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West Northamptonshire Corporate Peer Challenge

Read through the sections of our Corporate Peer Challenge Report

Background

In March 2024 the Council took part in a Corporate Peer Challenge (also known as a ‘peer review’) undertaken by the Local Government Association (LGA), and at no cost as part of their improvement programme.

From 4 to 7 March 2024 it was visited by a team of senior officers and members from other councils across the country, who looked in detail at how effective the organisation is at providing services, measuring its own ability to deliver upon its plans and vision for improving West Northants and in terms of governance and leadership.

The process is designed to be forward-looking and problem-solving. It is not a form of inspection and does not rank or score the council. To find out more visit the LGA website.

On this page you can read through all sections of the WNC Corporate Peer Challenge Feedback Report.

Report sections

West Northamptonshire Council (WNC) was created in April 2021. Its members and officers have worked hard together over the past 3 years to create and embed the new council, as well as to keep inherited services running from day one. Much has been achieved at pace, and the council knows there is more to do across a wide range of services and how it works.  

There are good and constructive working relationships between councillors and officers, and those relationships are often described as having mutual respect and support. This is particularly observable at the most senior levels between the Leader of the Council, Cabinet Members and the Chief Executive and Directors.  

Cabinet members know their subject matter well and show good leadership of their portfolios; directors are visible, accessible and are well regarded by their staff.

The Leader of the Council is visible and regarded as engaging well with partners. The hosting of the South East Midlands Local Economic Partnership (SEMLEP) is an opportunity for the profile of the council to be raised. There is also enthusiasm from partners for West Northamptonshire Council being more visible in the partnership space, including wider engagement from other senior politicians and officers.   

Overall, how it engages with external partners has improved over the past 3 years and there are fewer relationships which are described as difficult. Despite this there is room for improvement in some strategic relationships which the Council recognise need strengthening and ongoing attention. 

There is a positive culture across the council, with a tangible upbeat energy noticeable at its headquarters in Angel Square, Northampton. Staff told us that they are keen to work at WNC and that its growing, positive reputation as a new organisation means new people are keen to join the council, both from other local authorities and from the wider employment market.

A great deal of change has been delivered already, with more planned. This is manifested in many reviews and restructures, the introduction of different ways of working, the rationalisation of some buildings and the repurposing of others, and new terms and conditions and pay scales for staff.  

Whilst the culture is upbeat, the peer team heard of some unhappiness from some employees about differential terms and conditions although this is being addressed through the pay and grading project: care needs to be taken to ensure that those affected feel heard and can continue to engage and feel supported.   

As the council begins to mature as an organisation there are growing expectations of what it is about and what its intentions are. Next year’s all-out local elections will be based on both new ward boundaries and different configurations of elected members.  

This might be a timely point to explore and develop an overall vision for West Northamptonshire and what it wants to achieve. This would be particularly helpful for economic development and regeneration, and for housing supply, as well as to help partners to understand how they can contribute to the area’s development and success.  

There is a thoughtful and people-centred approach undertaken to how customers can engage with the council, particularly through the Customer Experience Strategy. 

At frontline service level employees provide many examples of where they go the extra mile to support customers and their needs, and individuals want to be able to do more but can experience frustration about systems and processes which they feel can be a barrier, as well as some inconsistencies across services, and a degree of frustration with the council’s website which is not as streamlined to use as staff would like.

However, when asking participants what the council is good at and despite its achievements to date, the peer team found that people emphasise processes and the past and what the new organisation has inherited, rather than the outcomes being achieved and planned for the benefit of residents. This gives the impression that outcomes for customers have a lower profile than might be expected.

In common with other unitary councils, medium-term budget pressures are increasing and budget planning for the medium term and beyond is becoming harder to map out. Demand pressures, particularly those arising from Adults and Children’s Services, the latter arising through the Children’s Trust, are significant and creating substantial overspends in those areas.  

By the end of 2025 overall levels of reserves are anticipated to be reduced by £100m, including Covid expenditure of £61m. In common with many other upper tier councils the council’s financial sustainability in the longer term after 2025 is unclear.      

The new council cannot be an apologist for the past, for things which did and did not happen prior to its existence, but nonetheless there is an association with the former county council, its high-profile demise and local government reorganisation.  

Members, in particular, are acutely aware of that reputation. Stepping out into broader and bigger arenas needs to be undertaken carefully with a balance of promoting its achievements to date, confidence about actively playing a bigger role in sharing and developing with others and being clear about what it can contribute to benefit its own area and beyond its boundaries. 

Sometimes it will need to be more flexible in its thinking and approach, as well as recognise that it cannot solve everything on its own.  

Partners are keen to work with WNC but are not yet clear of the new council’s strategic ambitions and intentions. This engagement would be helped by developing and clarifying a high-level, long-term vision to articulate what West Northamptonshire is about and what it wants to achieve with its partners for its residents, businesses and stakeholders.

