until 2025 for the Local Plan to be adopted to communicate this.

The financial challenge facing SACDC needs to be everyone’s top priority. Having successfully identified actions without needing to use reserves to close a £2m budget gap for 2023/24, a further £2.3m needs to be found to balance the budget in 2024/25. The groundwork has been laid for this, with projects identified to review assets, divest responsibility to the community and partners and deliver service transformation. However, peers urged the council to continue building on this work and develop, communicate and manage a costed programme plan to enable timely realisation of the necessary savings, ensuring officers, councillors and partners are fully aware of the challenge and committed to taking the tough decisions that lie ahead. The council needs to do less better.

“Building our Future”, the council’s transformation programme, has begun to reshape how SACDC delivers services to residents. As a relatively lean council there are limited resources and peers felt that in such an asset rich area, there was more opportunity to exploit the wealth of talent and strengths in the community and with partner organisations to stretch capacity outside of the organisation. The shared services are performing well and could be developed further. There are examples of assets being passed to communities and partners which are also working well. Developing a strategy which clarifies the council’s approach to shared services, building resilience and capacity will serve it well in the long term.

The organisational culture at SACDC is improving and this evolution needs to continue. Progress has been made since the elections in May 2022 and the administration has worked hard to improve Councillor behaviour and conduct in meetings. Peers witnessed some positive member/officer relationships but believe there is still work to do to build trust and true officer/member partnership working. Officers and councillors would benefit from development to clarify respective roles and responsibilities, including recognising that councillors lead and shape policy whilst officers deliver it. There were signs the lines had become blurred and this was causing frustration on all sides. Reviewing the scheme of delegations to empower officers to make more decisions would also support streamlining processes and driving efficiency of operations. This needs to be accompanied by development in officer confidence and clarity in taking decisions at the right level and the right time. There was still nervousness in the organisation regarding the previous blame culture, which to be overcome requires senior political and officer leadership to endorse and demonstrate new behaviours.     

In May 2021 the council moved from a leader and cabinet to a committee system of governance. This was supported by the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CfGS) who helped councillors understand the options and shape the model. CfGS were reporting on a review of the new model’s implementation whilst peers were on site and the findings accorded with what peers experienced. The operation of the committee system was confusing for many. The terms cabinet and portfolio holder were still being used and there appeared to be an informal cabinet. Whilst these roles can exist the terminology was leading to confusion around where responsibility and accountability lie. There was overlap between some of the service committee areas of operation and scrutiny appeared to be concentrating on holding external bodies to account rather than the council. Peers recommend the operation of the committee system is clarified by defining officer and member roles and responsibilities, rationalising the service committees, moving the scrutiny function into the service committees and adopting best practice.

Given the significant number of new councillors elected last year, peers felt there was a continuing need to develop their skills and knowledge. Peers heard from many sources that “Chris (White) and Amanda are everywhere”, this was also confirmed by the leader. Yet Peers observed considerable talent and potential within the lead councillor and wider officer leadership teams and recommend this is harnessed and developed to grow the leadership capacity and support succession planning.

Peers thoroughly enjoyed their time in St Albans and were struck by the wealth of cultural and historic assets supported by the council as well as its approach to co-production and partnership working. As non-residents there was a feeling the council is underselling itself and its achievements. Take some time to review your communications to ensure you celebrate your successes.

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 1

Make closing the budget gap for 24/25 everyone’s top priority

  • develop the plan and communicate
  • sweat your assets
  • resource your priorities – do less, better
  • look for opportunities with partners and stakeholders
  • deliver transformation – with council wide ownership.

Recommendation 2

Clarify the operation of the committee system

  • roles and responsibilities of officers and councillors
  • rationalise service committees
  • do scrutiny, finance and performance (at a strategic level) in service committees
  • investigate and adopt best practice for committee system.

Recommendation 3

Co-develop and communicate a long-term vision for the district.

Recommendation 4

Clarify what type of growth you want to achieve in advance of the local plan.

Recommendation 5

Develop and build staff confidence to take decisions at the right level at the right time.

Recommendation 6

Streamline decision making processes – review delegations.

Recommendation 7

Develop councillors (skills and knowledge) - implement succession planning to grow leadership capacity.

Recommendation 8

Review and develop your strategy for communications - celebrate your successes.


Recommendation 9

Agree your approach to shared services - continue to build on the progress to increase service resilience and promote efficiency.

​​​​​​​Recommendation 10

Complete work to establish an effective performance management framework which focuses on delivery of outcomes and creates a ‘golden thread’ of connection between the new Council Plan and individual performance management.​​​​​​​

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:

  • Jon McGinty – Managing Director, Gloucester City Council
  • Cllr Bridget Smith – Leader, South Cambridgeshire District Council
  • Andrew Limb – Assistant Chief Executive, Cambridge City Council
  • Mandy Jones – Strategic Director, Colchester City Council
  • Nick Khan – Strategic Director, East Suffolk Council
  • Oliver Nottidge – Corporate Strategy and Policy Officer, North Lincolnshire Council (Shadow Peer)
  • Kirsty Human – Peer Challenge Manager
  • Rachel Stevens – Project Support Officer.

