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Independent governance review hits out at county council that "lost its way" amid internal battles

Northumberland County Council (NCC) has “lost its way over a number of years to the extent that leadership at both political and managerial levels is distracted, and no longer focussed on external issues but involved to an unhealthy extent on internal battles”, an independent governance review of the local authority carried out by troubleshooter Max Caller has concluded.

Mr Caller’s report, which was commissioned in February 2022 and can be viewed here, was published on the same day that the council separately asked its Employment Appeals Committee (EAC) to try to get to the bottom of how unlawful spending took place on a healthcare consultancy business and an allowance for its chief executive, leading to the issuing of a s.114 notice.

The executive summary in Mr Caller’s report said: “Local government is about people and place, managing, delivering, and integrating a range of disparate services to achieve a consistent level of service delivery and community leadership which improves the lives of all of the area’s residents. Making this happen in the unitary council area covered by Northumberland poses particular challenges given the size, population density, geography, and connectivity issues.

“Doing this in a way that demonstrates compliance and understanding with good local government practice and procedure is a fundamental requirement, particularly when taking the hard decisions that this requires. Understanding democratic accountability, scrutiny, openness, and documentation needs to run right through every part of the organisation. A unitary council operation requires a real understanding of both strategic overview and local delivery.”

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Mr Caller said the evidence, “very clearly”, pointed to NCC “having forgotten much of this and lost its way over a number of years…..”.

The report suggested that despite a relatively generous funding position, there were signs that services were starting to perform at a lower level due to this lack of attention. “The evidence from the way in which NCC coped with recent major natural disasters, despite amazing efforts from many staff, signals a lack of oversight and leadership of the whole area and the outcomes from a range of sources demonstrates an unwillingness to learn and improve.”

Mr Caller urged the council to “undergo a fundamental reset of its philosophy, processes, and relationships, starting with a clear understanding of what the council is about, the respective roles of members and officers, how decisions are formulated, taken, recorded, and challenged in a robust and appropriate way”.

He said this would involve cultural change, a redrafting of the constitution to reflect a more appropriate system of delegation and proper member oversight of companies and partnership bodies.

The report also called for the officer corps to be brigaded “in a way which best delivers the goals of a Corporate Plan which reflects the people, place, and direction of travel of the elected administration and held to account through an appraisal process which starts with the Member oversight of the Chief Executive and Executive Directors and runs to the bottom of the organisation”.

This should be comprised of a substantially permanent group of appointees, all of whom understand and live local government, it added.

Mr Caller acknowledged that the council had delivered real wins for the area in the recent past and had a lot to be proud of, but suggested that “some of this has been achieved through conflict rather than co-operation”.

He added: “The council needs to start by putting aside its internal conflicts to come together for the best possible future for all those people they represent and who put their trust in local democracy.”

The report also noted amongst other things that:

  • The staffing structure at Northumberland did not reflect the need to ensure the right level of visibility in the organisation of key roles, “as exemplified by the ranking of the Monitoring Officer (MO)”. The structure at NCC indicates that the post of MO is a third-tier role “which speaks to the lack of understanding of and respect for this role”.
  • One of the MOs had left the employment of the council, and the Staffing and Appointments Committee (SAC) had no official visibility in committee, nor opportunity to discuss the circumstances, nor the settlement agreement of the departing MO. Senior members who asked for the committee to be involved in the discussions were told that by a senior officer that it was not in the NCC constitution for the SAC to be involved in the discusssions about the MO role as the MO role was "not designated a chief officer post in the council constitution". The report said senior officers justified this by stating that in the SAC terms of reference, the SAC was only able ‘to determine appointments of chief officers and appropriate deputies’ (as the MO was third tier).
  • The ‘turn over’ of statutory officers, particularly, MO’s and the S151 officers at NCC, could be "viewed as indicative of a culture where constructive advice and challenge has not been welcomed by senior officers of the council”.
  • The numbers of Freedom of Information requests (FOIs), grievances, complaints, standards and conduct issues between officers and officers and between Members and officers reflected an absence of effective communication in the upper levels of the organisation. "Many Members and officers resort to such processes as they feel it is the only way they can effect change."
  • Much external legal advice had been sought by senior officers independently of the MO. “The MO did not until recently have this legal overview which was a significant risk to the council. There appears to be constant disagreement between officers and Members about the instruction given to counsel and the advice received, to interpret or inform decision making. Many decisions are steered or justified by counsel’s opinion as opposed to instinctive, sensible, open, and joint decision making between officers and Members.”
  • The organisation was paralysed due to large volumes of procedural issues which demanded an extraordinary resource. There had been 4792 FOIs in three years and 307 Subject Access Requests (SARs), many from senior officers and members.
  • The review team noted some thirty conduct complaints, with only two from the public. The majority are between officers and members and also member to member. "This is not the prime purpose of the standards process, originally designed for the public to use. Due to these investigations, many senior officers and senior Members have been deemed to be compromised and are unable to communicate with each other on a day-to-day basis."
  • Sensitive council papers had been leaked on numerous occasions and as a result, all council papers are now watermarked with names. "This is indicative of a failure in trust and a most unsecure position for the council to operate effectively."
  • There was little substantive trust in the most senior officer levels of the council and "there exists a climate of fear and intimidation as reflected in many of the interviews conducted by the review team".

