Political leadership: Middlesbrough Council

Middlesbrough Council is a unitary local authority with a directly elected Mayor. In the 2019 (all out) elections, an Independent Mayor (Andy Preston) was returned, replacing the outgoing Labour Mayor.


In addition, the council moved from a comfortable Labour majority to no overall control, with Labour remaining the largest party but with a significantly increased number of independent members, initially not organized into stable groups. This was the first time that Labour had not held the majority in the history of the council.

The new Mayor is a noted public figure in Teesside, particularly in respect of his past business success and philanthropic endeavours and is not aligned with any political party. He places great importance on communicating directly with the public through the media, particularly social media.

Moreover, both the Mayor and the majority of newly elected members had no prior political experience or real knowledge of how local authorities operate.

The change of Mayor had been anticipated (Andy Preston had fought the previous election and only narrowly lost), and the change to no overall control was considered possible.

As such, a significant amount of scenario planning had been undertaken within the council in the months leading up to the elections. The manifestos of the two principal candidates for Mayor had been (as far as practicable) analysed and costed, and the impact on the council’s finances in the medium-term estimated. Potential quick wins were identified, as well as those proposals that were not considered deliverable.

It was understood that the new Mayor and elected members would need to be thoroughly inducted into the organisation and as such a detailed induction programme had been developed.

However, the campaign had been unusually adversarial, with significant criticism of the previous administration and some existing programmes and projects, and as a result there was some nervousness with the organisation as to what any political changes may mean.

Action that was taken

  • All candidates were invited to pre-election briefings to explain both the election process and how the council operates.
  • A significant induction and programme of introductions (including external partners) was prepared for the new Mayor and all elected members.
  • The chief executive met with the new Mayor several times during the first week to highlight the key early tasks that the Mayor needed to consider (e.g. the Annual General Meeting, appointing an executive), as well as to provide a full briefing on statutory officer roles and outline the deliverability of manifesto pledges.
  • A provisional plan was created with the Mayor, outlining key changes required, quick wins and associated timescales, support requirements and key contacts.
  • The chief executive and other key officers held regular 1:1s with the Mayor to discuss progress of activity within this plan and to update it.
  • From this, new longer-term plans, programmes and projects emerged and were progressed through the council’s formal decision-making process.
  • The chief executive provides regular communications (email and briefings) to staff and these were used in this period to update employees on the transition and provide assurance where required.

The impact

  • There were significant changes to the council’s strategic approach (including the Local Plan and community safety policy) and a number of existing major programmes and projects, in line with the new Mayor’s election manifesto.
  • There was and remains much less predictability of the likelihood of decisions being approved. Committee membership is finely balanced, with regular movement of members between different independent groups. The Executive committee itself is comprised of members of different political persuasions and does not always vote unanimously.
  • As such, significant levels of member engagement and negotiations are now required to secure the approval of decisions – with greater scenario planning, longer lead-in times, regular member briefings and compromise, particularly around critical decisions such as approval of the annual revenue budget.
  • There were also fundamental changes to the way that business was done within the council – the management team was strengthened, and policies and procedures were strengthened and / or amended as appropriate as new ways of working were established.
  • Relationships have been tested on occasion and members have been provided with further clarification on their roles and the roles of officers. Action has been taken to improve joint working, with support and training provided by the LGA.
  • Scrutiny became much more politicized and the number of Executive decisions ‘called in’ increased significantly. As a result, the potential of scrutiny to add value to the democratic process via its role as ‘critical friend’ to the Mayor and the Executive was somewhat compromised as the atmosphere turned more adversarial. Action is being taken to address this through the agreement of an Executive / Scrutiny protocol.
  • The relationship with the Tees Valley Mayor and local MPs also changed, in line with the new political make-up of the council.
  • Both Middlesbrough and the council itself began to receive more national media coverage due to the new Mayor’s profile and newly announced priorities and projects.

How has the approach worked?

While the approach has necessarily evolved over time, ultimately it has been successful in progressing the agenda of the new administration. As part of this process, the council has fundamentally reviewed the way it does business, resulting in more focused and efficient processes, particularly around decision-making.

Key learnings

Change management

Though an obvious point, the impact of such significant changes will clearly be significant, and will be particularly demanding on all senior officers, most of all on the statutory officers and the management team. It is important therefore to treat changes of control as a major change management exercise and plan accordingly, supporting all members and officers as appropriate to move from the current state, through the inevitable transition period, and into the desired future state.

Pre-election

Open communication and build relationships with all candidates as soon as possible. Candidate briefings are a good way of doing this but take care to provide the same information and equal access to all candidates.

From day one

Meet the new administration (even if not fully formed) as soon as possible to begin to build rapport and trust and to plan ahead. First impressions are vital – offer your congratulations, show that you know about the new administration and its objectives, and be proactive in advising on and supporting these from the outset.

Remember that in elections there are always losers, and members who you may have worked closely with in the previous administration will now be in opposition. As such, long-standing personal relationships will inevitably change, but it is imperative to maintain good working relationships with all members so that business can move forward.

Being open to challenge

In the transition period, there will inevitably be strong challenges from the new administration – ‘do we have to do this, or in this way?’. It is important to be positive in addressing these challenges – no-one has a monopoly on good ideas, and it is entirely possible, particularly if the previous administration had been in place for multiple terms, that some existing practices may be inefficient or no longer necessary.

It is important not to take any political criticism personally – officers were not part of the previous administration, they merely served it. It is highly likely that some projects in which you were personally invested may be scrapped – this is part of change.

Being brave enough to challenge back

While a new administration can bring great drive, enthusiasm and commitment, it may lack understanding about how local authorities operate and the respective roles of elected members and officers.

It is important that officers are not swept along by the enthusiasm of the new administration or feel unable to say ‘no’ on the occasions where this is needed.

In responding to challenge, it is also important to stay true to both the values of the organisation and to your own personal values. Be prepared to be flexible, but also be honest and clear about what cannot be done and what cannot be negotiated, the governance processes that must be adhered to and the timescales that will apply.

Good governance

It is important that all members and officers involved in decision-making understand the principles of good governance, the policies and procedures in place within the council and their role in working together to uphold these.

Induction is the typical way of doing this, as well as providing detailed information about council services, key contacts and so on. However, it is advisable to take account of the preferences and learning styles of individuals in designing induction – presentations and e-learning could be supplemented by personal briefings and workshops, for example.

Messages around good governance and decision-making need to be consistent across senior managers and be regularly reinforced. New members will require ongoing support in this area in particular.

Supporting and upskilling staff

Staff will need to be supported during and beyond the transition. They may require additional resources and / or staff to deliver the priorities of the new administration. They may also require new skills, particularly around relationship management and negotiation.

Some services (and indirectly, employees) may be considered more important by the new administration than they were in the past, and some less so. Senior management should continue to ensure that all services and employees are made to feel that they are making a valuable contribution to the council’s objectives.

Creating momentum

New administrations will have many ambitions – it is vital to understand what is most urgent and important to inform your planning. Then aim to create momentum for the administration by delivering quick wins that speak to its ambitions – this builds trust and provides assurance that the organisation can deliver in the longer-term.

Communication, communication, communication

Throughout the transition period and beyond it is vital to maintain regular communications with all stakeholders, especially staff. Communications should be a key part of your change management plan, be multi-channel, involve genuine dialogue and also be inclusive so that those without access to ICT are also kept informed.

Contact:

Tony Parkinson, Chief Executive,
tony_parkinson@middlesbrough.gov.uk
01642 729101