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?

Within the core themes, the council asked the peer team to particularly focus on:

  1. Local priorities and outcomes

    Local Plan
  2. Organisational and place leadership

    Building our Future

    Shared Services

    City Centre Vision and Cultural Strategy
  3. Governance and culture

    The Committee System of Governance: opportunities for refinements and efficiencies

    The purpose and focus of the Overview & Scrutiny Committee 

    A review of the purpose and function of the:

    Public Realm Committee

    Regeneration & Business Committee

    The organisational structure; an agile council

    Governance of the unparished area and the purpose of the City Neighbourhoods Committee
  4. Financial planning and management

    Closing future budget gaps and strengthening reserves

    Engagement in effective financial planning and development of the Council Plan
  5. Capacity for improvement

    Organisational capacity including capacity for developing strategic communications

    Performance data and business insight

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. The team then spent four days onsite at St Albans City and District Council, during which they:

  • Gathered information and views from more than 65 meetings, in addition to further research and reading.
  • Spoke to more than 150 people including a range of council staff together with councillors and external stakeholders.

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

4. Feedback

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Local priorities and outcomes

The Council has just approved a new Council Plan which sets out its priorities for the next five years. These include tackling the climate emergency, more social housing, supporting the local economy, enhancing the district’s cultural offer and promoting equality, inclusion, and fairness. The priorities have been driven by the demands and needs of its communities, highlighted during the pandemic years, cost of living crisis and those of local, national and global importance. Peers recognise the plan is newly adopted and suggest further work is carried out to fully embed and communicate the vision and priorities inside and external to the organisation as they found through conversations that little understanding existed amongst officers, councillors and partners. There is also an opportunity to validate the priorities with residents through the 2023 community survey.

In discussions with officers, it was clear SACDC is a lean council with many officers responsible for multiple functions. This was especially evident in those areas the council has identified as its priorities, with just half an officer post leading for equalities, similarly one for climate and one for economy. In order to fully deliver on the priorities over the next five years, peers recommend the council priorities need to be resourced appropriately and co-produced where possible. SACDC doesn’t have to deliver everything. Co-producing strategies enables the sharing of delivery with partners, stakeholders and other interested organisations. This resourcing needs to be carefully balanced against the stretched capacity within statutory services including, planning and environmental health.

There is a positive approach to equalities, diversity and inclusion (EDI) across the organisation with strong political engagement. A new Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Strategy was developed with an action plan covering the period 2022-2024. SACDC consulted widely on this strategy internally with staff and councillors and externally with partners, residents, visitors and community groups. The implementation of the strategy and its action plan is being overseen by the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Partnership Group which includes staff diversity champions, community diversity champions, community partners and faith groups. Peers considered this an innovative approach to cementing the importance of EDI across the whole organisation and holding the council to account for its actions. However, to embed fully within the council, it needs to be integrated with service planning and the Council should maximise the impact of equality impact assessments, and as such a review of the resources allocated to this priority is recommended.

SACDC has ambitions for sustainability and climate change. Declaring an emergency in 2022, the council developed a Sustainability and Climate Crisis Strategy with a range of partners including Sustainable St Albans, St Albans Friends of the Earth and other environmental and community groups. The strategy sets out the actions to be taken locally to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030 and sits alongside a new Energy Strategy. This includes a plan to make all 5000 council homes (making use of government grants and subsidies) carbon net zero when the grid is fully carbon neutral.

The council is also a member of the Hertfordshire Climate Change Partnership which supports county wide working groups on a variety of topics and provides added capacity to the limited resource at SACDC. Given this area of work is a priority, peers were told it needed more corporate ownership and increased resources to help deliver the published outcomes. For example, investment in an energy manager would pay for itself (Colchester City Council expect to save £100k).

SACDC has the second oldest Local Plan in the country. Whilst there are plans in place to deliver this, with direction from the Local Plan Advisory Group, it will not come soon enough to stop the speculative applications and appeals the council is currently navigating. The Council has taken action to strengthen this area, including significantly expanding the spatial planning team, implementing new governance arrangements and introducing additional external expertise. The delivery timetable is set to adopt the plan in 2025 and peers recommend adequate resources and time to engage all councillors continues to be prioritised as the absence of this key strategic document is hindering sustainable growth in the district.   

