PLANS to modernise St Helens Council to ensure the council is in a “fit state” to deliver for the people of the borough have been approved.

Dubbed ‘One Council’, the programme has been developed in response to the findings of two reviews carried out by the Local Government Association earlier this year.

The corporate peer challenge and subsequent culture review, which was published by the council on Wednesday, highlight a range of issues within St Helens Council.

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Some people within the organisation view it as “old fashioned, rigid and hierarchical” in the way it worked, the culture review said.

In the peer challenge, it said corporate services are viewed by some people within the authority as “bureaucratic, inflexible and a blocker for change”.

The peer challenge team also found that there was an “excessive reliance” on chief executive Mike Palin to move things forward.

St Helens Star:

Mike Palin, chief executive of St Helens Council

“Partly as a result of his energy and drive, and partly as a result of a lack of senior capacity, the chief executive is continuing to take too much on himself across a range of activities,” the report said.

“This is not sustainable and, more importantly, will preclude the chief executive from addressing some key issues of corporate significance as they arise and reliance on a key individual will inevitably slow progress.

“Moreover, it goes against the empowerment of officers across the organisation to make the council an ‘adaptive innovator’.”

A more distributed model of leadership is required, the report said, with further work required with both members and officers to help “reset the political and organisational culture of resent years.”

The LGA recommended that the council appoint an assistant chief executive to support the council’s change programme.

In response to this, Keith Ireland joined the council in April as an interim assistant chief executive, a temporary position to help with the modernisation of the council.

St Helens Star:

Keith Ireland was brought in as interim assistant chief executive following the corporate peer review

Paul Sanderson, the local authority’s strategic director of place services, was also appointed as deputy chief executive.

A report on the modernisation programme, which was unveiled last week, went to cabinet on Wednesday.

One of the recommendations in the report is to make the position of assistant chief executive permanent, at a salary of up to £110,000, with the recruitment process starting as soon as possible.

Another key area of the modernisation programme is to implement a new communications strategy.

The cabinet report said ‘One Message’ is about ensuring that both external and internal communications “improve significantly”, which is another direct response to the LGA corporate peer challenge.

“The council lacks a strategic approach to external communications,” the peer challenge said.

“Despite the existence of a communications strategy, the council still struggles to communicate key messages in a coherent and proactive way.

“Communication is seen as very reactive, a situation made worse by the leaking of reports to local media and the somewhat unrestrained use of social media channels by members (the issues presented by social media are not unique to St Helens).”

The peer challenge said councillors, service department and the communications team should work more closely to ensure key messages are delivered and “potentially damaging news is properly managed.”

Poor behaviour from councillors within the ruling Labour group is having a “negative impact on the council’s business and partner and public relations”, the report said.

The LGA said members need to “take stock” of this, quickly resolve the underlying issues and consider the implications of individual behaviours.

In addition, the peer challenge team found that a “disconnect” has developed between members and officers in recent times.

Despite these issues, a number of positive developments were highlighted, such as St Helens experiencing the second greatest increase in jobs in the North.

The peer challenge said St Helens Cares, the council’s new integrated care system, is “valued” by partners locally and has already won national awards.

Financially, the report said the council has managed its finances well despite “difficult circumstances” in recent years for the local government sector.

The council’s chief executive is described in the report as “instrumental” in development of the Local Enterprise Partnership and Liverpool City Region Combined Authority governance arrangement, which have “clear regional impact and reputational gain” for St Helens.

Since the corporate peer challenge and culture reviews were carried out, the council has made a number of changes.

After bolstering its team of senior officers, David Baines was elected as the new leader of the council in May, alongside a cabinet reshuffle.

St Helens Star:

Cllr David Baines was elected as leader of the council in May

On Wednesday, a series of recommendations relating to the modernisation programme were approved by cabinet, including the development of a new corporate plan.

The cabinet report said much of the programme can be achieved within existing council budgets and resources as they are projects or improvements that do not need further investment.

Chief executive Mike Palin said the modernisation plans will aim for a more “joined-up and modern approach” to the way the council does things in the future.

Cllr Baines, leader of the council, said the modernisation plans have been drawn up in part, due to the LGA peer and cultures reviews.

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“It is essential that we as a council are in a fit state to deliver for the residents in the borough that we’re here to serve,” Cllr Baines said.

“And quite simply at the moment, we’re not.

“There’s a lot that needs to change about the way we do our business and the way we deliver services.

“This is part of making sure we do that for the future.”