There are a number of observations and suggestions within the main section of the report. 

The following are the peer team’s key recommendations to the council: 

2.1. Recommendation 1: Work with partners to shape the future for West Northamptonshire through:

•    Developing a compelling long-term vision for the area and what the council wants to achieve. Many partners are keen to work with the council and to understand what it wants to achieve for the place and its communities. Developing clarity on the role of Northampton and the benefits of economic growth will be critical for a new long-term vision.

•    Develop ownership of the housing strategy. West Northamptonshire has significant assets, there is high demand for good quality housing across all ranges of tenure. However, there is more to do with partners to ensure the current strategy is viewed as a housing strategy for West Northamptonshire, rather than being a strategy for the council. 

 •    Explore the council’s own ambition for Children’s Services. These present significant cost pressures for WNC although it is recognised that the Childrens Trust is on an improvement journey and that some investment was required. Explore and articulate what WNC wants for its children, and how this may be achieved in the long-term working together.

2.2. Recommendation 2: Develop a strategic engagement plan for partnership working

At the highest level there are some good working relationships. However, partners want to work more extensively with the council and to ensure the best of member and officer capacity, as well as that of partners’, a strategic overview is needed. The council should develop stakeholder management principles so that the best placed individuals can lead and nurture key relationships.

2.3. Recommendation 3: Process map high traffic customer transactions to back-office functions  

Whilst there is a single “front door” for customer contact and a customer access strategy, how these link to services can feel disjointed. Developing some process mapping will help to understand customers’ journeys and where improvements can be made.

2.4. Recommendation 4: Review and overhaul the council’s website

The website does not feel like that of a new organisation. It can be difficult to navigate for both customers and staff. A comprehensive refresh is needed. 

2.5. Recommendation 5:  Review the council’s appetite for risk and delivery, linked to ambition

At present the current approach relies on external income to deliver economic and housing growth. Delivering more outcomes for local people will require further investment from different sources, in a targeted approach which benefits key groups. Is the council prepared to take some financial risks in order to deliver growth, for example, external borrowing? 

2.6. Recommendation 6: Continue to develop overview and scrutiny

Some members are enthusiastic about overview and scrutiny and recognise the value it could add, but active participation is driven by a small group of committed members. Consider how the broader membership can engage.

2.7. Recommendation 7: Raise the profile of the council both within and beyond WNC’s borders

The council has a good story to tell on its achievements but at this stage of its development this story is not yet well known. Active participation with other councils will help to raise its profile as well as contribute to sharing and learning, for example within the East Midlands 

2.8. Recommendation 8: Develop a plan to manage medium to long term budget pressures, linked to corporate priorities

Like other councils, WNC is facing significant budget pressures from high demand services, inflation and other factors beyond its immediate control. It is unclear how future budget gaps beyond 2024/25 will be addressed, nor how these link to corporate priorities.

3.1. The peer team

Peer challenges are delivered by experienced elected member and officer peers. The make-up of the peer team reflected the focus of the peer challenge and peers were selected on the basis of their relevant expertise. The peers were:

•    Cllr Spencer Flower, Leader, Dorset Council
•    Denise McGuckin, Managing Director, Hartlepool Council 
•    David Shepherd, Strategic Director, Kirklees Council 
•    Philip Baker, Monitoring Officer and Assistant Chief Executive, East Sussex County Council 
•    Claire Emmerson, Deputy S.151 Officer, Sunderland City Council
•    Judith Hurcombe, Peer Challenge Manager, Local Government Association 

3.2. Scope and focus

The peer team considered the following five themes which form the core components of all Corporate Peer Challenges. These areas are critical to councils’ performance and improvement.

1.    Local priorities and outcomes - Are the council’s priorities clear and informed by the local context? Is the council delivering effectively on its priorities? 
2.    Organisational and place leadership - Does the council provide effective local leadership? Are there good relationships with partner organisations and local communities?
3.    Governance and culture - Are there clear and robust governance arrangements? Is there a culture of challenge and scrutiny?
4.    Financial planning and management - Does the council have a grip on its current financial position? Does the council have a strategy and a plan to address its financial challenges?
5.    Capacity for improvement - Is the organisation able to support delivery of local priorities? Does the council have the capacity to improve?

The council did not identify any further areas for feedback from the peer team. 

3.3. The peer challenge process

Peer challenges are improvement focused; it is important to stress that this was not an inspection. The process is not designed to provide an in-depth or technical assessment of plans and proposals. The peer team used their experience and knowledge of local government to reflect on the information presented to them by people they met, things they saw and material that they read. 

The peer team prepared by reviewing a range of documents and information in order to ensure they were familiar with the council and the challenges it is facing. 