The cultural offer in the district is excellent. The rich Roman and medieval history coupled with vibrant towns, charming villages and beautiful countryside provides the perfect mix of ingredients to maximise on tourism. The Verulamium Museum has the largest schools programme in the east of England and provides bursaries for schools in deprived areas enabling equality of access for all young people. St Albans Museum and Gallery prides itself in showcasing local culture, working with partners such as Hertfordshire Association for the Care and Rehabilitation of Offenders (HACRO) and Emmaus to showcase the work of ex-offenders and more national exhibits which currently include Henry Moore. This sits alongside a wide annual events programme including the Alban Festival, International Organ Festival, Christmas Cracker and Charter Market.

In 2022 the Arts Council recognised the potential in St Albans, granting National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) status and awarding a grant of over £1m to spend over three years on ten projects. It will be important for the council to consider the long-term future of this cultural offer post grant, using the next three years to explore and develop a more sustainable and viable future business model. The council is now co-producing a cultural strategy with partners to shine a light on everything the district has to offer, including some lesser-known gems such as being the home of Stanley Kubrick and a popular area for filming to be showcased in the new film office. It is hoped this will attract more visitors and raise the profile of the district as a key tourist destination.

The council is successfully delivering with its communities. Peers heard how partners involved in the Cottonmill Community and Cycling Centre were fully engaged from concept to design to build, even raising funds through a GoFundMe page to help pay for added extras. The Quaker Garden on the site of a burial ground was also very sensitively managed with members of the Quaker community to develop a symbolic memorial garden in the centre of the much larger Jubilee Square regeneration project. Peers were told how “outstanding” the community engagement has been in this project.  

Peers were also impressed with the council’s ability to deliver on affordable housing at social rent, for example at Viking Place and Westfield Allotments. This is difficult to deliver in the current climate especially in such a prominent location just 32km north of London with 82 percent greenbelt.

With regard to headline performance measures, SACDC performs well against others on grounds maintenance and recycling (number one in the UK in 2000/2021 and consistently  topping the tables). Processing of benefit claims is better than average and numbers of households on the housing waiting list is below average when compared to CIPFA near neighbours. However, in quarter three of 2022/23 49.2 percent of planning applications were not determined on time against a target of 25 percent or less. Housing void rates that were nearly double the target, have improved. The issue of letting elderly designated properties of which some are hard to let, impacts significantly on overall performance. This has been discussed with Councillors at committee and an action plan agreed the missed bin target of 32 per 100,000 is frequently being missed, almost double in some quarters. Peers heard there were some very justifiable reasons for this performance, but how it is communicated and shared with councillors to enable effective scrutiny needs to be improved.

The council recognises the framework for performance management and use of data and business insight is an area for improvement. Peers recommend the new approach is:

  • centred on the five corporate priorities
  • aligned to the Medium-Term Financial Strategy (MTFS)
  • outcome focussed
  • uses data and insight to drive improvement.
  • scrutinised at a strategic level by service committees to provide the oversight and governance required.

This approach will make it easier to develop the golden thread of performance management throughout the organisation from the Council Plan, MTFS, service plans and individual personal development plans. In addition, developing specific measurable outcomes and targets in the Council Plan would provide officers with a clear goal to work towards and be appraised against. One example might be around the number of homes for social rent the council expects to deliver. If this number is exceeded, it also provides positive communications for the council to share with residents.

Organisational and place leadership

SACDC is viewed as a trusted systems leader in the locality and across Hertfordshire. Peers heard from public and private sector partners and voluntary and community groups how well respected and visible the chief executive, leader and senior management team are. Their active engagement across the district and county on issues including health, education, growth, economy and climate is ensuring the council’s voice is heard and constructive partnership conversations take place, peers were told the “new strategic directors are bringing a more strategic approach.” Joint working through the pandemic, welcoming Afghan and Ukrainian families has also strengthened relationships.

The leader meets fortnightly with other council leaders across Hertfordshire to discuss strategic issues such as migration and the impacts of the cost-of-living crisis. He also chairs the Southwest Hertfordshire Joint Strategic Planning group and the St Albans District Strategic Partnership.  The chief executive chairs the Hertfordshire Chief Executive Coordination Group (CECG) on a weekly basis, sharing and discussing matters of common interest. She also meets individually with a number of key strategic third sector partners.

There are positive relationships and engagement with town and parish councils. Regular round table meetings are held alongside an annual parish conference organised by the council. The chief executive and strategic directors also hold regular meetings with the Town Clerk for Harpenden, the largest settlement outside of the city area and visit parish meetings.

The six to eight weekly meeting of the Strategic Partnership is positively valued by partners including Hertfordshire Constabulary, Hertfordshire County Council, St Albans Cathedral, Citizens Advice, Communities 1st, Mind in Mid Herts and many more. It has enabled different groups to come together and share information, work collaboratively on issues and build relationships. Further clarification of the role, purpose and impact of this partnership would be appreciated by some partners enabling them to see where they can add value and support outcomes. For example, there is an opportunity to work more collaboratively on issues such as county lines.

