One year on under SKDC's younger leadership
Just over a year ago, a wind of change blew through the corridors of South Kesteven District Council.
Its ruling Conservative Group staged its annual general meeting and replaced long-serving councillor Bob Adams with relative new boys, Stamford area councillors Matthew Lee, 38, and Kelham Cooke, 27.
Coun Lee had only just been with SKDC since 2015, though the train guard for the GNER railway company, was previously a deputy leader of Peterborough City Council.
Coun Cooke, meanwhile, had been an SKDC councillor since 2011, first elected when he was in his early 20s. Politics has also earned him his crust, as party agent for Grantham & Stamford Conservatives, and communications officer for MP Nick Boles.
There had already been rumblings of discontent against Coun Adams, with him narrowly surviving a motion of no confidence just six months previously.
Mr Lee explained: “The Conservative group had a debate about the future of the council and they decided they wanted to change leaders.”
The pair have just been through the same process again, and at the Conservative group’s last AGM last month, both were returned unopposed.
Mr Lee continued: “I think that it is a healthy function that you stand as leader. I talked about the future of the district and how the council should be seen and what we should do. All organisations need to move on and change. That’s what happens when there is a change of leadership. We bring a new style and a new set of priorities. It’s not a criticism of what went on before. The focus is different. Our focus is about reform of the council, to make it work better for local people.”
Chief executive Aidan Rave, added to the reform, joining the council last June and undertaking a recently completed restructure of SKDC’s senior management team.
Mr Lee explained: “Our number one priority is to grow the economy and reform the council. We do not want to grow the economy for the sake of it. As a council we provide services to the most vulnerable in society. For that, we need we need sustainable income. More people here in South Kesteven means more business rates. The council has more to spend and it can deliver more and sustainable services.”
Continued cuts in government grants, which are expected to wither away in the next decade have fuelled the importance of SKDC self-sufficiency.
In its economic ambitions, SKDC created InvestSK, a standalone entity, replacing the council’s economic development department. It has an annual budget of £800,000 and forms part of a £40 million investment package the district council launched last October to attract and expand new businesses and stimulate economic growth.
The aim is to generate £400 million of investment across the district over three years and £1.2 billion of investment over 20 years, thus boosting overall economic output in South Kesteven by 40 per cent.
Central to this will be more business parks, technological hubs, and a revamp of the heritage areas of Grantham. There would be more spending on the arts too, with money for festivals, such as the Stamford Georgian Festival and Grantham’s Gravity Fields. Tourism or the ‘visitor economy’ is seen as vital in this.
Housing is also seen as vital with the Local Plan almost approved. It seeks more than 15,000 homes being built by 2036, with almost 4,000 homes at Spitalgate Heath, just south of Grantham.
The housing would be varied, with council housing part of it. Many councils, be they Labour or Conservative, do not built council houses, but South Kesteven built 27 last year.
Matthew continued: “We are not going to sell our housing stock. We are not going to bring another organisation in. Yes, we want more houses, we want all sorts of houses. The Conservative Group want to see the council housing stock increase. I absolutely support that. I think it’s a shame many councils have sold their council house stock and they regret it.”
“What we need to do is grow and refurbish that stock without it being a burden on the taxpayer. We don’t want an area for a certain type of people. That’s not a vibrant place. We want a mix of community in all our towns and villages, in jobs, skills, young people not just over 65s.
“We intend to bring forward plans on the next few years to bring forward many more council houses and affordable houses and private houses.”
And there is that reform of council, aiming to make it more commercial and businesslike, which the pair say will make it more efficient, while serving the public better.
Matthew continued: “There’s many things the council can do. You have to have credibility when you say to a community group or business that we will work in partnership. It’s absolutely essential to reform the council so its an effective active partner.”
This was why, he continues, the council wanted to raise the standards of street cleaning and the appearance of the district. It was something residents wanted and it showed how the council was investing in the district.
The pair declare last year’s Big Clean a success and have incorporated it into planned higher standards for street cleaning across the district.
Matthew commented: “It wasn’t a a one hit wonder but a major investment we delivered on time and under budget.”
Kelham added the Big Clean reduced fly-tipping by 16 per cent and for villages such as those he represents, it showed how the council will support them in their regular litter picks. More litter-picking groups have since been formed with them believing SKDC will help them as a partner.
For the average resident, the pair say a reformed council will mean SKDC is seen as more responsive and more pro-active, as shown by its work with community groups on litter-picking and how InvestSK is meeting with businesses.
Another example is how SKDC refuse collectors were redeployed to help Lincolnshire County Council staff clear the roads and pavements during the winter snows. This was, both said, “working with people to create a solution.”
However, the biggest changes will be internally, with a smaller but more efficient council aiming to do more.
Chief executive Aidan Rave recently completed a review of senior management, which will see the council reducing from 30 senior managers to 20.
His reports to Employment Committee spoke of SKDC been seen as “bureaucratic” and risk averse. His changes will lead to something more “agile” and entrepreneurial. Redeployment, retirement and vacancies meant just one redundancy.
The transformation comes as part of a corporate strategy which also sets out a ‘bible’ as to how the council is run.
Last year, as council leader, Mr Lee told the launch of InvestSK that the council was previously “an officer-led organisation” but this was changing.
Instead, the ruling councillors will set the framework for the officers to work within.
He continued: “It’s saying you have 140,000 residents, they elect 56 councillors who set the political direction, how they deliver the core parts of their work, a document that shapes the future of how this organisation will deliver.”
Mr Cooke explained: “Me and the chief executive have been talking across staff of all grades. We have set out what we want this organisation to deliver the very best. That means that there will be changes. We want them all to deliver the best services, not just the chief executive.”
He continued: “Sometimes we just haven’t focussed on staff training and development. My role next year will be to bring in more staff training and help them progress in their careers.”
Mr Lee likened the changes to that of an oil tanker trying to change direction, but it takes time.
“Over the past 12 months, we have been making these changes. I think we have started to turn the tanker around but there’s a lot more to do. If we don’t make the changes in the council, we can’t make the public-facing things sustainable.”
It all comes as every one of South Kesteven’s 56 district councillors will be up for re-election next May, something the ruling Conservatives have begun organising for, with it seeking candidates already. The pair say they will be keen to focus on local issues, not what might be happening nationally.
Mr Lee added: “We will talk about the changes for the next four years, starting in October, when there will be another economic summit.
“We will be focussing on local issues, what we are going to deliver in the next four years. We will be selling our record. We are going to go all out to set out what we have done, doing as much for the rural areas as the towns.”