This month I was called to a different part of the country and asked to spend a few days inside a local authority in the north.
The idea was to recognise problems with its local plan, help it become more efficient and effective at getting what it needs, in the face of challenging times.
The issue being faced by all councils today is that budgets have been cut by more than 40% as part of the Government’s austerity drive and are set to fall further.
Tough times can expose weak leadership and management.
As a business, its income has been falling, service demands have been rising, and it has little ‘wriggle room’ to charge council tax payers extra.
The only way forward is to focus on efficiencies, cut costs, and rise above any petty politics to focus on achieving targets for the taxpayer.
The council had done a great job at sorting out its finances and despite such tough times it is in rude financial shape, albeit with a funding black hole in 20 years’ time if nothing further changes.
The tough decisions taken to rebuild this stable financial footing were even more remarkable given that there is no overall control of the council, which meant that cross-party agreement was needed for any progress.
In a political majority situation, a council makes the bigger decisions at the majority ‘group’ and at cabinet, but such a ‘group’ process doesn’t hold sway in a hung council.
I was impressed that in these circumstances, officers had made it their mission to remain professional, impartial servants to their elected councillor body and avoided seeking to overplay their personal opinions – such a crucial element of local democracy.
Those working inside were remarkably positive given many recent job losses and morale was much higher than I had expected it to be – another sign of a clear, focused senior management team, concentrating on the right things.
What was also impressive was the extent to which the local business community was at its shoulder in supporting key economic development plans. This was not a council that believed itself to be an island.
It understood that we are all now in this together and dependent on working together.
It also had plenty of room for improvements and they were very keen to hear what these might be.
I was impressed and came away with a new respect for councillors.
Being one is a tougher task than I thought.