Conversely, this local leadership role is fragile. Peers heard from multiple sources, “Chris and Amanda are everywhere.” This was often meant as a compliment, but it highlighted to peers the overreliance of such a small number of senior officers and the leader in partnership meetings. Some partners would welcome the opportunity to engage at different levels within the organisation, not just the top, to create consistency and connectivity. There is an opportunity to develop and empower staff to take responsibility for some of these partnership connections, to create resilience and mitigate the risks to partner relationships should anything happen to one of the senior figures.

The Hertfordshire Growth Board is seen as an asset to the county and should be retained. It is enabling positive engagement on sustainable growth across all the districts in the county. SACDC is seen as an active partner with a good housing supply and high-quality building projects.

However, partners are looking for more clarity on SACDC’s vision for growth, “they are good at articulating what growth they don’t want – but need to be clear about what growth they do want.” In advance of the Local Plan, peers recommend the council co-develops and communicates a long-term vision for the district which conveys to partners and communities what the district will look and feel like in the future. What skills, jobs, homes and opportunities there will be. How everyone can be involved in shaping, delivering and managing this. SACDC cannot wait until 2025 for the adoption of the Local Plan to provide this.

The district benefits from a mostly wealthy, highly educated and skilled population. In developing the place narrative, the council needs to make the most of this untapped talent. The community are one of your most valuable assets and their expertise and knowledge can support the council in developing and delivering its priorities. There are already some examples where the council has transferred the management of assets, such as Rothamsted Park. There are further discussions taking place with some of the Council’s Strategic Partners regarding some assets. SACDC doesn’t have to deliver everything and given the financial challenge ahead, peers recommend the council continues looking for opportunities with partners and stakeholders to maximise community collaboration and responsibility for physical assets.

The co-location of Police, NHS and Healthy Hub partners in the council’s civic building is a further example where SACDC is actively engaging with system partners and the community to deliver benefits to residents. Partners come from a cross section of organisations, making cross referral easier. Regular meetings with partners often lead to collaboration on projects and integration of teams, for example some of the council’s community protection team now sit with the police to work together on antisocial behaviour issues. With more health services due to move in, there are even more opportunities for systems integration and shared outcomes in the future. Residents are very fortunate to have this one stop shop facility available to them.  

Investment in shared services with other local councils is delivering benefits: “shared services are a triumph”. So far, the shared arrangements in building control, planning enforcement, legal services and internal audit have increased the council’s resilience, reduced recruitment and retention issues and increased access to its workforce to a wider range of skills and experience. There are further shared service and collaborations on the horizon which create several important opportunities. For example, the joint work with Dacorum Borough Council, local landowners and Hertfordshire County Council on the future development of Hemel Garden Communities which will transform Hemel Hempstead and create attractive and sustainable new neighbourhoods and communities and 10,000 new jobs by 2050.

Governance and culture

The council has been on a journey with its governance arrangements and organisational culture. The political landscape has swung between being Conservative and Liberal Democrat led, often in a no overall control position. The Liberal Democrat group have been in control of the council since May 2021, when they had a strong Conservative group opposition. It is fair to say the municipal year 2021/2022 was turbulent, with a toxic political culture which regularly caught officers up in disputes, saw councillors resign from working groups and committees, spilled into the press and led to a culture of mistrust, disrespect and poor member behaviour. In May 2022 at an all-out election following a boundary review, the Liberal Democrat group took decisive control of the council, winning 50 of the 56 seats available.

It was clear to peers that over the last ten months, SACDC members and officers have worked very hard to put this period behind them and build a more respectful council which follows the Nolan Principles. Cultural change is difficult to achieve and takes time. SACDC is making progress and taking the right steps but there is still work to do, especially in rebuilding trust between councillors and officers, eradicating the blame culture and allowing officers to do their jobs without unnecessary political interference. Officers need to know political and managerial leadership have got their backs – and that it’s ok to make mistakes if you learn from them. Implementing this culture of respect with thoughtful language and confident officers who know when and how to take decisions is important to spread throughout the organisation and is part of your transformation journey. The council is fortunate to have a positive and engaged workforce – people enjoy working for SACDC. Keep up the positive momentum to ensure you retain your most valuable assets.

Peers heard many examples of where councillors were involved in operational matters and addressing casework at inappropriate levels. This included performance meetings with contractors, internal progress reviews of the transformation programme and a practice of contacting strategic directors to resolve issues such as missed bins. Peers accept there needs to be a culture of no surprises and that the trust between councillors and officers is still developing, but this must be addressed to free up capacity and support councillors to focus on the strategic direction of the council.

Current decision-making processes were described as “lengthy”, with some policy decisions taking a year to go through the committees, and operational decisions needing to be signed off by strategic directors. This is not congruent with the council’s transformation and modernisation ambitions. To be fleet of foot and take advantage of opportunities, there is a need to streamline processes. Peers recommend the scheme of delegation is reviewed to provide Assistant Directors and service managers with the autonomy to make decisions within their services, with the appropriate checks and balances in place to assure the leadership.