The team then spent four days onsite at Northampton, during which they:

•    Gathered information and views from more than 40 meetings, in addition to further research and reading.
•    Spoke to more than 110 people including a range of council staff together with members and external stakeholders.
•    Some team members participated in a walking tour of regeneration projects in Northampton town centre

This report provides a summary of the peer team’s findings. In presenting feedback, they have done so as fellow local government officers and members.

The Leader of the Council referred to in this report resigned his position for personal reasons on 18th April 2024.

4.1. Local priorities and outcomes

The council’s overarching priorities are clear.  

They are established across the 6 core themes of:

•    Green and clean
•    Improved life chances
•    Connected communities
•    Thriving villages and towns
•    Economic development
•    Robust resource management

The LGA’s headline report for West Northamptonshire can be found here Headline Report for West Northamptonshire Council - Dashboard View | LG Inform (local.gov.uk).  

This shows that where comparable data is available there is:

•    increasing numbers of looked after children
•    a worsening trend for care leavers finding accommodation and the numbers of child protection cases reviewed on time
•    worsening trends on adult obesity
•    but improving trends on childhood obesity

The overall systems approach being taken to adult social care is having a positive impact on care for older people, particularly in significantly reducing hospital admissions. This improvement has been led by the Chief Executive and has included the extensive redesign of reablement services. 

The Shared Lives Service received an outstanding rating from the Care Quality Commission in November 2022. The inspection noted that people receive exceptional care and support from the council-run service.

West Northamptonshire has had two monitoring visits from Ofsted since the council was formed in 2021. Children’s Services were inspected in October 2022 and the were judged as requiring improvement across all four key areas of the inspection having previously been rated as inadequate. 

A focused visit took place in October 2023 which looked at the council’s “front door” arrangements for Children’s Services, this reflected that the front door was stronger than it had been in years and that staff enjoyed working there and the trust had strong leadership. 

This is something to build on and it's important that partners stay focused on the improvement journey. 

The council has ongoing challenges around housing, placements work well for SEND young people but less so for care leavers. For care leavers the peer team heard that the in-year cost of placements is £5.5m and this is something that the Trust and Council need to address in partnership. 

The Children’s Trust was created prior to the council’s vesting day. Its expenditure is significant and local demand-led pressures in turn cause pressure on WNC’s budget. The secondment of one of the council’s Directors to the Trust is aimed at identifying and managing improvement on performance as well as costs and working with the trust and both Councils to implement a programme of transformation.  

The council could take a step back at this stage and apply a whole systems review to both the Children’s Trust and its own approach to universal services. It has much knowledge and experience to apply at this stage in its development, to consider what is driving service pressures and to further consider where interventions could reduce service inputs as well as achieve better outcome for service users, including children. 

The council recognises that more than 90% of education, health and care plans for special needs children were not completed on time and has invested in extra capacity to the value of around £0.5m to meet demand. The council was anticipating an Ofsted SEND inspection onsite from 14th March 2024. 

The Planning Service had a shaky start with significant backlogs of applications, capacity issues, a lack of confidence from developers and some concerning member behaviours. A Planning Advisory Service peer challenge was undertaken in November 2022, a focused drive on recruitment and retention has created capacity, and backlogs and validation times have reduced. 

Liaison with developers has a more structured approach, and overall, the service has improved and people speak of the service with more confidence. This is a good example of where a problem has been identified and tangible improvements have been made.  

The council is located at the centre of the country with excellent strategic transport links. The local economy hosts a range of large businesses, including some headquarters of financial service companies and niche manufacturing businesses including quality shoe making. 

To the south of the area there is an advanced economy based on motor sport and high-performance mechanical engineering, with internationally significant companies clustered around Silverstone. Unemployment is low and the area is a net creator of jobs, with over 14,000 new jobs created in the last 5 years. It has many advantages which would be the envy of other areas, including massive potential for economic and housing growth.  

Outcomes are being achieved and being planned for, and the peer team heard some profound examples of how members of staff are very customer focused and reach out to customers to flex services to meet need and want to achieve more. This is highly positive. 

There are also concerns that some of the back-office processes can appear to be cumbersome and get in the way of service delivery, with concerns about the CRM system, which has required some work arounds for some complaints handling. Some frontline staff have concerns that at strategic levels there can be a lack of understanding of how difficult life can be for some of the council’s poorest families, particularly in Northampton and Daventry.  

Customer focus and the day-to-day WNC narrative appear to be sometimes overshadowed by lengthy descriptions of the policies, systems and processes that the council has had to create since its inception, and how challenging it has been to get the council to this point. Some participants describe a persistent focus on the past and how poor services were, drawing on comparisons on what happened before (both better and worse), rather than what they are trying to achieve and planning for the future.

