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Rotherham’s road to redemption

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LGC’s essential daily briefing.

When an independent inquiry led by a former chief inspector of social work in Scotland revealed in 2014 that at least 1,400 children were abused in Rotherham over a 16-year period it shocked the nation and shook local government to the core.

Politicians and the public were horrified and angry in equal measure. The knives were out and with the council’s reputation in the mire, then leader Roger Stone resigned with immediate effect as professor Alexis Jay’s alarming report was published while chief executive Martin Kimber soon followed him out of the door, pocketing £26,666 in the process. The scandal also cost Rotherham MBC’s strategic director for children and young people’s services Joyce Thacker her job.

The council’s cupboards were being cleared but the scandal was of such magnitude further intervention was required.

A children’s social care commissioner was swiftly appointed amid concerns of “widespread and serious failure” to protect children. Ofsted subsequently found Rotherham’s children’s services to be “inadequate”.

But before all of that, Louise Casey had been sent in to inspect the council. She would later find was “not fit for purpose” and was failing in its duties to protect vulnerable children from harm. Fundamental change was required, she said.

So, in February 2015, communities secretary Eric Pickles took the unprecedented step of appointing a team of five commissioners to take over the running of Rotherham MBC – it was a level of intervention not seen before, in England anyway.

Amid accusations some senior figures at Rotherham were still failing to “grasp” the importance of the scandal, the council did at least acknowledge at the time that it needed a “fresh start”.

When Mr Pickles appointed his commissioners later that month, he said: “I have concluded that it is both necessary and expedient for me to exercise my intervention powers and, given the serious failures in the council, that, as I proposed, the intervention should initially be broad and wide ranging with commissioners exercising many of the authority’s functions until these can be confidently rolled back for the authority to exercise in compliance with its best value duty.”

For those living and working in Rotherham, the last four years have been far from easy (although it has certainly been harder for the victims who suffered horrific child sexual exploitation at the hands of their perpetrators).

But despite the dark days following the inquiry’s publication and beyond, there were soon signs of hope emerging.

While acknowledging at the time he was appointed in November 2014 that turning Rotherham’s children’s services around was the “toughest job in the country”, the council’s then new director of children’s services Ian Thomas told LGC he wanted to “generate a sense of urgency” about raising individual and community responsibility to tackle the problem and to secure more convictions for child sexual exploitation. His appointment set the right tone for the road ahead and his success in the role would lead to his appointment as Lewisham LBC’s chief executive earlier this year.

Back in April 2015, one of the lead commissioners, Sir Derek Myers, told LGC there was “not a shred” of denial left in Rotherham about the scandal and the need to move forward. An improvement plan was soon unveiled.

Six months on and Sir Derek wrote for LGC about the signs of improvement he and the other commissioners could see. He said while Rotherham had previously “let down local people and also let down local government in general”, the council was “moving on” and “entering a critical” period in which it needed to make a number of senior appointments, including that of a chief executive.

That person was Manchester City Council’s strategic director for reform Sharon Kemp, who had also been assistant chief executive at Haringey LBC for two years and worked in the aftermath of the ‘Baby P’ case. She said her past experiences would “equip me for this new role” as she looked to make “a positive difference” in Rotherham.

The positive difference was almost immediate, as in December 2015 it was announced the council’s cabinet was to regain responsibility for education and schools, public health, leisure, housing and planning services.

Five months later, the commissioners team was freshened up with Patricia Bradwell (Con) overseeing improvements to children’s social care on top of her day job as Lincolnshire CC’s deputy leader and executive lead for the county’s children’s services. Lincolnshire also become a “practice improvement partner” under the arrangement with Debbie Barnes, Lincolnshire director of children’s services, leading the project. Both Cllr Bradwell and Ms Barnes would go on to be awarded OBEs in the Queen’s birthday honours list for services to local government andservices to children’s social care respectively

Licensing powers were restored in October 2016 before the council regained responsibilities for adult social care, economic growth and auditing four months later. The train was in motion and further powers – this time over performance management, human resources, community safety (including cohesion and domestic violence), asset management and waste collection – were mooted for return in July 2017.

That led Ms Kemp to declare in an LGC interview that her council no longer suffered from “systemic failure” and promised “absolute focus on the quality” of frontline social work in the next stage of its recovery.

Fast-forward to January 2018 when Rotherham MBC’s children’s services were rated ‘good’ for the first time since the child sexual exploitation scandal in the town.

Such strides led Ms Ney to last month urge the government to end its intervention in Rotherham. Today, housing and communities secretary James Brokenshire has announced his intention to do just that, with the caveat an inspection is held before May next year.

“I am mindful that the decision to hand back the remaining functions, particularly children’s services, is a significant one,” Mr Brokenshire said in his written ministerial statement. “Therefore, I am also announcing that I am minded to put a new direction in place which requires Rotherham MBC to undertake an independent review before 31 March 2019 when the new direction expires. This will enable a last check of the council’s performance once the commissioners have left.”

While the Local Government Association’s lead for sector led improvement Dennis Skinner questioned the level of intervention at Rotherham at the time commissioners were appointed, it is hard to argue against its impact.

Ms Ney, writing for LGC in March 2016, said: “Perhaps surprisingly for those of us who value democratic accountability and the legitimacy of local political leadership in local government, this type of intervention seems to have proved more speedily effective than the more normal improvement board approach. However, it is resource-intensive and dramatic and therefore only likely to be applicable to wholly exceptional circumstances.”

Professor Tony Travers at the London School of Economics also told LGC in 2015: “Those of us who believe in local autonomy have to accept that if things go wrong then there’s a role for national agencies in helping put things right again.

“At times a local solution can sort problems out but every now and then there will be a need for central intervention.”

Challenges still remain in Rotherham, not least the fact pressures in adult and children’s social care services have left a £30m black hole in the council’s finances, but today’s news is another big step on its journey to redemption.

By David Paine, acting news editor

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