Councillors need to be engaged at the right time and trust officers to do their jobs. It was recommended time is spent understanding respective roles and responsibilities - resetting officer/member boundaries, agreeing levels of expectation and putting in place appropriate delegation and governance structures to provide member assurance. There is then a role for the SLT to develop and build staff confidence to take decisions at the right level at the right time.

The council has begun to make positive steps in involving councillors at a strategic level, for instance through the newly formed Corporate Property Board. This model could be replicated for strategic engagement between officers and councillors on other issues.

Following a Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) review of the Audit Committee in 2022, the council appointed an independent Chair of Audit. Peers viewed this as an exemplar of good practice which is dynamically supporting effective governance, transparency and oversight of risk.

In May 2021 the council moved from a leader and cabinet to a committee system of governance. Supported by the Centre for Governance and Scrutiny (CfGS), there had been much preparation and discussion with councillors on options and design principles prior to this. At the time of the peer challenge, CfGS were also reporting their findings of a review into how the committee system was operating. There were many similarities in the report’s findings to that of the peer team. Peers recommend the actions within the CfGS report are implemented alongside those of the peer team.

Following meetings with officers, councillors and partners it was clear there was confusion over the respective roles and responsibilities of the service committees, scrutiny function and their relationship to the “informal cabinet.” We heard “we have a quirky cabinet system without a call-in process” and “it’s a bit weird, isn’t it?” Lead councillors were referred to as portfolio holders and an informal meeting of the leader with committee chairs and vice chairs was called cabinet. The terminology and associated practices are causing confusion as the council now operates a committee system, not a cabinet system, but there is also uncertainty around the operation of committees. The Council should identify and document where responsibility and accountability lie, what mechanisms are in place to consult and inform and at what level decisions can and should be made. Peers recommend the council undertake visits to other councils’ operating committee systems (the LGA will provide separate advice on this) to help shape a best practice model.

The value of a separate Overview and Scrutiny committee was also unclear. There had been some good work undertaken with scrutiny of water companies, but much of the work programme resembled investigative journalism into outside bodies. There was very little scrutiny of the council’s performance and that of its contracts and strategic risks. There is an option to retain this function and make its role clearer, but peers believed and therefore recommend there would be more value in moving scrutiny into the service committees to hold them more accountable on performance, finance and risk and disband the scrutiny committee altogether. There is after all no requirement to have the function under a committee system.  

As the service committees have developed and grown into their roles, peers heard of significant overlap between the Public Realm Committee and Regeneration and Business Committee. This is impacting on officers’ capacity by placing unnecessary burdens on them to produce multiple reports, attend numerous briefings and meetings and is also not efficient use of member time. Peers recommend the council looks at the opportunity to rationalise the service committees, refresh their terms of reference, roles and responsibilities and consider whether there is a need for two member briefings prior to each committee. The council recently took a decision to rationalise the planning committees down to one and it was evident to peers, this has been positive and is working well.

If councillors are concerned about their ability to influence and contribute to key issues and policy development, there are opportunities to develop informal seminars. These should be cross-party and open to all councillors to encourage engagement and collaboration on issues such as the budget, transformation programme and the Local Plan.

Officers and councillors are working together to develop a refreshed induction plan for new councillors following elections in May 2023. Lessons have been learned from previous member inductions with a plan to focus more on the role of a good ward councillor, the skills and knowledge required and roles and responsibilities. Previous inductions have been information heavy with lots of PowerPoint presentations focussing on the council and information officers think councillors need to know. This year councillors intend to do more conversational sessions, sharing their personal experiences, lessons learned and tips for additional learning.

In terms of member development more widely, given the significant number of new councillors elected last year, peers felt there was a continuing need to further develop their skills and knowledge. Peers heard from many sources that “Chris and Amanda are everywhere” and this was also confirmed by the leader. Yet peers observed considerable talent and potential within the lead councillor team and recommend this is harnessed and developed to grow the leadership capacity and support succession planning. This will also free up the leader to engage in more strategic systems leadership working across southwest Hertfordshire.  

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Financial planning and management

SACDC, like many other councils has been hit hard by the financial impacts of the pandemic, rising inflation, cost of living, high energy costs, the pay award and reduced income streams. The budget gap for 2023/24 was estimated to be £3.5m but a better-than-expected Local Government Settlement reduced this to £2.4m. The council was able to set a balanced budget without the use of reserves. Tough decisions were made to raise council tax to the maximum amount allowed without a referendum, increase fees and charges, introduce new fees, pause elements of the capital programme, make savings within services and use funds from successful grant applications.