This may be inevitable given the legacy of staff inherited from the former councils and some of their experiences, but it is also at odds with a wider and tangible ethos of staff being up for change and enthusiastic and committed to the new council.

An equality and diversity strategy 2021-2025 has been created. Over and above being involved with community events such as Windrush Day and Holocaust Memorial Day, it can be difficult to see what impact the strategy has had, as the most recent annual report on equality, diversity and inclusion dates back to 2021/22.

4.2. Organisational and place leadership

Three years into the council’s development and partners overall describe relationships with the council as the best they have ever been, with aspirations to build further. There is enthusiasm for higher visibility and engagement from the wider leadership, beyond the visibility of the Leader of the Council and the Chief Executive, who are regarded as engaging well externally.  

The approach to the development of the 9 Local Area Partnerships (LAPs) has been highly valued by partners and has the potential to drive outcomes. The LAPs are currently in their first year of development and are aimed at developing intelligence led solutions at local levels, including better management of demand pressures in health and education.

The initial phase of working has been developed at local level, with intentions to raise their profiles next year: so far, the profile of the LAPs is relatively low beyond those involved in it. Those involved really value the engagement and recognise that more can be achieved by collective working.  

Participants are keen to understand what is next for the LAPs, and how they will deliver. Key issues to address for the future include whether resources will follow the engagement so far?  How will gaps be addressed in service provision, such as housing, and wider public sector services such as probation?  And how will communities be engaged and involved?

The Leader and Cabinet member meet with Town and Parish Councils on a quarterly basis, and there is a lead officer supporting them, and this support is welcomed. However, as a collective group they feel largely disconnected from the business of the new council and feel unable to bring influence on developments on the ground, for example what will happen on the transfer of assets. 

Neighbourhood planning was felt by them to be patchy, and engagement with local ward councillors was described as variable. Overall, they would welcome more detailed discussions about potential joint working and recognition of the added value they could bring. 

The creation of the two unitary councils across the former county area and the intensive and ongoing work to disaggregate services, functions and assets has been challenging, and this disaggregation is not yet complete.  

External arbitration will take place to enable agreement and finalisation of some aspects of the council’s balance sheet, over the next 6-9 months.  

It is recognised that ongoing effort is needed to build trust between West and North Northamptonshire councils to achieve mutual benefit and outcomes for each organisation and residents. While there have been challenges as legacy issues get resolved, leaders recognise that future collaborative working around common interests will be vital.

The development of the council so far has been about the bringing together of complex systems and processes, thousands of staff, and councillors from different areas and legacy councils, whilst also being under the shadow of the county council’s failure and government intervention. A huge amount has been achieved and this has concentrated effort and energy.  

However, there is more to do, and the council can now start to look outwards and explore with partners what it wants for the place of West Northamptonshire. This should include some long-term thinking about its role at the centre of the country, utilising its geography, excellent logistical assets including two rail freight terminals, and potential for further growth.  

The local economy has both significant numbers of high skilled, high paid jobs in advanced manufacturing, as well as low skilled, lower paid jobs in retail and warehousing. Some of that energy will still need to focus on its consolidation and tackling day to day issues as a primary authority. 

But as the council continues to grow consideration can be given to applying what has been so far to the future and developing longer term strategies for the area. An example of this would be to consider what roles its principal towns can play in housing and regeneration.

Partners feel that the council’s profile could be higher, and there is a lack of clarity about what the council wants to achieve. The creation of the new unitary council and the process of disaggregation has also been difficult for partners to understand how and where they fit, and sometimes what is expected of them. 

Taking a more deliberate and overarching programme of stakeholder engagement, combined with clear communication of the council’s vision for the area, will help to promote what the council is about. This will help to grow confidence and understanding in what WNC can offer.  

The peer team heard consistent concerns about Northampton town centre, to the extent of being almost apologetic for its run-down appearance, high retail vacancy rates, the plethora of low cost, grade C office space and high levels of disadvantage. Some businesses have voted with their feet and moved to edge or new out of town locations rather than retaining premises in Northampton’s urban core. 

A Northampton Forward Board has been created to oversee and promote projects being funded to the value of £33m from the government’s Towns Investment and Future High Streets Funds. There are lots of plans and projects for economic development and regeneration including the historic Market Square and Market Walk areas, as well as Marefair and Abington Street.  

The current approach to housing and economic development feels tactical, with the council taking advantage of sites and opportunities as they develop. 

In population terms Northampton is similar sized to many smaller cities and has many functions of cities such as a university. However, there is no clear vision for the town to perform as a city for the benefit of the wider region, nor is there any clear driver for Northampton to succeed as part of the wider WNC approach to growth.  

There is a disconnect where it feels that the regeneration of Northampton town centre is separate from the economic growth plans for WNC. A place vision needs to be developed, which clearly articulates the role of Northampton. 

