Turning Trafford around
In 2004, Trafford Metropolitan Council became Conservative controlled after 9 years of Labour control. In those years, it had gone from ‘Council of the year’ in 1999 to being judged as ‘weak’ by the audit commission by 2002. Before taking control of Trafford, we had done some extensive work with local residents to ascertain just what the top priorities were for them and this yielded no surprises- crime, education, improvements to roads and pavements and improvements to our town centres.
However, inheriting an organisation that had managed to go through £19m of reserves in 2 years, mainly to prop up overspends, was going to require some serious financial management from day one, both to be able to deliver on our priorities and to rid the organisation of the culture of mismanaging its budgets in driving forward the efficient delivery of services. Financial efficiency and management was the number one corporate objective for me, as without it nothing could be achieved.
A rigorous system of budget monitoring was introduced very quickly, as was a review of senior management structure. As I saw it, there did not appear to be a structure in place and I therefore suspected that in terms of accountability, roles and responsibilities were probably ill defined. This turned out to be correct, as did my suspicion that there was no performance management or monitoring in place.
The end of year 1 as a new administration saw the fruits of our efforts, with a significant under spend making resources available for investment into our priorities, the beginning of performance management in the organisation, the appointment of a new Chief Executive and the return of Conservatives to power again with another significant majority.
While year one felt like turning around an oil tanker, year two brought some fresh challenges. The dreaded CPA was a looming certainty and I was still relatively new to the job, as was the Chief Executive. What struck me at that point was the real willingness of various colleagues in Local Government to assist us in the process. The CPA process went well and Trafford is now deemed to be a ‘low cost, well performing council’ with 3*. We are also in one of the 16% of Councils in the country to be ‘improving strongly’. By the end of year 2, there was also real evidence of the delivery of priority services to the people of Trafford- we were the best local education authority (LEA) in the country for A Level results, 2nd for GCSE and 2nd for primary school attainment. We were the safest borough in Greater Manchester, were investing significantly in our roads and pavements and had begun investment through partnership with the private sector, in our town centres.
David Cameron’s agenda has been in evidence in Trafford from the beginning of our tenure. Before taking control of the Council, I was determined that if we were to be elected, we needed our electorate to identify with us. This required, amongst other things, a change in the make up of our group, encouraging candidates from a much wider age range and background. On gaining control of the Council, a quarter of the Group were under the age of 40, there was a good mix of ages, experiences and the sexes. We have just had Sean Anstee, a 20 year old, elected in one of our safest wards and I think the fact that we are attracting people like that is very encouraging.
Localism is very much in evidence, despite a still centralising control from Government. We have a neighbourhood agenda that allows natural neighbourhoods within our borough to be very much part of local democracy. This was very obvious recently when we consulted extensively on the proposed congestion charging scheme for Greater Manchester. Record numbers of the community engaged with the process and their views were at the heart of our decision making. With a ‘referendum’ on the issue coming up in December, we will be going through a similar process.
Under Conservative control, the ‘cleaner greener’ agenda has featured heavily. We introduced doorstep recycling and have now over quadrupled our recycling rates since 2004. This year we will extend recycling to include cardboard and plastics and we will maintain weekly collections.
We currently have mixed messages of devolution but centralisation at the same time. There is an ongoing agenda for neighbourhood working, but very little flexibility for local government to act and take its own initiative. It is all underpinned by a Government imposing its targets and preventing local authorities from setting their own agenda.
Local councils, of whatever political colour, can do a lot more than central government if they are given the freedom and the power. What will make the difference to me and others like me is the transfer of power, money and responsibility to really sow the seeds of social transformation.