The budget gap for 2024/25 was initially projected to be £6.68m. Following decisions taken at the budget council meeting in February for the 2023/24 budget, this was reduced by £2.33m due to cumulative ramifications. A further £2m is projected to be saved from reduced Minimum Revenue Provision (MRP) payments as a result of pausing some of the capital programme and associated borrowing, leaving a gap of around £2.3m to be closed in order to achieve a balanced budget. The groundwork is in place with an overview of what needs to be done to close this gap. Turning the plans into reality will be difficult in the time available and even tougher decisions will need to be made but both councillors and officers understand this and appeared committed to addressing the challenge.

Peers stressed urgency in developing this early thinking about savings for 2024/25 into a detailed plan. They recommended sufficient time is given for councillors and officers to comprehend the scale of the challenge, to communicate this with all staff, partners and residents and make it SACDC’s top priority to deliver.

Some positive steps already being taken, include:

  • Launching an asset review programme with a view to realising the potential of around 700 Council-owned assets. With guidance and scrutiny from the Corporate Property Board, this programme has the potential to deliver significant savings.
  • Instigating and delivering a sounder fees and charges framework which provides potential for the council to build on, for example, reviewing the charging for events on council owned land.
  • Reviewing the number and value of contracts affords opportunities to make savings from improved procurement practices and contract management.
  • Reducing the very significant discretionary service spend (£4m compared to statistical near neighbour’s average £2m) by continuing to consider what to stop doing, reduce or deliver differently as it has already done with Abbeyview golf course, Rothamstead Park and the athletics track.
  • Exploring opportunities to deliver services with partners and stakeholders, either through formal partnership arrangements (legal, building control, planning enforcement and internal audit), grants (climate champions), leases (Rothamsted Park) and other models such as Local Authority Trading Companies (LATCOs).
  • Developing the second phase of the transformation programme (Building our Future) to redesign the operation of the council.

The speed of financial decision making was raised in many conversations both internally and externally. Current processes are considered to be too slow and impacting on the council’s ability to make timely savings. For example, slow decision making on a recent contract renewal meant that the council missed out on three months’ worth of savings. Greater use of officer delegations could help to avoid the disbenefits arising from protracted processes and peers recommend these are reviewed alongside the wider decision-making structure of the committee system.

It was the view of peers that the service committees need to take more ownership of their budgets and to scrutinise at a strategic level the performance, risks and priorities of the service areas they are responsible for. Councillors were asking for more involvement in developing options for savings, driving improvement and resourcing priorities. Making the committees more responsible and accountable for the decisions and recommendations they make will help support the wider council objectives of being consensual and transparent and assist in the wider cultural change the council wants to deliver. In this situation the Policy and Resources Committee would have responsibility for connecting work programmes and identifying any interdependencies.

There has been a visible shift over the past year, in the council’s financial culture, understanding and transparency of information. This has been led by the new director of customer, business and corporate support and the lead member for finance, both of whom were well regarded and respected for their openness in challenging past practices and developing a new approach to the management and ownership of the organisation’s financial health.  

Peers heard there were many more open conversations and a new shared awareness and understanding of the budget challenge was developing. Reports to committees were starting to contain more detail, enabling better and more informed decision making. Whole council briefings on the budget were delivered to better inform staff and councillors, seek ideas for savings, develop collective ownership and encourage the right behaviours. There are also plans to develop quarterly financial reports to committees subject to staff capacity.

The capacity within the finance team did concern peers who identified this as a risk to the organisation. Officers had focused on delivering a balanced budget at the expense of completing the accounts for 2022/23. A recommendation in the Annual Governance Statement in 2021/22 was to carry out an assessment against the CIPFA Financial Management Code. Whilst this is in train, officers have not had the capacity to complete the review. There are a number of vacancies which despite recruitment campaigns, remained unfilled. Short term interims have provided some support, but it is recognised this is not a long-term solution for a council in need of reducing its spending. Recruitment and retention in this and other professional roles are a national issue for local government which requires innovative thinking to address. Peers encourage the council to think creatively about how to address this challenge and work with the LGA to support the actions outlined in the Local government finance – capacity and capability study.  

The council has a good approach to risk management, with external auditors reviewing it as having an “acceptable” level of assurance in January 2021. At the end of 2022 a refreshed risk framework was implemented providing an increased level of commentary to each risk and score. A high-level dashboard summary accompanies these. Risk is considered weekly at departmental management team meetings, overseen by SLT and responsibility for administration given to Internal Audit (a shared service led by Broxbourne Borough Council). Audit Committee reviews the strategic risk register each quarter along with one of the three directorate registers on rotation. Since September 2022 the Audit Committee has been independently chaired and this is seen to be positively supporting the council in establishing, maintaining, and improving effective governance, risk management, and internal control arrangements.

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

SACDC conducted a strategic review of its operating model in late 2020. As a result, the council started working towards becoming an adaptive council, to increase the flexibility to deploy skills and resources as needed depending on the operational situation. The following objectives were identified for the new operating model:

  • Increase strategic capacity and optimise spans of control.
  • Build strong transformational capability.
  • Make evidence-based decisions, using data and insight.
  • Implement an ‘agile’ approach with increased flexibility and ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Be a learning organisation -led by reflection, action inquiry and flexible governance.

