Corporate Peer Challenge: Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council

Follow-up visit report: 22–23 January 2019


Following the original LGA Corporate Peer Challenge (CPC) in January 2018, Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council (SMBC) asked the peer team to make a follow-up visit to help review and assess progress and development in response to the original feedback and recommendations. This visit took place on 22–23 January 2019.

The following report summarises the main observations of the peer team. The peers 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 before and during their visit.

Process and peer team

Peer challenge is one of the key tools to support sector-led improvement. It is tailored to meet individual councils’ needs, and designed to complement and add value to a council’s own performance and improvement focus. The peer team provide feedback as critical friends, not as assessors, consultants or inspectors.

The follow-up visit included members of the peer team who were involved in the original CPC:

  • Margaret Carney – Chief Executive, Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council
  • Cllr Helen Holland – Cabinet Member, Bristol City Council
  • Janie Berry – Director of Legal Services, Derbyshire County Council
  • Mike Harris – Acting Deputy Chief Executive, Southampton City Council
  • James Millington – LGA Peer Challenge Manager

To inform their findings, the peer team spent a day and a half on site at SMBC, during which they spoke to around 120 people including a range of council officers, councillors and external partners. The team gathered information and views from more than 25 meetings.

Recommendations: messages and observations

The focus of the follow-up was to specifically review progress and developments in response to the peer challenge feedback and recommendations in the 2018 CPC and during our visit it is was clear the Council had embraced the original recommendations. The peer team recognise that significant progress has been made against many of the recommendations and there has been progress on all fronts which is commendable given it is only 12 months since the original review. The original recommendations are laid out below with commentary on progress and further considerations for SMBC’s review.

Ensure 'Vision 2030' drives prioritisation, resource allocation, performance management and place leadership to improve outcomes for Sandwell

Speaking to staff and partners the peer team heard how Vision 2030 feels more embedded within the council. The team heard how the consistency of language has empowered staff to deliver against the ambitions. We heard positive comments about ambitions and staff remarked how the “ambitions haven’t been imposed – they’re what we knew needed to happen” and so feel right for the council to pursue.

The team recognise that Sandwell can demonstrate excellent delivery in some key areas including delayed transfers of care, youth offending and highways maintenance performance, and has ambition to improve further. The team commend this approach and the results which it is delivering for Sandwell’s communities.

Significantly for the council, a full senior management team is now in place and this capacity represents an opportunity to move at pace to deliver the council’s plans.

The peer team understand that the Vision 2030 Journey Tracker, including measures of success, is being developed and that Sandwell want to ensure this is succinct and structured in a way which will make a real difference. Staff and partners will need to continue to be part of this process. The Team recommend that the Council continues to work towards finalising its route map for delivery.

Engage with partners to co-produce the short, medium and long term priorities, deliverables and outcomes that will realise Vision 2030

Develop a consistent understanding of the ‘offer’ and ‘asks’ that the council leadership can communicate to others

The peer team heard about strong engagement by both officers and members with health commissioners and the police – and that very positive relationships operate at a number of levels across the organisations. The council and Sandwell Children’s Trust have clarity of governance and good relationships where challenging and supportive conversations can take place.

Partners commented on their collaborative relationships with the council, including work with Birmingham City Council on the Clean Air Zone mitigation fund, Brexit no deal plans and the 2022 Commonwealth Games. The team also heard about strong partnerships in the sub-region – for example, in public health, health and wellbeing, and regeneration. This approach has really developed since the peer team were on site twelve months ago with a partner commenting how “we can have a grown up and mature conversation with Sandwell Council”.

The council is, rightly, proud of the significant engagement which has been undertaken with young people in schools through Aspire Sandwell. The council’s commitment to understanding the views and needs of young people is important to informing future council plans. The peer team support the council’s approach to continue with this ethos and engage with all Sandwell’s communities, groups and businesses to develop a rounded picture of future need and aspiration for the place.