The leader of Northumberland County Council, Cllr Glen Sanderson, said he welcomed the findings of the “extremely thorough” report.

Cllr Sanderson said: “While some of the findings may appear blunt this is exactly what we expected to find and this is very much another step in restoring good governance, transparency and accountability to Northumberland County Council.

“This is what I called for when I took office as Leader of this administration 12 months ago – creating a new culture of openness, trust and accountability, in all that we do.”

He added: “We need to study this report in detail but both councillors and officers will be getting to work straight away to address these issues that have been highlighted. 

"I also want to reassure our residents, partners and staff that day-to-day work and the services we provide will not be affected – quite the opposite. We want to see real results and improvement in everything that we do and I am confident this review signals the start of a brighter future for the council."

Recommendations in the Caller independent governance review

Northumberland County Council needs to: -

1. Establish what it means to be a Best Value Unitary Local Authority in its geographic area delivering appropriate services and community leadership to every resident and entity in its area. To do this, it needs new seasoned local government professional leadership at the top of the organisation now to help it do this.

2. Once this has been done, it needs to-

2.1 Redraft its Corporate Plan in terms of the Administration’s Goals and Objectives, moderated by the capacity of the organisation and the legislative framework,

2.2 Ensure the values by which it seeks to operate are lived within the organisation

2.3 Use the data it holds, collects, or needs to collect to define priorities and monitor and improve performance in a systematic way and publish the outcomes.

2.4 Review and redraft the Constitution to ensure that decisions that should be taken at Member level, by Cabinet, Committee, Individual Member or Full Council are clearly identified and that the recording and scrutiny of officer decisions, both individually and in aggregate, is unambiguous.

2.5 Review and redraft the codes of conduct which regulate Member and officer behaviours and working relationships with each other, to make it clear what the expectations of each party should be and how robust challenge can be handled, to ensure proper accountability can be achieved. This needs to recognise the legitimate rights of Councillors for information to enable them to do their role and for Councillors to recognise that policy is the preserve of the Council unless delegated and saying no is a legitimate outcome.

2.6 Establish a rationale for the establishment or continuation of any company established under the provisions of the Localism Act 2011.

2.7 Establish a specific governance framework by which, for those companies wholly or partly owned by NCC, their Directors are appointed, report on performance are presented to a Cabinet Sub-Committee, conflicts of interest are dealt with and risk and how shareholder agreements are ratified, by both the company and NCC. 41

2.8 Establish an officer structure which is designed to deliver against earlier recommendations and seek to appoint permanent employees to fulfil those objectives.

2.9 Establish a scheme of performance appraisal, starting with the Chief Executive at Member level, in line with the JNC provisions, which cascades throughout the organisation so that every employee is clear about their targets and how they fit into plan delivery. As the Chief Executive is accountable to the Council as a whole for their performance, publish the targets and how they have been achieved as an annual statement to Council.

3 With the help of the Local Government Association, establish a challenge board with appropriate experience at both top officer and elected Member level in unitary authorities to work with NCC, on a cross-party basis, as it addresses these recommendations.

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