These also underpin the “Building our Future” transformation programme:

The first steps have been taken on the transformation programme with “strategic capacity” delivered in the shape of three new strategic leadership and service management teams. Good progress is being made on the “ways of working” journey, with agile working practices instigated during the pandemic, built upon and normalised. This flexibility and the creation of modern workspaces is valued by staff and helping with recruitment and retention. It is also allowing the council to release additional office space to partners including the NHS.

Channel shift and digital transformation is making steady progress, moving from 16 percent of online contacts in 2021 to 25 percent in 2022. However, there were concerns that systems and processes had not caught up with the change, “fix what we have before adding more” and this was slowing down implementation of further improvements. This appeared to be the result of a technical skills gap and shortage in capacity which could take time to fill unless resources can be diverted/sourced short term to plug the gap.

A new customer delivery team has been created by bringing together all customer service and case management staff, which will result in new ways of working. Peers are aware there have been many briefings and internal communications to staff on this, but there still appeared to be concern from those impacted, “we know what we need to be doing but we don’t know how to get there or what the timetable is”. There is a need to clarify the destination of the transformation journey. Describe to staff what the new organisation will look like and what jobs will be available. Large change programmes like this need constant visioning, engagement and selling to keep morale and retention elevated.  

With the recent appointment of a new transformation manager, now could be a good time to pause and take stock of the progress made to date and the steps that need to be taken next. The organisation felt a little fatigued with the amount and speed of change over the last 12 months and time to reflect could create the breathing space needed before the next big push. Peers also felt the transformation programme, including quantifiable staged savings linked to the budget strategy needed greater ownership from all service managers. It isn’t something that sits separately to the services, it is part of everyone’s role to implement and requires collective accountability for delivery. Again, taking a moment to restate roles and responsibilities would be beneficial to the programme.

Overall, organisational health is good. Peers did hear that capacity is stretched and some officers in high demand services are going through a period of change which can be unsettling, but on balance people were very positive “the organisational culture is really supportive”. There is an opportunity, now that service managers have been in post for a while, to distribute the leadership capability and opportunity beyond SLT. This will further empower senior managers and their teams and allow SLT the space it needs to strategically plan, develop partnerships and drive the modernisation/transformation agenda.

The regular pulse surveys continue to show high levels of satisfaction, motivation, communication and managerial support. At just over two days per FTE, sickness absence is significantly lower than the national average of 8.4 days, there is a gender pay gap of 3 percent compared to 15 percent nationally and staff turnover is also lower at 14 percent compared to 17 percent nationally. Whilst positive, these figures should not diminish the significant impact a buoyant employment market and proximity to London has on the council’s ability to attract and retain staff.

There are vacancies across the organisation in key statutory services such as environmental health, planning, finance and legal creating numerous service delivery risks. There are also capacity issues around the council priorities of equalities, economy and climate. This is putting pressure on staff and impacting service delivery and performance. The Local Plan also needs to retain its focussed resource to meet the new timescales. Peers recommend the council looks to deliver fewer services but at a higher standard and redistribute resources to align with its stated priorities. There is a wealth of talent and assets in communities and partner organisations across the district, appraising opportunities to utilise partners and community strengths to support service delivery could be part of the adaptive council model going forward.

To its credit SACDC is dedicated to developing staff and providing opportunities for lifelong learning. The “liberating leadership” programme was considered excellent by those who took part, and this momentum can be built upon. The council takes part in the LGA’s National Graduate Development Programme (NGDP) hosting two graduates each year. The level of responsibility given and opportunities available to graduates on this scheme is impressive. A separate internship programme runs annually for students looking for work experience during the summer holidays. Peers also heard about opportunities for existing staff to take on degree courses, qualifications in technical roles and apprenticeships. The organisation is committed to the training and development of staff, working with local education providers, exploring career pathways and growing its own talent “officers have really good opportunities for development”.

Peers observed strong contractor and partner arrangements which are delivering social, environmental and commercial value outcomes. These include sport and leisure, grounds maintenance and recycling.

The shared service arrangements with Watford Borough Council and Broxbourne Borough Council are working well. Whilst not currently delivering huge financial savings (£20k), they are adding capacity, resilience and delivering value for money services. Existing and other neighbouring councils are keen to explore further shared arrangements for specific services. This is encouraging and would help to address recruitment and capacity issues but exploring these individually will require significant time and effort and political commitment. Peers recommend SACDC reviews the incremental approach it is currently taking to these partnerships, garner political appetite for further integration and consider agreeing a corporate approach with some strategic principles. This would help the council plan its longer-term position on shared services, consider the benefits, identify outcomes expected and measure their performance.

