If you wandered round the rather impressive new civic headquarters of Rotherham MBC you could be forgiven for thinking it all looks very normal.
In all sorts of very important ways it is normal. Services get delivered, all now at least adequately and many rather well and, like other councils, the organisation has to manage a lot of change alongside the day job of 24/7 service delivery.
Yet Rotherham is very different. This is the council where its leadership was washed away in a tsunami of shame, not in one wave but two, following first the Jay report, which took out the leader, chief executive and director of children’s services and then the second wave following Louise Casey’s report, which took out the replacement leader and cabinet. Other senior staff then decided to step away.
This is the council run not by councillors but by non-elected technocrats.
Six months into the intervention, there is demonstrable progress. To its immense credit the council did not fight the intervention and new Labour councillors stepped forward to work with commissioners very positively. So did the Ukip opposition, who had everything to gain by maximising the scandal but who joined in the improvement work with enthusiasm.
The commissioners are an experienced team of no-nonsense local government professionals. Between us, we have over 150 years of council experience.
Fixing systems, defining standards, assessing staff and rebooting expectations were never going to be the hard part. All of this has been defined into two complementary improvement plans – one for children’s services and one for corporate systems – compromising 230 improvement projects. After 29 weeks many projects have been completed; the rest are on track. Most importantly, children’s services are safer, stronger and coping with demand.
Beyond this, there have been challenges beyond the improvement plan lists.
Should commissioners try or expect to affect political culture? Commissioners have taken the view that culture was part of what went wrong. We have therefore connected Rotherham’s next generation of politicians to best practice elsewhere, using the Local Government Association to arrange mentors; training would-be councillors; development work in scrutiny and revised local codes of conduct.
Should commissioners use their time in charge to set a long-term agenda for the council? The Casey report found fault with the council for not having a credible vision, failing to implement paper strategies and failing to match budget plans with transparent priorities.
Rotherham needed to improve children’s services and needed fresh framework statements about what it is there for, how it prioritises and how it works with others.
We wanted these to be informed by a better and more transparent analysis of what local people actually think and we wanted councillor buy-in because we wanted the practice of ‘consult, consider, write it down, then do it’ to become embedded. We recognised long-term changes had to continue after commissioners had handed back powers.
Working with the new leader, deputy and councillors in an advisory cabinet, we arranged 28 local roadshows. We met over 800 people and harvested opinion through 50 structured questions, with voting in church halls, community centres, workplaces, and online. Some 1,800 people told us what they thought. It is the strongest and most comprehensive exercise the council has ever conducted.
How do we improve the council whilst drastically reducing its budget? All public services face variations on this but Rotherham’s circumstances are different. The gap between where children’s services were and where they needed to be was huge. Closing the gap will mean long-term money and demand is unrelenting.
All three major political parties at Westminster supported intervening in Rotherham. The remedies are in delivery but the financial consequence doubles the budget gap over any other comparable unitary authority. That is why we are in discussion with the government, not for a bailout, but for some flexibilities that will enable the council to deliver for children without wrecking everything else.
We fully expect the government to understand the need to assist, while ensuring there are no rewards for failure.
The commissioners feel tested. We have learnt a lot; we had to make up a lot of constitutional conventions that simply did not exist.
We are now entering a critical six months with eight senior appointments to make including a chief executive and two chief officers.
But the cause is just and right. Rotherham MBC, alongside other public services, let down local people and also let down local government in general but it is moving on. Children’s services are now safer and stronger; the rest of the council is stable.
Derek Myers, commissioner, Rotherham MBC
If we continue to get help from others and support from our local residents we can see a return to normality in 2016.