Feedback report:12 - 15 July 2022
1. Executive Summary
Newcastle City Council (NCC) is ambitious for its communities and its vibrant City. Putting citizens at the heart of everything it does, and ensuring the City continues to grow and benefits all, is a priority of the new administration. Recent political and senior officer changes have brought a new organisational direction. Inevitably changes have created a sense of opportunity and risk. Managing this transition should be prioritised further to support empowered, clear political decision-making, strong Member-Officer relationships, and an environment where opportunities can be embraced. The passion of the Leader and Chief Executive, and positive relationship forged, provides a good platform as they continue to promote a new dynamic organisational culture and ambition.
The planned refresh of the Economic Strategy and Corporate Plan is a great opportunity to articulate the new administration’s City vision and reinforce the culture, values, and behaviours NCC wishes to establish. Taking steps to improve communication and engagement with staff - directly linked to the Corporate Plan and new administration’s enhanced commitment to equality, diversity, and inclusion – will be required to embed collective ownership of these priorities and support cross-Council join up. Similarly, undertaking a light-touch review of existing partnerships and strategies will better align capacity to deliver these priorities, clarify remits, and ensure arrangements best serve the City.
NCC has a good understanding of its communities, local context, and place within the wider region. This is shown by its ‘Good’ rating for Children’s Social Care and strong focus on tackling inequalities and poverty. It is understandably proud of its strong history of partnership working and track record of innovative delivery, with its response to COVID-19 and Zero Carbon Plans and actions exemplars of this. Clear assessment however of NCC’s Council-wide performance is hindered by its approach to corporate performance reporting. To fully realise its bold ambitions for place and drive citizen centred performance improvement, NCC needs to strengthen strategic coordination across its activities, make greater use of data insight, and foster a more consistent approach to innovation, as well as promote its successes in this area more fully.
Newcastle has significant economic, social and geographical assets, rich cultural heritage, compelling positioning around zero carbon, and strong local identify based on passion for place which form the basis of a strong narrative. NCC has a strong record of activity in furthering these areas of strength, nevertheless there is a phenomenal opportunity to leverage them to greater effect. By acting as the steward of the City’s brand, NCC can ensure investment contributes to its ambitions for place, benefits communities, and strengthens its national and global position. Development of NCC’s Economic and Cultural Strategies, refreshing its Housing Policy Statement, and continuing efforts to secure an ambitious devolution deal on a wider geography will all be important to it realising its potential. These strategies should be joined up in articulating a vibrant cultural offer and distinctive inclusive growth ambition that maximises infrastructure and social value from new developments and unites the different neighbourhoods and communities of the City. In setting out this clear and ambitious vision, it can galvanise partners and communities alike behind this endeavour.
Ensuring all residents feel the benefits of the Council's services, assets, and economic growth is a clear focus of the new Cabinet. This renewed community focus will take time to improve public perceptions of the Council, and the feeling by some of being disconnected from the City's economic success. NCC are embracing the Local Plan refresh to address this by engaging stakeholders and communities City-wide. Neighbourhood Plans could further help galvanise community involvement in shaping their localities.
NCC has a dedicated and passionate workforce, who are proud to represent the City and went above and beyond expectations during the pandemic. Continuing to take time to celebrate success, investing in staff development and ensuring everyone has a timely appraisal will be important for staff morale, skill development and capacity which has been impacted and stretched by the pandemic and years of diminishing finances. Also important will be the development of a Medium Term Financial Plan that aligns capital and revenue resources behind the new City priorities and change agenda. This will build workforce capacity through optimal use of resources and deliver the greatest impact for residents.
The Council has an impressive track record of delivery of savings to maintain financial sustainability against a challenging financial context. Increased transparency of the assumptions that underpin NCC’s regularly reported financial position, and robustly managing the MTFP, will be important as NCC navigates the significant financial challenges and risks that lie ahead, including national inflationary pressures. By doing so, NCC can be bold in tackling the challenges it faces and leveraging the City’s combined capacity, resources, and passion to realise its exciting potential.
2. Key recommendations
There are a number of observations and suggestions within the main section of the report. The following are the peer team’s key recommendations to the council:
2.1. Refresh the Corporate Plan to articulate NCC’s new vision, values and behaviours, with clear internal accountability linked directly to appraisal, and with an enhanced approach to equality, diversity and inclusion. This delivery framework will drive the new City priorities and reinforce the culture, values, and behaviours NCC wishes to establish.
2.2. Develop a more comprehensive, structured, and regular approach to communication and engagement with staff directly linked to the development and delivery of the Corporate Plan and appraisal system. This will embed the new administration’s vision for the City, and promote collective ownership by the senior leadership, and greater cross-Council team-working.
2.3. Prioritise supporting the new Cabinet, the smooth bedding in of new senior structure and new ways of working. This will foster strong open and honest Member-Officer working and relationships, strengthen decision making, and empower the Cabinet.
