Can improvements at South Ribble be described as "significant"?

South Ribble received advice from other local authority leaders in 2017.
South Ribble received advice from other local authority leaders in 2017.
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The significance of the word “significant” was debated by councillors in South Ribble, in a disagreement over how much the authority has improved.

The significance of the word “significant” was debated by councillors in South Ribble, in a disagreement over how much the authority has improved.

It is almost two years since the council was given advice by other local government leaders, following the fallout from a series of failings which engulfed its licensing department in 2016.

That assessment – known as a “peer challenge” – set out a series of recommendations to transform the operation and culture of the authority. It resulted in the creation of a cross-party Improvement Reference Group (IRG), designed to oversee the implementation of the suggestions.

A meeting of South Ribble Borough Council’s cabinet heard that the work of the IRG was coming to a close, because all of the review’s recommendations had been implemented. The Local Government Association (LGA), which undertook the peer challenge and is represented on the IRG, is to be invited back to the Conservative-run borough in October to give its final verdict on the changes.

However, Labour opposition leader Paul Foster disputed a description of the improvement to date as “significant”. He claimed that the IRG had withdrawn the word from its own recent report – but that it had been reinserted in a document presented to the cabinet.

“[The IRG] said there had been significant actions and that improvements had been made – because they didn’t agree that there had been significant improvement,” Cllr Foster said, adding that he would be writing to the LGA over the matter.

But council leader Margaret Smith said that was not her “recollection” of the discussion, while deputy leader Caroline Moon added that the only question had been whether the improvements could be described as “embedded” – and it was concluded that they could not.

“Nobody has a crystal ball and I think the LGA was rightly saying that while South Ribble has come a very long way, [they would] come back in October to see whether their [recommendations] were embedded in the organisation,” Cllr Moon said.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is a positive place to be…and it’s the staff who have delivered this.”

The council’s action plan in response to the peer review claims to have transformed the way it communicates with staff, after a critical employee survey back in 2017. The authority has committed to making its messages “timely, clear and consistent”, via both electronic and face-to-face briefings.

Chief Executive Heather McManus is said to have developed a so-called “open door” policy, available to staff at all levels.

The shadow cabinet is also now briefed on cabinet business, following the LGA’s call for “political stability”.

Plans to expand a shared services agreement with neighbouring Chorley Council have been put on hold until after local elections in both districts in 2019.