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Commissioner's bulletin 31 March 2016

sir derek myers
Lead Commissioner Sir Derek Myers

I write to provide a further bulletin on the work of Commissioners in helping Rotherham Council improve sufficiently to have its democratic powers restored.

At the end of February we completed 12 months’ work.

This work has been unusual and demanding for all concerned not least because as the only Council in England to lose its democratic powers to non-elected technocrats, there is no obvious precedent and we have had to try to be thoughtful at every stage as to how to get the job done.

Up until 11th February, 2016, Commissioners made all the decisions that elected “Cabinet” Members would make in other Councils operating a Cabinet system (which is most). We were also making decisions which other Councils would do by a Licensing Committee.

We set out to make these by going with the grain. In other words we adopted existing Council policies where they were sufficient; we did not set out to make sharp turns on the tiller for the sake of it; we wanted all Members of the Council (who continued in office) to see us being respectful of their continuing status. We adopted a belief at the outset that the Council could recover. We knew we had four years to prove this theory. We also said we would be utterly realistic if this theory proved to be wrong.

The fundamentals were that Councillors continue to hold their existing powers in planning and their duties in the Audit and Standards Committees, but in other executive decision-making areas Councillors were invited to comment on relevant matters and Advisory Cabinet Members became advisors to the Commissioners.

At the same time the Council was being run by a mixture of interim staff and other staff doing their best often with new responsibilities. Each week brought a new challenge but now looking back over 12 months I think we can fairly say we have made good progress.

At the heart of this is the Council’s willingness to commit to change. No Councillor picked a fight with the Commissioners and indeed the general atmosphere within the senior ranks of the Council over the last 12 months have been cordial, respectful, professional and purposeful. I am told it was not always like this in Rotherham but frankly in any such account I am relying on anecdote.

From the 11th February this year, Commissioners recommended and the Secretary of State DCLG accepted that about one third of the Council’s decision-making powers should return to Councillors. A significant number of services are now being run by Councillors in the same way as they would be in other comparable Councils. But because two thirds of services and the decision-making surrounding them have been retained by Commissioners we are now in a further chapter where we are different from other Councils.

We now have public meetings where Commissioners and Councillors sit down each with their own matters to decide. We have had three such meetings so far and despite the fact that I think all of us expected this to feel artificial, the trust that we have developed over the last 12 months is paying off and we have been able to achieve calm and sensible discussion where any differences are aired appropriately and compromises are thoughtfully discussed and agreed where relevant.

Considerable credit should go to the Leader of the Council, Councillor Chris Read, who now chairs these meetings and does so with what is becoming his characteristic calm and grace.

Life in the Council

Just because Commissioners are part of the Council life does not mean we do not have the same challenges and matters of debate as other comparative Councils.

Setting a budget this year was demanding but we think that the Commissioner experience we were able to offer and the influence we were able to utilise to persuade the Department of Communities and Local Government to give us a one off extra grant of £5m, brought something to the table.

We spent a lot of time hiring new senior staff and this has gone well with new people now arriving. We are delighted that the new energy and ideas that they are already bringing.

The new Chief Executive, Sharon Kemp, has been extremely energetic in getting around and meeting staff, partners and other allies and is making an extremely good impression.

In the Council Chamber, Councillors had a serious and sensible discussion about the advantages and risks of joining with others in the Sheffield Combined Authority (Sheffield City Region); arrangements which should see a Mayor elected at this sub-regional level in May 2017.

Plenty of local challenges

The Council wants to be relevant to all aspects of local life.

We are working hard to help the police bring to justice past perpetrators of child sexual exploitation. We applaud those who found the courage and fortitude to give evidence and we are pleased with the court outcomes. Much more of the same should follow.

We are currently actively trying to think about how we work with local neighbourhoods in Rotherham. These are varied from those that are doing well to those who are a lot more stressed. The centre of Rotherham and in particular Eastwood is a neighbourhood where we know we want to do better both in terms of joined up enforcement but also working with local households to try to raise ambition and getting more local ownership of issues.

We fear that we are in for another series of demonstrations by those that we think can generically be called right wing extremists. The Council, supported by Commissioners, has made it clear that these protests are unwelcome, unjustified and disruptive of local life. They put fear into some of our residents and put blights on some of our businesses and we have to make sure that the Police understand the emotions of local people and factor these into decisions that they take about how to apply the rules to these occurrences.

We have gone out to consultation on our refreshed plan for Rotherham town centre.

We have moved forward on improving many other Council services including a bold Transformation Plan for Adult Social Care.

Children’s Services

Children’s Services have improved a lot over the last 12 months. Now we need to settle to make sure that every individual piece of work is done to a very good standard. To do this we need to gain further stability within our workforce so we can reduce our reliance on interim and agency staff. We want to try to find the right balance between freeing up vital front line social workers to do creative professional work and having a management system that supports and challenges when this is in doubt. We are also not out of the woods in balancing the Children’s Services budget because both ambition and demand rates are high and despite £12m injection for 2016/17, budgets remain tight.

Adult Social Care Services

We have begun a very broad and deep transformation programme for Adult Social Services. We have tried to place the aspirations and requirements of individual service users at the heart of everything we do. Though this sounds obvious it is a dilemma that all large provider organisations face, that they can end up running services because they have to, or because they have a vested interest in such continuation and we want to continue to challenge ourselves to do things differently and to find a range of creative ways in which people who need some help to remain as independent as possible can source that - in a way that the Council thinks tax payers will support.

Lists and lists…

There is no denying that most improvement work is about listing all the things that are clearly not right at present and then having a further list of things that you have decided to do to change that. This management by lists is inevitable and we are currently compiling a further comprehensive set of lists for 2016/17 and beyond.

I personally hope that a lot of this next stage of work will be about improvements at a multi-agency and a multi-Council level, replicating the good ideas of others; copying other people who have discovered better ways of doing things already; pooling budgets and expertise where that seems to have a reasonable chance of delivering better quality and better value. This sounds easy but we know it is hard, but nevertheless it is right to persevere.

The future of the Commissioner Intervention

We are now clearly in phase two of the four phase intervention. Phase three will come, depending on the outcome of the all-out local elections on 5th May, 2016, perhaps by the end of 2016 when all Council decision-making powers are returned to Councillors.

Phase three will consist of a continuing Commissioner presence, in effect supervising the Council with a regular meeting structure and study of papers and data. The reality of this is that the Council, both Councillors and the new senior staff team will be “on probation” for at least a year before we think about organising some final external inspection of the Council which will be the precondition for ending the intervention completely. Such an external review will probably be some time in 2018.

I am grateful to all those outside the council who have played their part in giving us advice, or assisting in our work.

Sir Derek Myers, Lead Commissioner

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