A period of “turmoil” for St Helens Council has given rise to factionalism within the ruling Labour group and “muddied the water” of how a council should operate, an independent review has found.
In 2018 the Local Government Association (LGA), which represents councils across England and Wales, was commissioned by the council to carry out a corporate peer challenge with the aim of driving improvements.
This was carried out in January. A second review, focusing on the culture within the council, was also undertaken in March by the LGA earlier this year.
The culture review, which is due to be published this week, describes the recent history of St Helens Council as “unique and not normal”.
“A long period of consistency had given way to a period of extreme political and considerable administrative volatility, with some blurring of political and administrative boundaries,” the report said.
“The council has yet to rest and settle down to a new way of working which members and officers like understand, sign up to and implement.”
According to the review, much of the recent disruption is down to changes in political leadership, the unforeseen illness of chief executive Mike Palin and changes to senior officers.
In April 2018, Cllr Barrie Grunewald resigned as council leader as it was revealed he was being investigated by Merseyside Police for a possible data breach, although no charges were ever brought against him.
Following his shock resignation, Cllr Derek Long was installed as leader.
In the corporate peer challenge, it was established that the council had become increasingly reliant on its chief executive, in part due to the prolonged absence of Cllr Grunewald, who suffered numerous complications after a heart attack while on holiday in Gran Canaria in 2017.
During Cllr Grunewald’s rehabilitation, Mr Palin had to assume aspects of the role of the leader, particularly in in acting as a figurehead for the authority, the report said.
But in early 2018, Mr Palin was diagnosed with testicular cancer and had to take three months off as he underwent surgery, which coincided with the retirement of a number of senior officers.
These factors slowed the progress made by the council, the LGA said, and contributed to rising tensions in the ruling group that had built-up over a number of years.
During the culture review, problems of “factionalism” within the ruling Labour group were established.
The “vast majority” of people who spoke to the culture review team said relations between members, especially among Labour councillors, were “poor”.
This was a consistent view from members across the political spectrum, the review said, with some members even describing the situation as “horrendous”.
The LGA said the issues that have divided the Labour camp “run deep”, but are rooted in opposing personalities rather than that of geography or political ideology.
It said different factions find it “impossible” to forgive others for their past behaviour, with the situation compounded by a sense that “no-one will get to grips with it”
A number of leaks to the press also proved “politically and operationally damaging”, the report said.
“We were struck by the extent to which many members were hoping that an outside agency could solve these problems for them,” the culture review said.
“The recent corporate peer challenge report does offer some solutions and indeed, this review is a direct result of that.
“There may also be a role for the regional Labour Party but fundamentally change needs to come from within the council itself.”
It was also claimed that the lack of party discipline meant some councillors were “picking and choosing” whether or not to attend meetings, impacting the quality of decision making and scrutiny.
Recent instances where scrutiny meetings had been inquorate was also “concerning” for the culture review team.
Additionally, some members claimed cabinet roles and scrutiny chairs were “hotly contested” due to the special responsibility allowance that comes with it.
The peer challenge team were told that officers and members sometimes felt “inappropriately challenged” during scrutiny meetings.
“One or two” members also claimed that some councillors confused their role with officers by wanting to get involved in the operational management of the authority.
These were very much in the minority, the review said, albeit a “confident, forceful and influential one”.
Conversely, members expressed concerns that senior officers, who are supposed to be apolitical, were operating within the political space.
This has resulted in a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities, “poor and inappropriate communication and a culture which is unhealthy, abnormal and which needs change”.
While members were generally positive about the support and advice they received from officers, a number of councillors felt officers had lost “respect” for the decision-making process.
“What is clear is that the unique and difficult circumstances that have occurred in St Helens has muddied the waters of how the council should operate and that a lack of trust in and understanding of the political and managerial roles and responsibilities on all sides is not healthy or productive,” the culture review said.
“The ways of working need to be normalised so that officers can step back from being in any space they should not and so that members can ‘step-up’ into that space.”
Despite all of the difficulties, the culture review team said everyone it spoke to wanted to see a positive change.
In conclusion, the culture review said: “There is much of which St Helens Council is rightly proud and considering the turmoil the council has undergone in recent times, it is commendable that it has achieved the successes that it has.
“That said, this review has found that there are serious issues that need to be confronted in terms of the behaviour of some elected members and of how the majority group operates, the interactions between the political executive and backbenchers, the resetting of the role and responsibilities of the chief executive following his needing to operate in an unusual space during a period of turmoil, and in how senior managers and politicians interact and the appropriate interface between them.
“The current situation is abnormal, due to circumstance, and nearly everyone we spoke to (members and officers) is unhappy with the status quo and worried about the future.
“That said, people seem unwilling to take the first move to address this challenge so we hope this report can become the first move, providing the basis for further discussion and shared political and managerial ownership of a new future for St Helens Council.”
The LGA culture review goes on to recommend an extensive list of actions but notes that a “major cultural shift” will take time.
Since the corporate peer challenge and culture reviews were carried out, the council has made a number of changes.
In April, the council bolstered its team of senior officers by appointing a deputy chief executive and an interim assistant chief executive.
The following month Cllr David Baines was elected as the new leader of the council, alongside a cabinet reshuffle.
A modernisation programme, dubbed ‘One Council’, has also been developed in response to the two reviews, which will both be published today (Wednesday).
Action plans on how the council will address the LGA’s recommendations will also be published.
Mike Palin, chief executive of the council, said: “The council invited the LGA to conduct an assessment of our performance, strategy and operating model as part of our desire to modernise and continually improve what we do.
“The review team told us that we have a good understanding of our communities and the challenges we face together and commented favourably on our work in health and social care integration and in supporting economic growth. The council also works effectively with partners and is well thought of by other organisations.
“The review also commented on the council having experienced a number of unsettled years that have been difficult to manage but despite this the review team recognised we had still been effective and done things well considering the difficult circumstances faced.
“There has been a recognition for some time that we have to change the way we work and we asked the review team to assess whether we have made strides towards modernisation.
“They suggested we should be doing more to make the council fit for the future and in the six months since the team visited the council has put in place robust action plans to develop a new, One Council approach as a road-map for change and this will be formally approved at cabinet tonight.”