A council has made ‘significant progress’ in addressing issues of misconduct and bullying, an external review has found.
The ‘corporate peer challenge’ (CPC), involving a team of senior officers and councillors from authorities across England, took place at Cheshire East Council in January. It followed years of scandals relating to procurement, land sales and the treatment of whistleblowers.
Over four days, the team spoke to 180 staff, elected members and representative from partner organisations.
According to the newly-published CPC final report, there has been a marked ‘cultural shift’ at Cheshire East, along with improved management oversight.
But the team also noted that the authority had forecasted budget overspends for the past two years, and again in 2019/20, which they said ‘clearly needs to be addressed’.
While the CPC did not revisit any of the previous scandals, which triggered a series of police probes, it did consider ‘any subsequent learning and improvement’ at the council, and made 10 recommendations for further improvement.
The report states: “Cheshire East Council has made significant improvements in recent years to address issues of misconduct and to transform the culture of the organisation.
“This reform has been made while managing wider financial pressures, increased demand and maintaining service standards.
“The opportunity now exists for Cheshire East to build on these foundations. The council can use their successful approach to organisational change to make wider reforms and service transformations to improve outcomes for residents.”
Previous scandals at the council led to the resignation of former leader Michael Jones in 2015 and the departure of suspended senior officers, including former chief executive Mike Suarez. A 2018 report found 200 Cheshire East staff had been bullied over a six-month period.
The council’s previous Conservative administration was ousted in last year’s local elections, and the new Labour-Independent coalition vowed to replace the leader-and-cabinet system, which they said contributed to the lack of transparency and accountability.
But the new committee system of governance, which was initially supposed to be in place within a year, has now been delayed until 2021.
A number of the CPC’s recommendations relate to the committee system, with calls for greater clarity and for decisions to be made on the number, size and scope of the new committees.
The report also raises the possibility of ‘regression’ on the issue of workplace bullying following the departure of former acting chief executive Kath O’Dwyer, who is recognised as playing a key role in tackling the issue.
Another recommendation calls for new approaches to engage councillors in neighbourhood working, which could include the creation of neighbourhood budgets.
The peer challenge team, which was put together by the Local Government Association (LGA), included senior councillors and officers from Plymouth, Rotherham, Epsom and Ewell, and Rochdale, along with LGA officials.
Cabinet members will discuss the CPC report when they meet on Tuesday.
Councillor Jill Rhodes, cabinet member for corporate services and public health, said: “I’d like to thank the LGA and everyone who supported the peer challenge session.
“It was a very constructive process and the report makes very positive reading.”