South Tyneside Council chiefs pledge 'new chapter' as changes aim to steer away from 'challenging' period at local authority

Council chiefs have promised more openness and transparency as the set out plans for the future and steer away from a ‘challenging’ period at the town hall.

South Tyneside Council’s leader and chief executive reaffirmed their pledge to increase openness and transparency as they revealed new “transformational” plans for the future.

A new report has found that fresh leadership has brought “stability, visibility and a new, more open approach” to the council creating an “expectation of change for the better”.

The Local Government Association (LGA) Peer Challenge involved a group of experienced councillor and officer peers from other councils visiting South Tyneside to find out what is working and what needs to improve.

South Tyneside Council Leader Cllr Tracey Dixon and Chief Executive Jonathan Tew, at South Shields Town Hall.

The review noted the council had faced a “challenging” period in recent years, following whistleblowing by senior council officers and the departure of the former chief executive and council leader.

After assessing the council’s processes, procedures and new leadership under chief executive Jonathan Tew and new council leader Cllr Tracey Dixon, the peer challenge noted the council was more “open and engaging”.

It also referenced the new leadership team’s “positive working relationship and open approaches” as well as “growing optimism” from stakeholders about working with and in the local authority.

Recommendations for change

The peer challenge made 12 recommendations, including the council reviewing the structure of council committees, an “ongoing focus” on member-officer working relationships and a “modernisation” programme across the council.

It also called for the council to establish an equality, diversity and inclusion strategy, as well as developing a new vision and corporate plan with key milestones and performance indicators.

Looking forward, the council is keen to further enhance its relationship with residents and ensure that services are relevant and fit for the future.

This includes bringing forward a refreshed 20-year vision for South Tyneside and embedding its new ‘Our Council’ change programme to bring about lasting change for the organisation and wider borough.

Cllr Tracey Dixon, leader of South Tyneside Council, said she was committed to creating a culture of “inclusion, engagement and listening” and to “put people at the heart of decision-making”.

“Since coming into office I have been working relentlessly to change things so that we can be the best of the borough,” she said.

“I’m pleased to say that after hard work to put the right team in place and with Jonathan by my side we’ve got the foundations of a new council, a new way of working and a major change in the organisation.

“We will hold ourselves to account, modelling the right values and behaviours, to be the best of the borough.

“I always said it wouldn’t happen overnight but with our hard work and determination we now have a plan to move forward with into the next phase of realising what the council, and borough can be.”

Cllr Dixon, reflecting on the findings of the peer challenge around culture, added that “behaviours are a personal responsibility” but that the council is looking to “embed a different ethos into behaviours” moving forward.

The council commissioned a resident survey last year because it wanted to listen to the views of locals and almost 1,000 responded, providing themes to further explore including engagement and satisfaction with services such as refuse collection and recycling.

Changing strategies

The council also undertook a business survey and employee surveys and has been consulting with service users to reshape strategies in areas like adult social care and health and wellbeing.

South Tyneside Council has now brought forward an operational plan for the next 12 months and has developed plans to strengthen ways of working, support employees and elected members and drive improvements.

It is also set to launch its ‘Our South Tyneside Conversation’ consultation in the summer which aims to reach more residents to inform decision-making.

For the council’s new chief executive Jonathan Tew, the LGA peer challenge reflects a lot of the work already under way in South Tyneside.

While there were historical issues of organisational leadership to reflect on, he said, it was important to make wellbeing a priority given the “incredibly difficult time” the council’s workforce faced during Covid-19.

He added the planned overhaul of the council starts with listening to employees and responding, with recent examples including investment into facilities at Middlefields Depot and flexible working arrangements for staff.

“External challenge is vital and that is why we invited the LGA in to take stock of where we were, where we are, and where we could be,” Mr Tew said.

“The peer review confirmed that change has happened but there’s still more to do.

“A lot of what the peer review told us we were already doing, it confirmed what we knew about where we needed to go next – with a renewed vision for the borough for the next 20 years.

“Our new approach is all about having a transparent evidence base to make decisions, so that we are working collectively with the residents and businesses of South Tyneside so that we can prove why things are needed and more importantly, so we can measure our successes and areas for growth.

“There is much more to do to transform our practices into a modern and open council, building on the governance work that is well under way and looking at our existing policies, processes, and procedures to do things differently.”

The council’s annual plan, Our Council change programme and LGA peer challenge report will be presented to the cabinet at their next meeting on Wednesday, May 25.