The peer team would encourage the council to continue with its direction of travel and as it develops the delivery plans for the 2030 Vision to ensure the ‘offer’ and ‘asks’ are clear.

Consider how the current financial planning approach needs to evolve in the longer term

SMBC has a strong track record of delivering balanced budgets, including for 2019/20, and this continues to be a strength for the council. The council has a focus on invest to save and this has included its approach to extra care and use of hospital wards. The council should also pride itself on protecting frontline services but assuming austerity continues you should continue to consider your future approach and narrative.

We would encourage you to continue to invest in the future and the work which the council is undertaking to manage future demand. Alongside this, the council should maintain a close eye on the national review of local authority funding that is planned for introduction from April 2020, and the implications this may have for SMBC.

SMBC should continue to manage the arrangements with the Children’s Trust to deliver future financial sustainability and improve performance.

Finally, the team noted that the council has an ambitious capital programme and SMBC should ensure the programme is well managed and funded.

Invest in political and managerial leadership team development

The team heard evidence about, and observed, good senior officer and member relations.

The leadership has invested time to undertake joint Cabinet and SMT visits and this time together is valued. The council should continue to work on maintaining the positive relations between the leadership team and the cabinet, and maximise the strategic value of the cabinet and senior management team summits.

There is a clear commitment from the organisation to deliver a leadership programme which engages 400 of the council’s managers in structured developmental opportunities. SMBC should ensure that this new leadership programme is communicated widely. Keep your plans for delivery of this leadership programme focused and align them with your workforce
planning and succession planning activities.

The council has an ambition for seeking continued recognition and endorsement of its approach through attainment of external validation and this is evident in its ambitions in working towards gold level 'Investors In People' accreditation. The peer team would encourage the council to continue to be ambitious in this area.

Complete and implement the planned fundamental review of governance

The council has finalised the historical standards issues. Across SMBC, there is positivity about the new permanent monitoring officer and the peer team heard about the relationships of trust, honesty and respect which are expressed by statutory officers and internal audit.

Governance has gone ‘back to basics’ to ensure there are robust processes in place – with plans in place for delivery. The team commends the inclusive approach taken, for instance, in how the scrutiny work programme is developed using community feedback.

The council is realistic about its new governance approach, is deliberately paced and has officer and member buy-in. The team encourage SMBC to complete the review of governance and embed this across the council.

Implement the new and evolving Member Development Programme

Significant achievement and progress has been made in establishing the Member Development Programme (MDP) in the last 12 months. This is a member-led approach where officers and members have worked together and invested time to really understand what members want and prioritise the delivery of this accordingly. This is articulated by a comment from Sandwell officers that for this programme to be a success they “don’t make any assumptions about what members want – we ask them”.

SMBC’s approach has included a detailed design phase which has led to the development of personal development plans for members and the development of an MDP which will use existing in-house expertise and bring in others where beneficial. The council has an ambition for this to be an award-winning programme and the peer team encourage you to continue to build on the strong foundations of your approach.

Further develop the thinking on town plans, including their scope, purpose and function, and how the development and delivery of them will be managed and communicated

The council has progressed this recommendation by identifying a lead cabinet member and lead director for each town. Town team-working has also been developed and there are a number of examples of where this is making a difference within communities. However, largely this is a recommendation which Sandwell Council is continuing to consider.

The peer team would encourage the council to define its position regarding town plans, including the language of how these are articulated, defining the key objectives of the plans, and how this feeds in to the wider workings of the council.

Ensure the ICT infrastructure and provision meets the current and future needs of the organisation

The team has seen and heard about the dramatic improvement in the provision of ICT and the council has demonstrated an ongoing commitment to improvement by allocating £1.2 million per year. Sandwell Council has worked swiftly on a refresh of staff ICT equipment which was completed by the end of 2018. Staff and cabinet are very positive about the new equipment, with staff particularly raising the substantial difference this has made in improving team-working and noting that “no one talks about IT, because it just works”.