2.4. Increase the visibility of the assumptions that underpin NCC’s regularly reported financial position, and produce a Medium Term Financial Plan that aligns capital and revenue resources behind City’s priorities. This will enhance organisational understanding and accountability of NCC’s financial management, and align resources to drive strategic priorities.
2.5. Build capacity to drive change priorities which will have greatest impact on citizen experience and address workforce pressures (eg. digital transformation, active engagement with NHS to tackle health inequalities, child poverty, neighbourhood working, social housing connection to public health.) This will focus resources to deliver the greatest impact for residents, address stretched workforce capacity, and generate buy-in by demonstrating delivery.
2.6. Strengthen NCC’s Performance Framework, utilising the City's excellent urban data assets to have a stronger focus on citizen-centred public services. This will strengthen decision-making and drive performance improvement with outcomes for citizens at its heart.
2.7. Undertake a light touch review of existing partnerships, strategies and Member engagement to ensure arrangements best serve the City. This will align capacity to NCC’s priorities, enhance political engagement and deepen and clarify key partner relationships by management via Chief Executive’s office.
2.8. Use the refresh of the Local Plan process to engage stakeholders and communities across the City, its City Centre and neighbourhoods. This will galvanise community engagement through Neighbourhood Plans and set clear long-term co-developed place making expectations.
2.9. Refresh NCC’s Housing Position Statement to drive better integration of infrastructure and new housing, affordability, net zero and regeneration. This will strengthen the Council’s place-shaping role and ensure delivery reflects the new leadership’s aspirations around housing.
2.10. Use development of the City's Economic Strategy to articulate a distinctive City growth ambition, community wealth building, net zero and tackling health inequalities, placing Newcastle’s cultural and events offer centre stage. This will provide a joined-up clear narrative for growth, focused on maximising economic and community benefits for all neighbourhoods.
2.11. Develop, utilise, and promote widely a clear brand proposition, working actively to make sure it benefits communities and ensure that the City's voice influences national policy. This will act as a beacon to continue to attract visitors, investment, and talent to the region, and grow the City’s influence.
2.12. Continue to engage with the Mayor and Leaders as a pivotal member of the Combined Authority to seek an ambitious devolution deal that enables greater influence over transport, skills and investment. This – if secured - has the potential to unlock additional powers, funding, infrastructure, and influence to benefit Newcastle and the wider region.
3. Summary of the peer challenge approach
3.1. The peer team
Peer challenges are delivered by experienced elected member and officer peers. The make-up of the peer team reflected the focus of the peer challenge and peers were selected on the basis of their relevant expertise. The peers were:
- Tom Riordan, Chief Executive, Leeds City Council
- Arooj Shah, Former Leader of Oldham Council
- Michael Cullen, Deputy Chief Executive and Corporate Director, Stockport Borough Council
- Ajman Ali, Executive Director, Sheffield City Council
- Val Birchall, Former Assistant Director of Culture & Visitor Economy, Brighton & Hove, Coventry and Birmingham City Councils
- Anthony Payne, Strategic Director for Place, Plymouth City Council
- Malcolm Harbour, Associate at Connected Places Catapult and Former MEP
- Henry Butt, LGA Adviser and Shadow Peer
- Frances Marshall, LGA Peer Challenge Manager
3.2. Scope and focus
The peer team considered the following five themes which form the core components of all Corporate Peer Challenges. These areas are critical to councils’ performance and improvement.
- Local priorities and outcomes - Are the council’s priorities clear and informed by the local context? Is the council delivering effectively on its priorities?
- Organisational and place leadership - Does the council provide effective local leadership? Are there good relationships with partner organisations and local communities?
- Governance and culture - Are there clear and robust governance arrangements? Is there a culture of challenge and scrutiny?
- Financial planning and management - Does the council have a grip on its current financial position? Does the council have a strategy and a plan to address its financial challenges?
- Capacity for improvement - Is the organisation able to support delivery of local priorities? Does the council have the capacity to improve?
In addition to these questions, the council asked the peer team to provide feedback on economic growth, culture and housing.
3.3. The peer challenge process
Peer challenges are improvement focused; it is important to stress that this was not an inspection. The process is not designed to provide an in-depth or technical assessment of plans and proposals. The peer team used their experience and knowledge of local government to reflect on the information presented to them by people they met, things they saw and material that they read.
The peer team prepared by reviewing a range of documents and information in order to ensure they were familiar with the council and the challenges it is facing. The team then spent four days onsite at Newcastle City Council during which they:
- gathered information and views from more than 51 meetings, in addition to further research and reading
- spoke to more than 89 people including a range of Council staff together with members and external stakeholders
- considered over 82 documents.
This report provides a summary of the peer team’s findings. In presenting feedback, they have done so as fellow local government officers and members.
4.1. Local priorities and outcomes
NCC has a good understanding of its communities, local context, and place within the wider region. Its commitment to addressing stark health and wealth inequalities, whilst ensuring the vibrancy and creativity of the City continues to grow and benefits all, reflects NCC’s understanding of its communities. This can be seen in NCC’s strong focus on supporting citizens through the cost-of-living crisis, addressing inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic, and in tackling child poverty. More broadly, NCC is aware of its role as the economic driver of the region and has played a key role in making this happen. For example, this can be seen through it having taken a leading role in promoting the region at the MIPIM global property fair, in its innovative joint working with anchor institutions, and through collaboration with neighbouring authorities through devolution negotiations.