Targeted investment in regeneration and growth projects has proven a useful accelerator for other authorities, helping deliver housing and economic benefits that in turn secure further investment and reduce demand for public services.

WNC could significantly enhance its plans for Northampton town centre by adopting a flexible approach to use of its own finance, rather than relying extensively on grant funding and external investment. At present WNC risks limiting the transformation of its principal town centre. 

Accepting more financial risk may prove essential for attracting the attention of an incoming government and its agencies, who may be looking to kickstart economic and housing development in an effort to deliver sustainable growth.

Although the area has high levels of employment, there are concerns that some of the growth sectors have been in unskilled jobs, such as warehousing. Giving more consideration to skills development for both existing and potential workers would help to boost higher earnings.  

Some focus on skills for the most economically disadvantaged residents would also help them to more readily access the labour market, particularly as more jobs are created in some of the schemes planned for central Northampton. 

For example, are there enough pathways to link the local college and four universities better into engineering and aviation sectors?  Is it clear what businesses in those sectors need and want from the council and its role in supporting economic growth? How can the council get local unemployed people closer to employment and improve their skills? 

The agreement be the lead local authority and accountable body for the South East Midlands Local Economic Partnership (SEMLEP) is a positive indicator of the council’s progress and has been widely welcomed. What else can the council do and share with others which would add value to its own thinking and development, as well as that of others?

4.3. Governance and culture

The council’s Cabinet and Executive Leadership Team work well together, and there is mutual trust. Senior councillors and officers speak highly of each other, and with clear respect for their respective roles. This is also observed through how people interact with each other, and the confidence they have in the collective team’s abilities and intentions.

There is evidence of positive member-officer working, with generally good and respectful relationships across the council. Where there are occasional issues of less-than-ideal member behaviour, these are felt to be dealt with promptly and appropriately by senior councillors. Staff reflect that incidences of poor behaviour from councillors are low, and that members as a collective are good to work with.  

There are low numbers of formal complaints about members’ behaviour and low referrals to the council’s Standards Committee.  

Members recognised that they were on a journey in terms of their learning and experience of scrutinising services of which they had little previous experience, they acknowledged the support they had received and appreciated that there was more to do.  

Not unusual for any council, there is an ambition to better engage the wider council membership in the scrutiny function, so that greater added value can be shared amongst a wider group of councillors. There was a desire among some members for Scrutiny to be given the opportunity to consider, and contribute to, the longer-term strategic issues faced by the Council.  

It was clear that there is a risk that with such a high number of councillors, a significant majority and operating a Cabinet system that opposition and back bench members could feel disenfranchised and unable to influence or effect change.  

The role of the council’s three statutory officers of Chief Executive, S.151 Officer and Monitoring Officer and how they work together deserves recognition. This is aided by regular, structured Statutory Officer Meetings (STORM) which explore key risks on a regular basis.

Staff enjoy working for the council and describe a positive working culture which is supportive and enabling. They also describe an energy and positive collective working and recognise the council’s established THRIVE values as a positive embodiment of the organisation works in its day-to-day business.  

WNC is developing a reputation of being a good place to work for potential employees both with and without previous local government experience. New starters find how the council promotes itself during recruitment exercises as appealing and encouraging them to apply. Staff told the peer team that they like working for the council.  

People welcome the communications from the Chief Executive and her weekly blog appears to have a wide reach across the organisation. All staff briefings are valued by its recipients. Employees describe an open and accessible approach across the Executive Leadership Team, feeling they can ask for and receive support where it is appropriate.

The peer team witnessed shared ownership and energetic leadership of governance and culture at the council’s main offices in Angel Square, Northampton. 

The team did not have the opportunity to test the culture outside of the council’s headquarters, with the exception of speaking with a selection of front-line staff, who were upbeat, thoughtful and committed to the new council and wanting to improve how it works and develops for customers. 

4.4. Financial planning and management

The S.151 officer is well regarded across the council, particularly for the way he engages, communicates and supports managers about budget challenges, and how he encourages colleagues in services to take responsibility and ownership of managing their budgets and savings.

WNC has faced particular financial challenges as a new unitary council in terms of aggregation and disaggregation of its budgets, waiting for accounts of predecessor councils to be audited so it can produce its own accounts, and integrating multiple systems and processes.  

No statutory accounts have been published for WNC since its inception in 2021. The initial reserves position in 2021 was based on estimates prior to the audit of reserves inherited from Daventry, Northampton and South Northamptonshire Councils, as well as the disaggregated amount from the former county council.

How the council’s finance team has dealt with the challenges since the council’s inception has been recognised through the award of Council Finance Team of the Year in the CIPFA Public Finance Awards in November 2023. The external auditor’s report of April 2023 has also been complimentary about how the council has been addressing the financial challenges it faced as a new authority.  

