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Idea Exchange: How we became LGC’s Council of the Year

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Vision, leadership, innovation and delivery: that was the somewhat immodest statement we used to sum up our bid to be named Council of the Year at the 2018 LGC Awards.

Chris Naylor

Idea Exchange: How we became LGC’s Council of the Year

Chris Naylor

The past four years have, of course, been about all those things. But it’s the content of our approach and pace of delivery that I think marked us out.

Our mission has been to design a council that works to connect and reconnect with our residents from first principles; that sees them as individuals with hopes, fears and aspiration; and that delivers services that are pivotal to their lives. Growth is coming to our part of London and we want to accelerate it, and shape it, so that as many residents as possible benefit and no one is left behind.

Barking & Dagenham LBC operates in a very challenging public service context. On a four-box matrix that plots funding with need, we’re the dot in the wrong corner of the wrong box. Beyond that, we are a place that is deeply affected by many of the more challenging aspects of modernity – globalisation, migration, wealth and poverty, politics, faith and identity among them.

Change has torn through our place over the past 20 years. In 2001 just under 90% of our population were white British; now less than half are. A decade ago, 12 members of the British National Party were elected to the council – all but one of the party’s candidates who stood for election. We were a Brexit Borough. The modern world has been a hard place for too many of our residents.

The council has faced its challenges too. I arrived as CEO in February 2015, appointed by a new and ambitious political administration. I found colleagues who were inspired and baffled in equal measure by the politicians’ energy and drive.

Staff overwhelmingly wanted change, but they lacked the leadership to understand or execute it. An LGA peer review encouraged us to ‘be bold’. Meanwhile Ofsted told us we required improvement. Doing nothing, or incrementally tinkering, was never really an option.

In 2015 we convened an independent growth commission. Chaired by former treasury economist Mike Emmerich, it brought together national and international experts. Their exam question: “How do we increase the pace and scale of growth, but do so in a way that benefits everyone in the borough?”

We also set all staff the task of figuring out how we would get to 2020, halve our budget and yet still have a council capable of delivering the administration’s vision. We called this programme Ambition 2020, a sister project to the commission. Both activities were completed and consulted on by the spring of 2016 – setting out a blueprint for a new kind of council that we then implemented in 2017.

Three themes ran through both pieces of work. First, there were tangible things we could do to speed up economic growth and the delivery of genuinely affordable housing, but we needed to be bold in our design and maximise the potential of our balance sheet.

The result was the launch of Be First, our wholly owned but arm’s-length growth and regeneration company, chaired by Lord Kerslake (Crossbench). Its job is to triple house building in the borough, both through its own development and by providing the best planning and regen service in the land to enable inward investment and be the place to do business.

By 2021 the company will be returning £10.3m per year to the council. Over the next 20 years it will ensure delivery of 50,000 new homes in the borough.

Meanwhile B&D Reside, our general fund housing company, already owns over 800 affordable, flexible tenure rented properties. This will be 1,000 in a couple of months and 3,000 by 2021. This is social housing infrastructure for the 21st century and it is already transforming lives by providing accommodation that a couple on the minimum wage or an individual on the living wage can afford to rent.

As a council we are now building more municipal housing at a social rent than we are losing through the right to buy, for the first time ever.

Second, we needed to pay attention to the condition of our people. Just too many of them are at the wrong end of too many socioeconomic indicators. Central to our response has been the launch of Community Solutions. It brings 16 services into one – ranging across adults, children’s, homelessness, housing, and community safety – and is a big change inside the council, involving multi-disciplinary teams, demand modelling, use of insight, and behavioural specialists on the frontline.

It is no coincidence that our third focus has been on connecting and reconnecting with our residents, winning their trust, being on their side and forming new partnerships. A significant part of this has been about fixing core services and improving communication.

For example, in 2015 we were regularly failing to lift one in 10 bins. Now it’s fewer than one in 200. Today we regularly top the chart for public digital engagement. And we’ve rebooted our approach to community engagement, with 3,000 residents contributing to a 20-year vision for the borough.

We kicked it all off with Every One Every Day, the country’s largest ever community participation programme, supported by £6.4m of grant funding to catalyse thousands of community-led projects to raise aspiration and confidence.

So we’ve delivered significant reform within our organisation, but the job is far from done. It reminds me of watching those early flights of the space shuttle as a kid. The launch has been OK, space flight has gone to plan, the heat shields (just about) worked on re-entry, and we’re now on the glide path to land.

But the wheels aren’t down, financially there’s no fuel left in the tank; we have momentum but the margin for error is slim. We may be LGC’s Council of the Year, but in this regard, we’re just like everywhere else.

Chris Naylor, chief executive, Barking & Dagenham LBC

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