SACDC has good mechanisms in place for internal communications with a weekly “Team Brief” from SLT to all staff, an e-newsletter providing updates on the transformation programme, quarterly all staff briefings and regular welcome sessions for new starters with the chief executive. External communications include a monthly e-newsletter and twice yearly printed Community News along with press notices and social media activity. Peers considered there was room for improvement with the council’s corporate communications. They heard “St Albans is good at negative press coverage” inferring the council is not proactive in its approach. There were requests for more support to councillors taking part in media interviews, including providing briefings. There needs to be consultation on high profile issues requiring a joint approach to preparing key messages and a forward plan of activity, messages and key contacts across all external media channels. To address these points, peers recommend the council reviews its approach to communications and consider undertaking an LGA communications health check to support development of a corporate communications strategy. SACDC has much to be proud of and many positive stories to tell. You are doing yourselves a disservice by not shouting about these and promoting the excellent work being delivered by staff and councillors. ​​​​​​​

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.

In the meantime, Rachel Litherland, Principal Adviser for the East of England, is the main contact between your authority and the Local Government Association. Rachel is available to discuss any further support the council requires. [email protected], 07795 076834.

6. Further support

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Committee systems

The following councils operate committee systems and are considered to be working well. It is important to note that no governance structure will provide perfection. Good governance relies on good people, working well together.

Epsom and Ewell Borough Council

The full Council (all 38 Members of the Council meeting together) has 6 scheduled meetings per year.  This includes an annual meeting which elects a Mayor and Deputy Mayor for the year and appoints councillors to sit on committees, sub-committees and advisory panels.  It also appoints councillors to outside organisations such as charities, school governing bodies and friends’ organisations.

The Council delegates much of its business to its four policy committees - Environment and Safe Communities, Community and Wellbeing, Licensing and Planning Policy, and Strategy and Resources.  There are also three regulatory committees which deal with planning applications and licensing matters - Planning Committee, Licensing (Hearing) Sub-Committee and Licencing (General) Sub-Committee. The council’s Audit and Scrutiny Committee, Crime & Disorder Sub-Committee and  Standards and Constitution Committee all ensure that both councillors and Council staff maintain high standards of probity and that decisions are made in a legal, fair and open fashion in accordance with the Council’s rules.

Worcester City Council

The Council has a committee form of governance which comprises Policy Committees and Regulatory Committees. The Policy Committees are responsible for implementing the budget and policy framework as agreed by full Council and decisions must be in line with the Council’s overall policies and budget. All members of the Council are entitled to a seat on one of the Policy Committees. The Policy Committees are the part of the Council with responsibility for most day-to-day decisions. Meetings of the Policy Committees will generally be open for the public to attend except where personal or confidential matters are being discussed. If a Policy Committee wishes to make a decision which is outside the budget or policy framework, this must be referred to the Council as a whole to decide.

Brighton and Hove City Council

Brighton & Hove City Council operates a committee system. This means that decisions are usually passed by a majority vote at committees. Committees are made up of representatives from every political group in the council. Full council meets seven times a year. There are two special full council meetings each year. Budget council takes place in in February and the new mayor is appointed at annual council each May. At the other five meetings full council reviews the decisions made by committees.

The council's decisions are discussed and scrutinised by Councillors from all parties before they are made at committee meetings. In the past scrutiny panels have also examined specific topics or services but these panels are no longer run.


Peers recommend the council reviews the Communications support offer provided by the LGA and considers which option would best suit their requirements.

Member development

A range of development, succession planning and member support is available through the LGA. The following is a snapshot of the programmes that may be of most interest, however regional teams are able to develop bespoke development either virtually or in person. Please contact your Principal Adviser to discuss in more detail.

The Councillor Hub is the doorway to everything a new member needs. We offer councillors a diverse range of support and we're here for you every step of the way in your journey as a councillor. Refine your leadership skills with our councillor e-learning modules and workbooks, expand your knowledge and networks at our councillor events, and subscribe to our local government e-bulletins on the policy areas that most interest you.

The Leaders' Programme is a modular cross-party leadership development opportunity designed around the needs of council leaders.

The Leadership Academy is the LGA's flagship development programme for councillors in leadership positions. The programme is recognised by The Institute of Leadership and Management, the UK's leading award-winning body for leadership and management.

The Next Generation Programme offers ambitious and talented councillors an unparalleled political development opportunity – uniquely developed within party political traditions and with party political experts. The Programme equips emerging political leaders with the skills and confidence to be bold champions of local government and progress in their political careers.

Our 'Focus on Leadership' councillor development events are designed to support councillors to excel in their existing roles and to provide them with a bridge to senior leadership positions.

'Leadership Essentials' is a series of series of programmes and workshops’ designed as themed learning opportunities for councillors. Each event concentrates on a specific portfolio or service area or a specific theme.

Mentoring – the LGA supports mentoring to members through the use of member peers. This is facilitated through our Political Group Offices (PGOs) and your Principal Adviser.