We are on day two a four day peer challenge at Shropshire Council. After two meetings with the peers today, I have gained some confidence in the process. But I was amazed by the Orwellian propaganda installed in the last few days in Shirehall. We have the Chief Executive and others broadcasting messages about the council on large telescreens around Shirehall. Huge posters in the main committee rooms. Stickers on the lift doors. I am sure that it was just a coincidence that these all appeared as the peer challengers arrived. Despite this 1984 scenario, I hope that the review will change Shropshire Council for the better.
I am used to peer review – the excellent concept of getting equals to challenge and assess what you are doing. University and research academics have had this for ages. A slightly different concept exists in local government. The Local Government Association – which is sort of a trade union for councils – offers a peer challenge. Council leaders from other authorities come and provide an independent insight into the way the council works.
I need to be cautious in my comments in this article. We worked today under Chatham House Rules, so I can’t give quotes or identifications or even the structure of what we discussed.
I met two leaders of other councils in two meetings today. One leads in a West Midlands council and the other from the bottom right of the country (or left when you look down from Shropshire).
Shropshire Council, like any organisation that spends half a billion pounds of public money a year, can lose its way. Even with its democratic oversight.
Keith Barrow was leader of the council from its formation in April 2009 to December 2015. My view is that the newly formed unitary council seriously lost its way in that period. It seemed like it’s leaders had a death wish. Barrow talked of cutting staff to little more than 100 and spinning out most council activities to ip&e, a council owned company. Councillor Barrow didn’t pass the test of time and neither did ip&e.
This was the period in which the most senior and experience staff were offered generous redundancy packages. We lost many of the most talented people across the council because there was no belief that skilled people were essential. There was a concern that the skilled people cost more than new recruits. It was all about money, not quality.
Things have improved a lot in the council since. But there is still, in my view, a culture shock within the council from the Barrow era. The officers we employ are pretty much excellent but under enormous pressure. The senior officers are paid well enough to have to take that on the chin. The officers dealing with day-to-day issues don’t have enough resources and get unfair flak.
There is widespread frustration about the relationship between the Conservative leadership and members of other parties, and even their own backbenchers. It seems that no matter how good our backbencher ideas are they are usually destined to fail, because they are not put forward by leading Tories.
Scrutiny is the biggest issue and has been raised throughout this process. We have five scrutiny and overview committees. Every chair and vice chair is a Conservative. For many in these roles, it is seen as a stepping stone into the cabinet.
Scrutiny doesn’t work this way in many other councils. Those councils understand scrutiny is the internal voice that provides the checks and balances to leadership of a body. In Shropshire most of the scrutiny and overview meetings seemed stitched up before they start (but there are exemplary exceptions).
The peer challenge group has a couple of days to run. It will be talking to town and parish councils and local media. Housing associations and many others have been involved.
The question I had in my head as went for the bus this morning, “Is this going to work?” The second question was, “Is it worth me attending?”
I know the answer to the second question. Its, “yes”. But we won’t know whether the peer challenge process has worked until we see the peer challenge report. And above all, until we see Shropshire Council’s reaction to it.
Meanwhile, I don’t feel comfortable in a Shirehall that has in the last couple of days posted its corporate vision on the lift doors. There are huge promotional posters in committee rooms. And Big Brother telescreens everywhere you look.
I don’t feel comfortable in this environment one bit. This is not what we do a councillors. We are not in Shirehall to worship a corporate model. We are there to ensure that the communities that we represent get the best deal we can grab for them in a council that sometimes seems more concerned about its image that the people it serves.
Shropshire Council does a great deal of good work. More than many people realise. We heard about some of that today in the peer challenge and in other meetings.
I think it’s great that Shropshire Council has organised this peer challenge. For me, the jury is out about whether this exercise will make any difference. I am not pessimistic.
We need to change the culture of the council to ensure a genuine partnership between all councillors, officers, parish councils, volunteers and so many more. If we do that, we’ll be a long way to working out how to use dwindling finances in a needy world.
We are not councillors to support anyone’s career or political ambitions. We are elected to support the communities we live in.
I don’t know why the image below is the wrong way up but somehow it seems to summarise the council world I live in.