The council has articulated the next phase of the programme including new devices, a training programme and review of the council’s telephony. The council rightly recognises that face-to-face contact will always have its place, but we would encourage you to continue exploring the opportunities for channel shift which technology supports.

The council has developed its new digital strategy for Sandwell and the team would encourage the council to complete its digital strategy delivery plan. Maintain your energy in this area and continue to make the most of the benefits to the council, your communities and businesses.

Recommendations to maximise opportunities to deliver growth and development:

Consider and develop a strategic regeneration and skills plan for the borough

The council is developing an Inclusive Growth Strategy and is engaging with the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) and the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA). The team did note that, within the Inclusive Growth Strategy and Plan, prioritisation of opportunities is likely to be needed and resourced accordingly and would ask that the council ensures this is considered.

The peer team heard about good appointments to the staff team who have had a positive impact on this agenda. This, combined with good engagement with teams across the council, and through the scrutiny process, will help support the success of this approach.

The 2022 Commonwealth Games’ Aquatics Centre represents a huge opportunity for Sandwell and the council is rightly keen to make the most of the legacy. The peer team supports the position articulated by the council that it is critical to ensure that this project remains closely monitored for delivery.

Refresh the corporate landlord strategy to maximise the potential of the borough’s considerable assets

The council has made progress in this area and further work will be supported by the new head of strategic asset management and land, in post from March 2019.

Phase 1 of the workplace vision project is nearing completion and the peer team recommends that the council ensures future phases are fully funded. The project will transform Sandwell’s approach through new office accommodation and ways of working.

This is an important element for supporting ongoing culture change, and staff are supportive of the approach, so the council needs to ensure that messages across the organisation are consistent.

The Transforming Local Services programme is now in delivery and using landholdings strategically – for example landholdings are being packaged up in different ways to support local development priorities.

The council will develop a commercial, land, property and acquisition strategy and the peer team supports the aims of this and underlines the importance of this being delivered in a structured and timely way.

To support this recommendation the peer team advise that SMBC keep the sequencing and the overall programme under review.

Continue to explore other delivery and investment models – for example, housing, site assembly and acquisition

The council has explored a variety of models including Sandwell Leisure Trust, Community Park, Credit Union and is an active member of the Co-operative Councils Innovation Network.

In addition to this, options around social housing will soon be presented to the cabinet, and the housing team will be exploring a number of models within this. The peer team supports this approach.

Summary of recommendations

Sandwell has made good progress since the peer team’s visit in January 2018. Specific recommendations from this follow-up are set out below:

Maintain direction of travel against meeting the 2018 CPC’s recommendations and embed

The council has progressed well against the recommendations and is able demonstrate significant progress in key areas. The peer team encourages you to continue on this implementation journey.

Prioritise capacity and resources to deliver your ambition, particularly in the light of future financial uncertainty

Ensure that you maintain your focus on the future and review the plans which you have been developing in the face of financial uncertainty.

Continue to be a confident partner

We heard from partners about the importance of SMBCs confidence in grasping opportunities and we encourage you to continue this approach.

Keep up the visibility of, and empowerment by, senior management team

Staff value the visibility of senior management and commented on how they felt empowered and able to provide views and constructive challenge. Continue to embrace this as part of your improvement model.

Continue to invest and engage in your member development

SMBC has invested time and effort developing its approach and there has been significant progress made in the last 12 months. Continue to maintain your pace in this area.

Maintain levels of ambition and recognition of success – be prepared to share your best practice

The peer team would encourage you to continue to be ambitious to deliver for Sandwell and communicate your learning as good practice for the benefit of the sector.

Next steps

We appreciate that the council will want to reflect on these findings and suggestions with the senior managerial and political leadership in order to determine how the organisation wishes to move forward.

Your LGA Principal Adviser, Helen Murray, will be happy to work with you to identify any additional support the LGA can offer to help you respond to the points set out in this report.

Helen can be contacted on 07884 312235 or at