Is a lack of profile a problem for a local authority? Yes. It can be used as a stick to beat you with when things go wrong – which they do for every organisation from time to time. But, a profile can also be used positively to unlock doors, share innovation and learning, lobby, and to engage communities.
In Kingston, we are taking steps to be more engaged and more visible in local government networks because we are convinced of the benefits it will bring. With a new chief executive officer and leadership team, Kingston is optimistic about the future.
Our first step has been to establish a fresh vision and narrative through our new corporate plan. We aspire to be an outward looking, learning organisation, which is why our recent Local Government Association corporate peer review – led by Andy Donald from Redbridge LBC – was so timely and important.
The message from the review is clear, with the opening line of the final report sounding like a galvanising call for action: ‘It feels as though “the time is now” for Kingston, with us being struck by the potential and opportunity that exists for the council, both as an organisation and as a leader of place. The council has much to call upon to drive things forward...people want the council to succeed’.
The foundations are there. The mood is one of optimism and potential. There’s a real buzz about the place. We know we need to change and we’re up for it.
Our vision is simple – we strive to put our communities at the centre of everything we do and deliver for them. You will have heard that before, of course, but it is a new vision for Kingston. Our approach to the delivery of services and the design of the place will be framed by a desire to hardwire engagement into how we operate.
The peer review concluded that our focus on improving engagement was well understood by staff and partners, but that we needed to articulate what we mean. That is why we adopted a framework to guide us and drive consistency. This recognises there are different stages to engagement, from informing people through to service redesign via collaboration and empowerment. To achieve our ambition, we will need to use all of these approaches and improve at each stage.
But a framework alone won’t make us good at engagement. Three things are required to turn rhetoric into reality: a change of culture, recognising where services need to improve, and doing something about it.
A year ago, our customer services – for many the front door to the council – needed rapid improvement. We are in much better shape now. We have moved from being the worst in London at timeliness of FOI responses to one of the best. We are dealing with complaints more quickly and using data to identify trends, and we are redesigning our website to bring it up to the standard our residents expect – engaging them to design it with us.
We recognise the importance of our neighbourhood committees as a means of engaging communities and taking decisions at a local level. We have changed our constitution to give neighbourhoods more power over the issues that matter to residents and delegated budgets to provide for a local response. And we are putting residents at the centre of our approach to housing and regeneration.
The Cambridge Road Estate in Norbiton is the borough’s largest regeneration programme, aiming to deliver 2,000 new homes over the next 10-15 years – some social rented homes, some shared ownership and some for sale. All those who wish to stay on the estate will be able to do so.
The master-planning process has begun, with residents of the estate helping to shape the plans. We will give the people who live there the final say before a spade hits the ground, with proposals subject to a positive resident ballot in autumn 2019.
But no authority can deliver in isolation. Strong relationships with partners, businesses, and community groups are an essential prerequisite for success. On the day of the European elections, a 250kg unexploded Second World War bomb was discovered in Kingston town centre. The impact was significant – 3,000 people were evacuated.
In terms of the response, what stands out is how quickly community groups and businesses mobilised to support those in need. Relationships were tested during those challenging 36 hours and were ultimately found to be collaborative and strong. The sense of community goodwill was palpable. It wasn’t a council and emergency services response, it was a community response.
So, the vision for Kingston is clear and the ambition is strong. The time is now and we are on our way. Follow the signs.
Stephen Evans is director, communities at Kingston upon Thames RLBC