At last we see signs that Shropshire Council is preparing for the challenging future facing our county

Boredom alert! This article is going to talk about Shropshire Council’s corporate plan. It’s not exciting. But the draft plan does at last set out where the council is heading, for good or bad, probably both. Once it is agreed in December, it will provide a better basis for scrutiny and challenge within the council.

It has long been possible to see what Shropshire Council was heading from, robust democracy. It has been much harder to work out where Shropshire Council is heading towards. But that could change with a new corporate plan. Maybe.

Shropshire Council was created as a unitary authority in April 2009, sweeping away the district councils. It started badly. It centralised power in the hands of the leader and a few of his lieutenants. It translated the word “unitary” as “uniform”. The leadership gambled on moving functions into a council company, ip&e, to save money and earn income from other councils. That company failed, the leader resigned in December 2015 before he was pushed. Local councils rebelled against being dictated to by Shirehall. The council has been coping with the legacy of six years of lack of direction under his leadership since.

That is changing. The council is still making much up as it goes along, it has for example just splashed out £55 million on three shopping centres in Shrewsbury. That sort of investment, rushed because the site owners gave a take it or leave it deadline, should only be made as part of a longer term, democratically agreed strategy.

We are at last seeing the first steps towards that strategy, though not yet democratic agreement. The draft corporate plan was discussed at cabinet last Wednesday. It wasn’t the most useful discussion but I fully support the principle of having a corporate plan.

At more than 11,500 words the corporate plan is not an exciting read. The plan has four big ideas (“high level outcomes”). They are to achieve:

  • Healthy People (HP)
  • Resilient Communities (RC)
  • A Prosperous Economy (PE)
  • A Commercial Council (CC).

I’ll translate. If we don’t have heathy people, we won’t have a prosperous economy. If we don’t have resilient communities that can do more themselves, we won’t have healthy people. If Shropshire Council doesn’t become more commercial, it won’t be able to adequately support people, communities or the economy.

There have been various ways of expressing direction and objectives before in the council. But they have always seemed remote from funding decisions. And they were always rather fuzzy and somewhat motherhood and apple pie.

Many dismiss corporate plans as corporate gobbledygook. I have some sympathy with that view. I have worked on and had my work shaped by many corporate plans over the years. But we won’t make strides forward as a council unless we have clear statements of what we want to achieve. Right now, any vision for the council is scattered across a plethora of policy statements and committee minutes. It’s hard to pin the council down to whether it is achieving the best with its resources because it hard to know what it intends to achieve.

We know more about what Shropshire Council is aiming for after the publication of the first draft of the corporate plan. There is stuff to make headlines. A £300 million capital investment in land and property to generate future income for the council. The rest is not a great read. Corporate plans are never a great read.

Despite some views to the contrary on the right of politics, local authorities can never act as fully commercial businesses, firing from the hip, serving their one primary objective, shareholder value. Councils have too many essential public functions to support and complex objectives. But Shropshire Council can’t ignore strategic planning. We have a budget of half a billion pounds. As large as that sounds, it is nowhere near enough for meet demands. That makes it even more important that we guide our decision-making and plan expenditure wisely, rather that firefight day in, day out.

The corporate plan will be finalised in December. The process certainly won’t guarantee that Shropshire Council won’t return to the dark ages. The chaotic way the council was managed from its inception to the end of 2015 could return. But the corporate plan introduces a new level of scrutiny to the council. It must set out just what it intends to achieve with our money every three years, and be updated yearly.

The existence of the plan, with its high level outcomes, measures of success and impact, and timed milestones gives us a better basis for scrutiny, for challenge and for learning, than we have had in Shropshire Council to date.

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