Blog - 12th February 2024

Feb 13th, 10:53

Blog - 12th February 2024

In this blog I write about my participation in the recent Local Government Association Corporate Peer Challenge at Watford Borough Council.

Last November, the Local Government Association asked me to join their peer review team for a corporate peer challenge at Watford Borough Council as the lead peer on finance. I was very pleased to join the team for what proved a very interesting peer review during which I was very impressed with what I saw at Watford.

The Local Government Association’s Corporate Peer Challenges are effective and well regarded by the sector. The annual peer challenge impact survey, shared with leaders and chief executives following a Corporate Peer Challenge or Finance Peer Challenge, shows that 100% of respondents indicated that that the process of preparing for and participating in the peer challenge has had a positive impact on their council. The survey also showed that 98% of respondents were satisfied with the Corporate Peer Challenge that their council received.

By bringing together political and managerial leadership, through the use of member and officer peers, a peer challenge provides robust, strategic and credible challenge and support to councils. Peer challenges enhance the capacity of the sector and helps to avoid insularity within councils.

It is expected that councils will all receive a Corporate Peer Challenge at least every five years.

Each Corporate Peer Challenge covers the five core elements listed below as well any local needs or specific challenges requested by the council:

  • Local priorities and outcomes
  • Organisational and place leadership
  • Governance and culture 
  • Financial planning and management 
  • Capacity for improvement.

dsc00251 The Local Government Association offices in London

During the four day visit, the team gathered information and views from more than 55 meetings, in addition to further research and reading. We spoke to more than 150 people including several council staff, councillors and external stakeholders and partners.

The review team found many strengths in Watford Borough Council’s approach, including that they:

  • Have transformed since their last peer challenge in 2017 driven by strong leadership and a ‘can do’ attitude.
  • Are ‘delivering hugely ambitious plans for Watford’ and have ‘an unwavering focus’ on outcomes for our residents.
  • Have very effective partnerships in place involving both our businesses and community and we have ‘forged strong external relationships’ to support delivery.
  • Are underpinned by ‘a culture of pride, ambition, and empowerment’.
  • Have a well-developed focus on place shaping with joined up senior leadership ensuring the vision for Watford is promoted nationally, regionally and locally.
  • Have a good record of financial stewardship and a clear understanding of their financial position.

Our final report concluded that:

“There is strong evidence and recognition that Watford Borough Council’s journey since the last peer challenge has been transformational. Watford Borough Council is delivering hugely ambitious plans for Watford, with an unwavering focus on the outcomes for its residents.

“Strong leadership has created a culture which is transformative, where the council is seeking to ‘be bold’ and focused on improving outcomes for the residents of Watford. Amongst members and staff there is a formidable sense of pride, coupled with a can do attitude with the council driven to step up to the challenge and be ambitious for the place and communities. Peers were struck by how much delivery is taking place with a workforce of circa 240 staff.. The workforce is engaged and feels empowered to make a difference with a strong link between the council plan and personal accountability and objectives.”

And on financial management, it concluded that:

“Watford Borough Council has a good record of financial stewardship and has a clear understanding of its financial position. Through developing the Medium Term Financial Strategy, Watford Borough Council have identified significant revenue savings for 2024-25. However there still remains a revenue gap for 2024-25 and further savings are required in 2025-26. Watford Borough Council should continue at pace to agree all required 2024-25 savings before the end of 2023-24 and during 2024-25 it is essential that the council identifies the savings opportunities for 2025-26. The implementation of 2025-26 savings during 2024-25 would further reduce revenue pressures and provide a contingency against unforeseen budget issues. Watford Borough Council has a relatively large capital programme that is subject to inherent risks associated with external factors such as interest rate changes, construction cost inflation, demand for residential and commercial premises and the cost of living. Watford Borough Council must continue to monitor these external factors, manage these risks and implement appropriate mitigating actions in order to ensure that Watford Borough Council is not overly exposed to new financial pressures.

“During 2023-24 Watford Borough Council experienced a significant slippage of the capital expenditure indicating that the risks referred to above have already impacted upon project delivery. In order to manage expectations both externally and internally and ensure that objectives remain realistic and time-bound, a review of project milestones and risk mitigation action should be undertaken.

“In view of the fact that Watford Borough Council is operating in a dynamic and fast-changing environment, strategic risk should be reported more frequently than the current annual report to the Audit Committee. Peers recommend strategic risks should be separately reported to cabinet on a regular basis to ensure there is an increased ownership for risk management.”

Watford Borough Council is unusual in that it is a district council with a directly elected Mayor, currently Peter Taylor (Liberal Democrat).

 Watford Town Hall

These peer challenges are quite intensive work and team members work long hours while they are on site. However, it is also very interesting and rewarding work. In this case I felt I had been able to contribute to a report that I hope will be useful to Watford Borough Council; while at the same time I learned a lot that will be of great benefit to me especially in other work that I do.

The Corporate Peer Challenge Team’s final report is available on Watford Borough Council’s website and can be viewed or downloaded by clicking here.

The team also made recommendations that have formed the basis of Watford Borough Council’s Corporate Peer Challenge action plan. This is available on their website and can be viewed or downloaded by clicking here.

More information about the role that I play in supporting the Local Government Association and its peer review programme can be found on our website by clicking here.

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