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One-time pariah council Rotherham can inspire others

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Commentary on LGC’s interview with Rotherham chief executive Sharon Kemp

If you work for Kensington & Chelsea RBC it is probably hard to believe that any council’s reputation has ever sunk to the depths it has sunk to in recent weeks.

Regardless of the fact many K&C services are sound, such is the impact of the Grenfell Tower disaster that the council’s name has become a byword for a lack of care, obliviousness and incompetence.

However, other councils have hit astonishing lows. Tower Hamlets LBC was successful in some respects but was led by a politically corrupt mayor; Doncaster MBC was a political basket case; Hackney LBC could not even run the most basic services; Haringey LBC was at fault over both Victoria Climbié and Baby P.

Perhaps none of these ever plummeted as low as Rotherham MBC. A 2014 report by Professor Alexis Jay revealed how the council’s failings had contributed to 1,400 children being abused.

Members had known about a sexual exploitation problem for a decade, the ethnic background of abusers was covered up for fear of being seen as racist and a specialist child sexual exploitation team was regarded as a nuisance.

Unsurprisingly the chief executive and leader were forced out and commissioners were brought in to run council services.

However, Rotherham is on the up. The commissioners are happy with progress and communities secretary Sajid Javid this month recommended that five key powers should be restored to the council.

The council’s chief executive Sharon Kemp agreed to be interviewed by LGC. She declared Rotherham no longer suffers from “systemic failure” and pledged a relentless focus on ensuring the consistency of frontline social work.

The authority has offered inducements to social workers to join. Pay has been relatively generous, caseloads are moderate while they are promised a level of supervision uncommon elsewhere.

The entire senior management team and 98% of assistant directors have been replaced; half of councillors elected at last year’s all-out elections are new.

Ms Kemp insisted she was not concerned about her council’s reputation because “if you worried about reputation then you are worrying about the wrong thing”. The council was entirely focused on “doing the right thing”.

She continued: “Our job is to make sure those services are as good and robust as they absolutely possibly can be. That’s what I want to consume each and every one of us. We are all really passionate.

“Everybody who has come in as part of this improvement journey is passionate that our responsibility is to make sure that the borough, the services we operate and the way we interact with our communities is always focused around putting our people first.”

Asked for her advice for other senior officers facing similar challenges, Ms Kemp talked about the need to retain “organisational grip” and to “always smell the grass”. She said she always maintained a “line of sight to the frontline” to ground herself in the reality.

She continued: “That’s challenging when you’ve got significant pressures, strategies and budgets but actually making that time to get out there every single week and understanding what’s actually going on has been the best piece of advice that I was given and will give to others.”

Part of this line of sight includes attending meetings of Rotherham’s looked-after children council to hear from them directly about their needs and the service they receive.

Ms Kemp notes that budget cuts could impact on the council’s improvement but says that in some respects, “it’s nice to have a common problem”, shared with other councils.

Her office looks across the South Yorkshire town. She speaks with pride of plans to regenerate its riverfront and of the local investment the supercar manufacturer McLaren has made and of the theme park Gulliver’s £37m expansion. These are the sort of things any council would take pride in. Rotherham still has its challenges - some of them profound - but is becoming more normal.

Rotherham shows many things: the success of intervention; the value of dedicated council staff and the power of persistence. It should also inspire those at Kensington & Chelsea desperate for a change in fortune.

Of the other once pariah councils mentioned in this article, Tower Hamlets and Haringey are beacons of growth; chief executive Jo Miller and elected mayor Ros Jones (Lab) are dragging Doncaster into shape; and Hackney LBC won LGC’s Council of the Last 20 Years accolade. There are many examples that should inspire Kensington & Chelsea.

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