Ensuring the voice of residents is considered, improving relationships, and developing a joined-up vision for the town are among findings for Harlow Council to implement following a Local Government Association (LGA) corporate peer challenge the council commissioned of itself earlier this year.
The council commissioned LGA peer challenge took place in March 2023. The final report from the challenge received this week has been published by the council.
The report noted that: “The Leader and political colleagues deserve huge credit for commissioning the peer challenge, which should come to represent a seminal moment for the organisation.”
The report will be discussed in full by the council’s cabinet in June along with a view to agreeing an action plan.
LGA corporate peer challenges are voluntary and are not inspections. They are improvement focussed and designed to meet individual councils’ needs. Harlow Council last had a corporate peer challenge in 2014.
The challenge in March involved officers and councillors from other councils and LGA advisers talking to 130 people including staff, councillors, and external partner organisations about how the council works and performs. The key elements of the housing agenda in Harlow were also considered to help inform thinking around areas such as performance and contract management, and priorities for council housing repairs and maintenance.
The challenge was commissioned by the Leader of Harlow Council, Councillor Russell Perrin. He said:
“I would like to thank the LGA and the peer review team for taking time to visit Harlow in March to carry out the peer challenge, and I thank all those who took part. Modern councils are constantly learning from others and externally reviewing what they do to ensure they provide the best services and leadership and that they are continuously improving.
“The findings and recommendations will allow a strong action plan to be created to build on the work that has already been done and to improve the council further.”
“The report found that Harlow has massive ambitions, potential and opportunities as a place. It also recognises that the administration has clear ambitions like regenerating the town centre and the town's estates and building council homes and keeping Council Tax low. The report provides recommendations which will help us to continue to deliver our ambitions.
"The report also provides helpful suggestions on how the council can improve its internal and external relationships, which are going to be key now and in the future.”
Andrew Bramidge, Harlow Council's Chief Executive, said:
“Undertaking this external challenge is an important part in changing the way the council looks at how it works and what it does. We need to look outside the organisation, not just internally, so that we are always considering the needs and priorities of our residents and working with our partners. The final report provides an open and honest assessment of where we are and what we need to do, and I welcome the constructive engagement that we had with the LGA team on this report.”
“We now have a clear baseline to move us forward positively, with councillors and council staff all working together to the same priorities so we can lead this town to greater success.”
Within the report it highlights that the voice of the resident feels very quiet in the council’s considerations and that the council should actively engage with residents to inform its decision making. The community engagement strategy agreed in 2022 will help with this. A recent communications peer review also recommends a residents’ survey is commissioned to determine local people’s views of the council.
Amongst the key recommendations in the peer challenge report are:
- By December 2023, develop a new Corporate Strategy, along with a refreshed Medium Term Financial Plan, and underpin it with a delivery plan.
- Develop jointly, with all stakeholders, a vision and narrative of place for Harlow.
- Increase external engagement with partners – ensuring the council is appropriately represented at the key tables going forward and is seen as a willing partner that delivers.
- Consider how to respond to what is seen as the time being ripe for structural change at the Senior Management Board level.
- Position the council to take informed decisions by drawing on appropriate evidence bases and then use this to inform the development of key strategies.
- Complete the devising of a new set of performance measures and ensure comparison data from other councils is embedded into performance reporting.
- Ensure the findings from external reviews are consistently translated into action, with clear accountabilities and rigorous monitoring of progress.