Local Government Association: Corporate Peer Challenge Report

Executive summary

A strong ambition to provide the best possible services to communities underpins the approach in Braintree District Council (BDC) and this ambition is complemented by the commitment of experienced members and officers, focused on serving residents and businesses effectively. Staff are committed to delivering high-quality services, though capacity risks exist in some areas. BDC performed well during the ‘Bouncing Back Together’ plan which ran to March 2023. 54 out of 66 projects were completed with eight more on track and making good progress at the time of the 2022/23 annual performance management report. A new Chief Executive working closely with the Leader enables the council to build on this success going forward. Priorities for improvement include transforming services through digitalisation, commercialisation, and shared services. Members and staff embraced the peer challenge process with openness and honesty, as a vehicle for learning and to drive improvement.

Effective collaboration and partnership working is a strength. BDC plays an active leadership role locally and regionally, such as the Chief Executive recently taking on the position of Lead Chief Executive for the East of England Local Government Association (EELGA), enabling representation of the district and North Essex Councils (NEC) at a regional level. The peer team spoke to public sector partners at all tiers of local government, in health, the police, business, external providers and the voluntary sector. It was evident that the council is regarded as an active and reliable partner across the board. Extending its activity to the local and regional levels allows BDC to position itself strategically as a district, recognising its role and responsibility within the wider context of governance and service delivery. BDC can further these successful efforts by considering the potential for strengthening its strategic partnering and commissioning with the voluntary sector who are keen to work more deeply with the council. This aligns with the broader goal of leveraging resources to meet the needs of the local community efficiently. Peers recommend strengthening connections with its town and parish councils which could enhance overall community delivery and collaboration, aligning with the council's broader commitment to a vision for the district as a whole, informed by its wider parish and village family.

BDC understands its financial challenges and its financial position in 2023/24 is stable, with reserves that were consistently bolstered during the last 3 years, the council has a strong awareness of its future budget deficits, which present a challenge. For 2023/24, the budget required a £644,000 withdrawal from reserves and there is a budget deficit projected in coming years, with a £2m gap forecast by 2026/27 if no action is taken. BDC has developed a robust Medium Term Financial Strategy (MTFS) that aligns with its Treasury Management Strategy, allowing for responsible financial planning and management which is reflected in the council’s high level of reserves compared to CIPFA benchmarking. Although the financial position is reasonable, like every council, there is a challenge facing BDC and it is necessary to address the £2m budget gap by 26/27. Peers strongly recommend developing and communicating a well-resourced transformation programme which seeks to balance the budget as a priority.

BDC has a strong track record of strategic investment in commercial assets to generate income streams. The council has a significant historic commercial property portfolio with a multimillion-pound rental income budget and risks related to yields are actively managed and actions taken to mitigate where appropriate. Since its 2013  Corporate Peer Challenge, BDC has clearly focused on a proactive approach, with notable initiatives like the Plaza, Horizon 120, and I-construct showcasing the council's commitment to diversifying its resources and assets for the benefit of its community, contributing to its overall financial health and resilience. Peers recommend maximising the use of council assets to be clear on their purpose –regeneration, social or commercial – to maximise income through capital  investments. For example, the majority of Causeway House, the council’s main office building, is not currently in use. Options for Causeway House are actively being considered alongside options for other office-space assets that are currently leased out but are coming up to lease renewal dates. In the local government context, the council recognises it is about ensuring that assets are leveraged for the greatest benefit, whether it be for regeneration, social good, or financial sustainability.

The council is developing a new Corporate Strategy to set strategic vision and priorities for the next phase of its improvement journey. BDC is now well placed and has an opportunity to engage stakeholders, communicate ambition, and achieve buy in across the council and its partners. The Leader, Chief Executive and senior management team recognise the need to increase the pace and scale of delivery and change to achieve the objectives set out in its emerging Corporate Strategy. The council has demonstrated it can deliver transformative projects, such as its strategic investments and regeneration initiatives. Continuing this drive and momentum will require strong leadership and alignment at all levels. Peers recommend that the council should leverage the Corporate Strategy development process to clearly articulate and share its vision, ambition and strategic priorities with staff, members,  partners and communities. This will provide the foundation for driving greater pace of change.

The phrase ‘the Braintree way’ came up frequently in interviews with staff, which captured the commitment from officers to providing an excellent service for residents however it was also used to indicate that there may be some reliance on goodwill when it comes to capacity. Senior leaders recognise the devotion to the council from officers and are keen to ensure that they bring staff with them through the transformation journey they are about to embark on. There appeared to be some tension among officers around flexible working and its inconsistency across the organisation. The new Agile Working Policy presents an opportunity for managers to review old working arrangements from the COVID-19 era and check that the arrangements in their teams are the most effective to meet the team’s performance goals and council needs. With a new Corporate Strategy and a new vision for the district in place, ‘the Braintree way’ may have to evolve or be refreshed as it aligns with its organisational development strategy and harnesses staff and resource potential. 

Strong strategic leadership will be needed from the top tiers of management and Cabinet to turn the Corporate Strategy into clear direction for staff and transformational change for the council. Senior leaders should inspire the workforce around the vision and enable delivery through trust and empowerment. Peers recommend developing a workforce and organisation development strategy, combined with a change management strategy, which would equip the council with the focus and tools needed to successfully manage its people through significant change. Peers recommend that the council's risk appetite should be reviewed to ensure it is appropriately aligned with the change ambitions set out in the emerging Corporate Strategy. Essentially, translating the Corporate Strategy into tangible change actions will require unambiguous direction from strategic leaders, empowered staff, sustained partnerships, enhanced scrutiny and willingness to pursue innovation.

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