A report produced by the Scrutiny and Policy Panel
Councillor Edward Mossop ELDC and Chairman of the Task and Finish Panel presented the report confirming that the Overview and Scrutiny Committees of Boston Borough Council, South Holland District Council, and East Lindsey District Council had commissioned a joint Scrutiny Task & Finish Panel to undertake a review of the progress on the opportunities identified in the approved business case for the South & East Lincolnshire Councils Partnership.The report would be presented to each of the Partnership Councils’ relevant sovereign scrutiny committee and the scrutiny being undertaken was required under the Partnership’s Memorandum of Agreement and was an annual commitment.
The review had undertaken a large consultation exercise initially with the executive boards from each council and their respective senior management and following on from those discussions, the group had felt it would be beneficial to speak to a wider range of people. Further investigations took place with the staff forum and that had enabled the group to identify additional recommendations including the last one, which was to ensure that the pace of change was realistic and achievable. Whilst it was obvious that the changes had been implemented quickly, it was agreed that moving forward communications with staff and the public needed to be improved in the understanding of how the partnership worked and the pace of change needed to slow down and be impactful rather than do too much too soon. The review had worked independently of the recent Peer Challenge but it had been interesting to note that a number of the nuances the review group had returned had been echoed by the Peer Challenge. PSPS had also been key in establishing the partnership and a recommendation tabled sought to include them at an earlier stage in the development of the Annual Development Plan, to try to encourage a better working relationship with them.
Significant member comment and questioning followed which included:
(Councillor Mossop’s responses along with those of the portfolio holder are noted at the end of all the comments)
Noting the recording of Lord Gary Porter within the report a request was made that the correct recording of his title be amended to Lord (Gary) Porter
Referencing the changes to IT and the move to Outlook 365 and iPad a member asked that all Councillors be involved in making the final decision and that they be accorded the option of having whichever device they feel is best for them be it Windows or Apple.
Agreeing the practicality of one constitution across the three authorities, a member asked how the process was developing as it had been addressed by the previous Monitoring Officer who had indicated a timeline for implementation around the current time. It had been expected that an outside body would undertake the significant piece of work and an update on the position was requested.
Referencing the possibility of further single policies across the partnership, the member cited planning officers working across three authorities with two local plans and the benefits of one set of guidelines which would be time saving.
Further support was also tabled for the concept of looking at the three existing remuneration panels and the possibility of one over-arching panel which would ensure a level playing field for officers and members across the three authorities.
Concerns were noted by a number of members at the amount of negative responses of staff members via the staff questionnaire and the staff forum which a member felt to be pretty damning. It appeared that the feedback was more concerning than in previous years. Noting that the Deputy Chief Executive (Communities) said that there was a need to build on communications, it was agreed that their representation was a good and balanced account in respect of staff. Members noted the senior managers were not picking up the feelings of their staff. Managers needed to be very honest with their staff with many of the junior staff being overwhelmed with the increased workload since the partnership, with some having team meetings and others not having had one since coming out of the pandemic. Boston staff in particular seemed to feel they are not a part of the team which was very worrying. There appeared to be a patronising practice to praise in public but not within the work environment. Whilst the LGA Inspector had picked up on the fact that those in the higher echelons were very happy with the situation it was equally important that the lower/junior staff also felt valued. It was obvious from their feedback they did not feel valued nor included in the progress of the partnership.
A member stressed that as a party member on two of the authorities, they never ceased in their praise of the workload the senior staff undertook, stating that the partnership would never have been successful without them
Referencing the way forward of the partnership a member stated he felt the recommendation did not fully explain the direction or ultimate aim, nor he felt, the priorities of the three Councils. It appeared to be moving to align all three into one Council whilst also stating that individual sovereignty would be maintained which was confusing. Noting the alignment of portfolio holders and policies the member further questioned who would be financing and asked if it would be the Council with the most money. Whilst he appreciated the reasoning for the sharing of senior officers as being a cost effective measure, other impacts from the partnership had not been so successful with the implementation of recess which Boston had never been subjected to, resulting in no officers being available over that time, albeit members continued to work. There had been ongoing issues of continual late reporting being tabled, with agendas being published with reports marked to follow, difficulty in contacting senior officers and ongoing tabling of late reports causing problems for committees’. Concluding the member stated he felt Boston Council had not benefitted as much as the other two Councils from the partnership, but did complement the review group on the work undertaken.
Responding to the questions and comments Councillor Mossop stated:
The report was open and honest with positive and negative issues identified from the review. The concerns of the staff feedback had been recognised and would be taken forward with improved consultation being one of the recommendations. Alignment was the way forward and not a merger. Any merger would be a political decision and for consideration at a later date. Alignment of the three Councils would result in a powerhouse to move onwards. Referencing the question in respect of the alignment of the three constitutions, Councillor Mossop noted if the Monitoring Officer had previously indicated a timeline then the Cabinet should move the item forward
The Portfolio Holder addressed the meeting and clarified the position of the priorities which had been taken through Full Council and had not changed. The report was welcomed and alongside the Peer Review it helped to identify and resolve problems. The alignment has results in driving a lot of funding into Boston including the Town Deal and improvements to CCTV. Noting the staff feedback, he felt it reassuring that the staff had felt able to be as honest as they had been. A big issue continued to be the ICT for members, and alignment of that would be significantly less time consuming than at present with the need to move between different systems. However it was important that the right process was in place prior to implementation.
In conclusion Councillor Judith Skinner Chairman of the committee voiced her gratitude at the opportunity of having been able to participate in the review and to work alongside members of the other Councils and gain an insight into their thinking.