WNC’s revenue budget for 2023/24 was £385.5m and included a general contingency of £10.9m. The revenue budget for 2024/25 was agreed at £414.5m.  

This includes:

•    base budget growth of £60.4m
•    allowance of £14.8m has been made for the increased costs of the Children’s Trust
•    efficiencies and income generation of £24.1m
•    a general contingency fund of £10m
•    and planned use of non-ringfenced earmarked reserves of £14.7m in 2024/25

The outturn report for 2021/22 showed spending in line with the budget, with spend on services as a whole was -£3m below budget. This figure was largely derived from a £5m underspend on the Place and Economy budget versus a £2m overspend on Adult Social Care.  

The 2022/23 budget performance saw more significant movement, with a total of £23.5m overspend on services, offset by £10m underspend on central budgets and £13.2m use of additional funding. NCT overspent £12m on Children’s Services, Adult Social Care overspent by £10.7m and Place and Economy overspent by £2m. During 2022/23 most savings of £32m were considered to be on target to be delivered.

However, there are significant challenges facing the council’s long term financial sustainability. The General Fund reserves it inherited are low relative to other unitary councils, and reserves were used to fund one off expenditure in 2022/23 and 2023/24.  

Ring-fenced reserves have reduced collectively by around £15m each year since 2021/22 on expenditure for which they were created for. The overall value of General Fund reserves (both general and ring-fenced) on 1st April 2021 was £171.6m: by 31st March 2025 these are forecast to reduce to £71m, which is a reduction of £100m over 4 years.

However, it should be noted that £61m of this amount was COVID funding that was received in grants and required to deal with the outbreak of the pandemic. The General Fund balance at £35m is significantly higher than the S.151 officer’s assessment of the minimum 5%, which would be £20.7m.  

However, for the latest data available on 31st March 2022, CIPFA’s comparative figures show that WNC’s total reserves were 10th lowest out of 58 unitary authorities. 

The council does not appear to be in immediate danger of using up its reserves but the trajectory of its expenditure suggests they will continue to deplete; replenishing its risk reserves over the medium term was a recommendation made by Grant Thornton in June 2023 in its report to the Audit and Governance Committee.

The largest single service financial pressure currently facing the council arises from the services provided by Northamptonshire Children’s Trust (NCT). Budget setting for the Children’s Trust is shared across the two recipient councils and the Trust.  

The external auditor’s annual report for 2021/22 stated the council should “explore ways to work collaboratively with the Children’s Trust to improve financial and non-financial reporting” including reporting NCT’s overall non-financial reporting on its KPIs more within the council. The secondment of WNC’s Director for Corporate Services to the Children’s Trust is widely regarded as a positive move to help improve performance and better understand and ameliorate pressures.

There are clear budget pressures arising due to the demand-led services of children’s and adults’ social care. This has led to some services feeling as if they are less of a priority, with some managers feeling they are responsible for lesser “Cinderella” services which are expected to absorb the bigger overspends created elsewhere.  

Wider recognition of the pressure this creates for all service managers, including keeping their staff motivated, would help to keep them onboard.  

A General Fund budget gap of £53.4m has been identified for 2025/26. Senior officers suggest that this may be overstated, but if this is the case, it is likely that a budget gap remains. The budget gap forecast in the 2023/24 budget was £9m for 2024/25, £31m in 2025/26 and £41.1m in 2026/27. It is unclear from the published budget reports how the council plans to tackle these budget gaps for future years.

The Housing Revenue Account (HRA) has relatively low reserves and is facing increasing repairs and maintenance costs, but overall, this appears to be in a relatively stable position. The council’s housing stock is managed by Northampton Partnership Homes (NPH), which is an Arm’s Length Management Organisation (ALMO). 

NPH’s expenditure for 2023/24 is broadly in line with the budget set of £32.8m, although the repairs and maintenance budget increased substantially in 2023/24 to £18m from £15m in 2022/23.

The Capital Programme General expenditure was £58.4m against approved budgets of £88.3m. The main areas of spending were economic growth and regeneration, children’s and highways and waste. The authority faced challenges during its first year in monitoring the programme which mainly consisted of schemes approved before WNC came into being.

The GF Capital Programme has experienced a lot of slippage in each of the past few years. This has benefited the revenue budget by reducing capital charges. The council does not appear to be exposed to financial risks arising from significant commercial investments and other commercial activities.  

On 31st December 2023 the council’s total borrowing stood at £527m, and 88% of this matures in over 10 years’ time, which means the council’s existing borrowing is largely protected from increased interest rates. It also appears that borrowing to fund the capital programme is funded from internal borrowing, which has an impact on investment income, but does not create external borrowing costs.  

References are made in the 2023/24 budget report to the council’s capital strategy including a number of investment properties that transferred from the pre-unitary authorities but reporting does not quantify the value of these, nor the income stream from them. 

