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A brand new senior managerial team is transforming Swindon BC, says Kerry Lorimer ...
A brand new senior managerial team is transforming Swindon BC, says Kerry Lorimer

When Swindon BC found itself labelled one of the poorest councils in the land, the town - which had until then achieved notoriety for nothing worse than imposing Melinda Messenger on the world - was suddenly adrift in the same shameful boat as Hackney LBC and Kingston upon Hull City Council.

While Swindon had steered clear of the political and financial chaos that characterised failure in other 'poor' councils, its exceptionally weak education and social services guaranteed it a prominent place under the government's beady eye.

Long before the Audit Commission dealt the killer blow by ranking Swindon as 'poor' in December 2002, members and officers knew what was in store.

In September 2001, the education department was hit by a damning Ofsted report and in response the Tribal Group was brought in on a three-year contract to manage the department.

The following May, Swindon's social services were ranked among the worst 10 in the country, gaining no stars in the Social Services Inspectorate's first set of star ratings. It shared with Walsall MBC the dubious honour of having the worst adult services in the country.

When the inspectors descended for the comprehensive performance assessment, they were unable to criticise Swindon's corporate plan or workforce strategy, because these documents simply did not exist. Swindon was, in other words, in about as bad a place as it could possibly have been.

The man who has taken on the Herculean task of turning the council around is Simon Birch, previously director of environment, and one of only three survivors of a massive managerial cull. After heading up the council on an acting basis for six months, he was appointed last April.

The emotional impact of being ranked 'poor' was immense, says Mr Birch. 'The low point came in December 2002 when the local newspaper ran the headline 'It's official - Swindon is the worst council in the country',' he says. 'Morale was very low, it was awful.'

The biggest single problem was its dysfunctional senior management team, he says.

'People weren't getting on with each other, and there were huge gaps everywhere. There was a series of interim appointments and half the directors were acting. People knew what to do but couldn't get on with it.'

Assembling a new managerial team has been Mr Birch's top priority, and his enthusiasm about his new directors is palpable.

Among the new faces is head of human resources Rebecca McKenzie, whose past experience includes a spell heading personnel at Australia's prison services.

She is in no doubt that human resources is pivotal to the council's turnaround: 'Change happens through people. There's been a strong recognition that Swindon's recovery relies on its capacity to engage staff in the change. Its status as a poor council brings with it connotations that may not be accurate in terms of its quality as a place to work, but word is starting to get out about the new Swindon and the strength of the new director team and that will draw people.'

Her formula in four words? 'We sell the journey.' That journey has so far been most impressive in the council's education services, with a leap in standards of which most councils could only dream. Ofsted's most recent report, published in October, shows 85% of the inspection areas are now satisfactory or better, compared with fewer than a third in 2001, leading schools minister David Miliband to declare the council's progress 'highly satisfactory'.

'The council is in intensive care, social services is in intensive care, education is in the recovery ward,' says education director Hilary Pitts.

The man responsible for pulling social services out of intensive care is Keith Skerman, who has headed the department since last summer.

He says the newness of the team is in the council's favour: 'We're all coming at it on the same basis. There's no history or baggage or 'we've always done it that way'. And we are rapidly forming a corporate team approach.'

Swindon knows it must gain one star for social services, but is not underestimating the scale of the task. Children's services have just been inspected, and Mr Skerman hopes that star could be in the bag.

Older people's services will be tougher. 'That's the weakest service, it's really patchy,' admits Mr Skerman. 'It's too early to tell if everything will be in place but we've made a good start.'

Swindon describes its aspiration in three words: to be normal. Its climb will be a steep one - even for Mr Birch who, as a keen Munro-bagger, is well used to precipitous ascents. But it certainly has no intention of lingering in the terminal ward.

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