Dealing with coronavirus is one thing. Dealing with coronavirus, a massive transformation programme, creating two new councils as part of the local reorganisation and establishing a new Children’s Trust is a real challenge - and one that they are meeting head-on in Northamptonshire.
When the county council issued local government’s first s114 notice in 20 years back in early 2018, it kicked off a chain of events aimed at turning the troubled authority around, including an intervention, a massive transformation programme led by Government-appointed commissioners and local government reorganisation, pulling the eight local councils into form two unitary authorities.
Corby, East Northamptonshire, Kettering and Wellingborough will form North Northamptonshire Council, while Daventry, Northampton, and South Northamptonshire will become West Northamptonshire.
The route to reorganisation has not been plain sailing. Between Parliamentary time lost to Brexit and General Elections, the legislation stalled before the structural changes were amended in February, giving the two authorities the go-ahead.
After the local elections were scrapped due to the pandemic, the Government nominated two leaders and deputies for the shadow authorities, which went live on 10 May. And now it is all systems go.
The serving Kettering DC leader Cllr Russell Roberts will take on the role of leader of the shadow North Northamptonshire Council, while Cllr Ian McCord, currently the leader of South Northamptonshire, will become the new West Northamptonshire Council leader.
The two new leaders have already started their preparations to get the new councils up and running on 1 April 2021. First on the agenda is finding two new chief executives, before they start the search for their statutory officers.
Recruiting in the coronavirus crisis may not have been the first choice for the two politicians, but they are not deterred by social distancing – and they claim the past difficulties in the county have helped when it comes to dealing with the current situation.
Cllr McCord explains: ‘Northamptonshire’s COVID response has been greatly enhanced by the work we have been doing in the last 18 months. Prior to that, the relationships were not particularly good, to put it mildly.’
It is one of the main aspects of the council’s transformation programme, getting relationships between the county and the districts back on track, as well as working with partners local partners, including the health service. The result has made dealing with the crisis a lot smoother than it would have been if it had happened before the county’s collapse.
‘We’ve been working for a long time now in Northamptonshire as one team. Local government is at its best when counties and districts are working together,’ Cllr Roberts agrees. ‘We are going to seek to maintain the strategic partnerships that have been built up over this crisis.’
They both adamant that the partnership approach prompted by the county’s collapse has been a positive that they will take forward, and they will build on the integration with health colleagues that has come so far.
‘The strength of the integration has been tested in extremis during the pandemic,’ Cllr McCord says. ‘It didn’t need to be tested this far, but it was and it is still strong.’
The commitment to partnership is so strong, the two new unitaries will have a joint director of public health and a single director of children’s services to ensure a joined up approach to safeguarding in the future.
For the successful candidates who take on the two new chief executive roles, there will be a lot to do – setting up the new authorities and recovering from the fallout of coronavirus.
Cllr McCord explains: ‘For me, it’s about keeping the momentum of change.’ His current authority is used to culture change. It works in partnership with Cherwell DC and he describes the culture change as ‘like painting the Fourth Bridge – it’s never over.’
He also wants a chief executive who can ‘crack on and do’.
‘I want someone with the charisma to lead the authority forward. It’s important for our residents that we don’t let them down. And post-COVID, we want a lot of regeneration.
The new chiefs will have to crack on quickly. The recruitment of the statutory officers will start soon – timed so the chiefs will have a final say in the interviews for their top team.
For Cllr Roberts, he is looking for similar traits. He wants a chief executive with drive, vision, and an inclusive style of management, building the community and taking the organisation forward.
Current incumbent, the interim chief executive Theresa Grant also has her own checklist. She tells The MJ: ‘I’d like to see someone who is dynamic, and embraces change. Who understands transformation is not just about doing things differently, it’s also about doing different things.
‘I want to see someone who is collaborative, with the charisma to bring people together, and who recognises the potential of the place.
‘The raw material here is so exciting. The relationships are so good. They need the best chief executive in the country, with ambition and a clear vision to deliver.