Within 12 months of the council’s creation early budget pressures emerged, and some staff described feeling cynical and disbelieving that this was an issue facing a new council. However, since then understanding has significantly grown, particularly in this not being just a problem for WNC but is an issue that WNC has in common with other councils.  

In January 2024 for example presentations to senior managers included discussions on the “frightful four” large budget pressures of Children’s, Adults, SEND and housing affecting single tier councils, including WNC. 

There are well-established processes in place for budget setting and monitoring. These include established STAR Chambers introduced as part of the annual budget setting process with members and officers meeting together to develop plans, and budget clinics where officers refine proposals.  

Clarifying the overall vision and ambition for WNC may require a shift in perspective about the budget in the medium to long-term, for both revenue and capital expenditure. This would be aided by developing more narrative about financial plans and performance which is more readily accessible for the broader organisation, including councillors and partners.  

This will enable broader understanding about what is and is not possible and affordable, and where others may be able to contribute to collective ambitions.  

Members’ understanding of the council’s budget appears to be variable. Some senior councillors absolutely understand that reserves are reducing and budget pressures are increasing and need to be contained. However, some from the broader membership do not yet fully understand that there are significant medium-term budget gaps, and that reserves can only be spent once.  

Their understanding can be enhanced through ongoing dialogue about the future financial plan for the council, its future risks and their appetite towards it, being clear about their priorities, achievement of savings and use of reserves. Once articulated, the council’s appetite for strategic risk may need to change, to match its vision.   

In February 2024 the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced West Northamptonshire would continue to benefit from an exceptional financial support mechanism. This is the continuation of the ability for the council to have more flexibility with some existing earmarked capital reserves of £6.6m. 

This additional flexibility was agreed originally at the Council’s creation 3 years ago and allows certain one-off revenue costs to be funded through capital in order to deliver the ongoing transformation of services and therefore reduced running costs in the medium to long term, thus helping to reduce the medium-term deficits referred to earlier. 

The announcement on the capitalisation directive has resulted in WNC being listed alongside councils who are in a state of financial distress. Whilst WNC is clear that the organisation is not in this position, others may view them as such, and the council should consider appropriate stakeholder communications as the directive progresses.

The relationship with the new External Auditor is at an early stage of development and needs more investment, so both he and the council can better understand each other’s viewpoints.

4.5. Capacity for improvement

Staff feel that the organisation is well-led, and they are encouraged to problem solve, as well as share their concerns about performance early on, and without blame. Internal working relationships are widely described as healthy, with appropriate degrees of challenge both ways between members, senior officers and managers in most parts of the organisation.  

Frontline staff recognise that whilst senior managers and directors are always accessible, their ability to engage can be compromised due to capacity and time constraints: this is not unusual in any large council.

A lot has been achieved and some of this has been recognised at the individual level, for example through the regular “shout-outs” in the Chief Executive’s blog, and annual employee awards, and these are widely welcomed. However, staff suggest that council can do more to celebrate its successes.   

Employees feel there is a lot of investment in their development through formal qualifications, as well as the availability of coaching and mentoring for junior staff. This is widely welcomed and a contributory factor in why people are keen to work for WNC. People feel they have the right tools, equipment and support to do their jobs effectively.

A challenge in developing an overall internal approach to workforce EDI has been an initial lack of data about employees’ protected characteristics. A number of  campaigns have been conducted to encourage staff to provide details through the payroll system.  

The overall workforce Diversity, Equality and Inclusion strategy has also included detailed analysis of the pay and grading project and its impact on those with diverse characteristics. During 2023 senior managers participated in a highly positive reverse mentoring programme with Integrated Care Northamptonshire.

Eleven staff networks have been created for a wide range of protected characteristics and interests for Armed Forces Community; Carers; Women; LGBTQ+ and Allies; Christians at Work; Disability; Early Careers; Equality, Ethnicity and Diversity; Menopause; Physical and Mental Wellbeing and Sustainability.  

Each network is championed by a member of the Executive Leadership Team (ELT). An Equalities Board brings together the network leads, services and Elected Member Champions. Staff feel they are encouraged to participate in network activities, and the coordinators feel they receive good support and access to the Assistant Chief Executive in the development of the networks, and for their roles in supporting them.  

Significant effort and investment has gone into the corporate communications function. The focus has been on turning around a negative narrative and developing proactive campaigns which focus on positives and opportunities for both the council and its area. 

A forward plan for comms has helped to develop channels of engagement and the number of people reached through the council’s comms activity. Of particular note is the overall council annual report 2022/23 which clearly sets out the council’s achievements against its priorities and is an accessible and engaging read of the organisation’s collective impact. 

