A landmark year for Waltham Forest

By Michael Burton | 14 January 2020
  • Michael Burton

What makes a high-performing authority? Award-winner Waltham Forest LBC’s leader, Cllr Clare Coghill, and chief executive Martin Esom, know the answer: it is a case of getting the basics right so they can focus on the big picture.

Martin explains: ‘Our performance runs across all services. I’ve been here since 2006 and always loved the authority. It’s got integrity. But you’ve got to get the finances sorted and you can’t have poor children’s services. You’ve got to get the basics right so you can give headspace to be creative. We also have a strong relationship between members and officers. When we talk about money we talk about what we’ve got, not what we haven’t got. We haven’t got a big corporate centre. We’ve reduced the things residents don’t rely on.’

Clare, the leader since 2017, says a strong cabinet is essential and ‘my cabinet is superb. It enables Martin and I to look at the horizon. And we’re not afraid to hold a mirror up to ourselves. For example, we’re setting up a Hate Crime Assembly and a Climate Emergency Commission and we want people who can give us tough messages.’

The judges agreed, stating in their reasons for awarding the prize: ‘Key services such as those affecting the most vulnerable and those from which all communities benefit, deliver sustainable, positive and meaningful outcomes. The London borough of Waltham Forest should be proud of its achievements.’

Martin adds: ‘The year 2019 was amazing. Winning the Borough of Culture title was transformational. We had 15,000 residents sign up to our Back the Bid Campaign. One of the good unintended consequences was our staff satisfaction survey was off the scale: 85% of the staff said they would go the extra mile. It had a hugely positive impact on recruitment and we’ve had no problem finding staff.’

As for the award, he adds: ‘The MJ award gives us credibility. It’s an endorsement that we’re on the right path. The submission process also gave us the chance to review what we’ve done.’

In their winning awards submission Martin and Clare wrote: ‘In the past year, we have increased resident satisfaction, been named the first ever Mayor of London’s Borough of Culture, proven that our work has extended the life expectancy of our residents, created a cross-borough plan to increase our residents’ life chances and transformed the physical infrastructure of the borough.’

But, as both have stated, getting the basics right is essential. Their submission also emphasised: ‘Everything we have achieved has been built on a resilient and stable financial position. In 2018, Waltham Forest commissioned a Local Government Association financial peer review which concluded that: “the council is in a solid financial position, demonstrating good financial management, a sound financial base, and evidence of improving performance”.’

The council has balanced its budget to 2020 and has a target of delivering £2m annually from investments this year.

Housing is also a priority with plans to build nearly 18,000 new homes over the next 10 years, 50% affordable with local residents prioritised. It has also created Waltham Forest Developments, to borrow, invest in and maintain new developments with 900 new homes in the pipeline already, 50% affordable.

The council purchased a cultural asset in the EMD Cinema, a decaying entertainment venue that once played host to The Beatles, Johnny Cash and The Who, which will be transformed into a 1,000-seater entertainment venue in Walthamstow town centre, estimated to add between £34m and £52m to the local economy over a 10-year period.

The council has also developed plans to free up its corporate estate in other areas of the borough and consolidate staff onto one site, releasing more than 500 homes. Half the homes on the art deco town hall campus will be affordable housing. The project will save on running costs that can be put back into frontline services.

Getting the basics right also means quality social services. The children’s services Ofsted inspection saw the council go from a ‘requires improvement’ to a ‘good’ rating with outstanding features in leadership and management.

As Clare and Martin stated in their The MJ Awards submission: ‘Everything the council does is focused on our aim to help our residents lead a quality life, underpinned by three priorities: keep Waltham Forest clean and safe, work to ensure that everyone has a decent roof over their head, and improve our residents’ life chances.’

The MJ Awards Local Authority of the Year 2019

Sponsor: Green Park

Winner: Waltham Forest LBC

Finalists: North East Lincolnshire Council, Redbridge LBC, Rushcliffe BC, Thurrock Council

The MJ Awards Local Authority of the Year 2020

Sponsor: Green Park

The category highlights success, not just in one local authority department or project but right across the organisation. Winning this prestige category, or reaching the shortlist, sends out a message to both staff, partners and potential partners that the local authority is a high-performing council, an important factor at a time of increasing devolution.

Entries need to be in by 31 January and full details can be found on awards.themj.co.uk

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