The creation of the council and its consolidation has been undertaken at pace. However, some members and officers have concerns that the relentlessness of what has been and will be required may be too difficult to achieve before the council’s money runs out.  

Some describe this as being constantly in “survival” mode which often feels like firefighting current issues and being tactical in the short term, rather than looking ahead to longer term goals: they would welcome more discussion about the bigger picture and the council’s intentions and aspirations for the long term.  

Exploring ambitions and aspirations through producing a vision for the council, will help to provide some certainty and a framework for staff as well as partners and help them to more clearly see where they fit into West Northamptonshire, and the roles they can play in it.  

LAPs are a sound basis for improving delivery, sharing resources and capacity, and achieving local outcomes. Partners are enthusiastic about their development so far, and for their potential for the future.

External partners and the council collectively described good working relationships now to the peer team. Some however describe a few relationships as initially starting off as testing and difficult and reflected strains relating to the demise of the previous councils on the patch.  

Overall, these appear to have largely improved, and partners describe them as having the potential to improve further still. However good those relationships may be, there appear to be stand offs where traction is not being gained, despite good intentions.  

Progress can be made if the council steps more overtly into a convening role and shows more willingness to negotiate rather than take what some partners describe as absolute positions. WNC has a pivotal leadership role in mending, building and nurturing external relationships.  

This applies across a wide range of partnerships including but not limited to, relationships with its neighbours, the Children’s Trust, the disaggregation of its balance sheet with North Northamptonshire, trade union relationships, and housing solutions for its most disadvantaged residents.  

It can do this more extensively so broader solutions can be developed which benefit residents and further focus on outcomes. Partners widely reflect that neither they, nor the council, can achieve everything they need to do on their own: WNC recognises there are “wicked issues” to address. These cannot be resolved in isolation. Prioritising these issues will help to make them more manageable in the longer term. 

There is a need to play a convening role in bringing together key players to improve outcomes, with shared responsibility and joining up services at the point of access. Although a single “front door” has been introduced, managers have concerns that services are not sufficiently lined up behind it in order to deliver for customers. 

There is more work to be done to ensure the council understands the strategic economy beyond its own boundaries and the drivers for growth across the Midlands, and its role in supporting and in some instances, stepping in to lead that growth.  

If SEMLEP is to develop further, consideration needs to be given to how this will be funded, as the current proposal is wholly dependent on central government funding. Broader consideration could also be given to the voice of businesses and what they need for economic growth and stability.

A lot of work has been undertaken on transformation, but there is more to do to achieve working as one organisation. The peer team heard from staff that current transformation activity needs to conclude to enable the council to move on, and also concerns that for some transformation has become business as usual, rather than being a means to an end.  

Some observers also felt that some projects described as transformational have really been about making budget cuts and efficiencies, rather than transforming services for better outcomes for customers and residents. Initially the approach to transformation was led centrally but has since become embedded in services.

There are some good descriptions of individual projects and plans but the dispersal into departments has led to some concerns about whether it is sufficiently joined up across the council, and with partners, to address the high-level wicked issues the council has identified. 

With such an ambitious transformation programme and focus on moving at pace, there was a feeling among some of those that the CPC Team spoke to that there were instances of where this had come at the cost of wider engagement and cross council working. 

Examples were given of where systems had been introduced within services which had impacted negatively on other areas, or where opportunities for greater gains had been missed as a result of lack of broader involvement.

The recruitment and retention approaches are working but pay differentials are an ongoing concern for staff and cause of dissatisfaction. Continuing to hear staff views and letting them share their concerns may help to stem views about an emerging “them and us” undercurrent across the organisation.

There are still some inherited, shared systems which result in manual work arounds by staff in order to deliver services. Some of these gaps and overlaps are inefficient, disparate and have resulted in coping strategies being developed, based on a degree of ingenuity rather than efficiencies.

The council has made progress over the last three years, and it knows there is more to do as it consolidates and matures. Partners have growing expectations of what it can achieve with them. In the short term the council needs to complete its disaggregation from North Northamptonshire and develop more sustainable plans for its budget.  

It needs to develop a clearer vision for the longer-term and continue to invest and nurture relationships so that everyone knows what it is about and what it is trying to achieve. 

It is recognised that senior political and managerial leadership will want to consider, discuss and reflect on these findings. 

Both the peer team and LGA are keen to build on the relationships formed through the peer challenge. The CPC process includes a progress review within twelve months of the CPC, which provides space for the council’s senior leadership to update peers on its progress against the recommendations from this report.

In the meantime, Mark Edgell, Principal Adviser for the East Midlands, is the main contact between your authority and the Local Government Association. 

Mark is available to discuss any further support the council requires:

Action plan

The feedback report puts forward recommendations from the Corporate Peer Challenge, and the Council will develop an action plan on how it plans to progress them, which will be published here once prepared.

Last updated 17 May 2024