NCC is respected and well regarded by national, regional and local partners. This positive view of the Council’s performance however is not necessarily reflected widely by residents, with some Members reporting that residents feel disconnected from decision-making and the City's economic success. Ensuring all residents feel the benefits of the Council's services, assets, and economic growth is a clear focus of the new Cabinet. To achieve this, it will be important to develop a shared narrative that balances and unites the needs of the City centre with its other neighbourhoods and communities. This will require effective communication of NCC’s successes and how these benefit residents, maximising social value and infrastructure investment in future initiatives, and harnessing the geographical advantages of being a compact City. (Growth paragraph refers).
NCC has a multi-layered approach to understanding the City and its citizens. This includes using its Let’s Talk Newcastle engagement platform, specific service user groups, quantitative and qualitative data analysis and live engagement exercises such as the Climate Summit and Students Forum. There is not, however, a consistent approach to consultation so that citizens can influence priorities and decisions before they are finalised. NCC recognises and is embracing the opportunity the upcoming Local Plan refresh provides to engage stakeholders and communities across the City.
Neighbourhood planning could offer a powerful way to galvanise community involvement and set clear long-term place-making expectations which have been co-designed with communities.
Ward Members and Voluntary Community Sector (VCS) involvement in determining neighbourhood priorities will be important as part of a promoting an ethos that makes community engagement everybody’s business. The library service could play an important role here, as a trusted local actor. (2022 LGA Libraries Peer Challenge report refers).
NCC has a strong track record of performance across a range of priorities, from frontline services to place-shaping initiatives focused on long-term economic prosperity. Notable examples NCC can be proud of include its response to Covid-19 collaboratively supporting vulnerable residents and the vaccine programme; success in securing inward investment; delivery of new housing; being the first UK city in which the Council, University and NHS Trust all declared a climate emergency; and Ofsted’s recent inspection judging services for children ‘Good’ quality and having improved since the last inspection in 2017. Its delivery and positioning in zero carbon activity is a particular strength which provides a competitive advantage for Newcastle in the UK and international economy, as well as an asset for building community cohesion. (Growth and Housing paragraph refers). Performance however is not consistent across the piece, nor reported holistically in a manner that supports robust assessment (see below). For example, despite its enviable cultural assets and far-reaching reputation, Newcastle is the lowest performing region for visitors. Whilst the City's regeneration and growth agenda is delivering change in the City centre, the wider benefits and alignment with priorities and benefits for the local population could be better articulated and developed. (Growth and Housing paragraphs refer).
Strong delivery in certain areas can mask a lack of wider corporate strategy to coordinate and align NCC’s delivery across its strategic priorities. In recognition of this gap, steps are already underway with the development of new Economic and Cultural Strategies and Corporate Plan refresh to reflect the new Cabinet’s priorities. Making better use of the City's cutting edge urban data and research assets (National Innovation Centre for Data and Urban Observatory) to inform decision-making is an area NCC is looking to strengthen and can do more on. (Capacity for Improvement paragraph refers).
Whilst NCC utilises qualitative and quantitative data to monitor performance against Council Plan priorities, the current approach is not conducive to robust assessment of performance (eg. quarterly performance dashboards do not include targets or Red Amber Green (R.A.G) ratings). NCC should strengthen its Performance Framework through more effective use of informatics and data insight, and with a focus on citizen-centred public services and outcomes.
This will drive forward delivery and performance improvement against the Council’s new priorities and can help shape citizen perspectives on performance.
4.2. Organisational and place leadership
NCC has gone through a period change with a new Chief Executive, Leader, Cabinet and changes to several Corporate Management Team (CMT) members within a 6-month period. Inevitably these changes have been felt internally and externally – creating a sense of opportunity and risk to be expected in a period of transition. Senior staff changes have presented an opportunity to reshape CMT, with risks from these changes acknowledged and managed with the introduction of a new senior structure and plans for a Leadership Development Programme.
The passion, enthusiasm, and openness for change from the Leader and Chief Executive is evident, with their direct engagement with the Trade Unions having been welcomed. This provides a strong platform to build on so that this permeates throughout the organisation and stakeholders. There is a way to go to achieve this, as meaningful culture change requires long-term engagement, and time to establish and embed. The refresh of the Corporate Plan is a great opportunity to reinforce consistent messages about the culture, values and behaviours NCC wishes to embed, as well as articulate the new administration’s vision for the City. For this to be successful, engagement needs to promote greater cross-Council team-working and be a collective endeavour across the political and managerial leadership team. It needs to be backed up by a strong, timely and robust appraisal system that ensures people know what is expected of them, that they are assessed fairly, and know where they fit in delivering the Council’s overall goals. A more structured and regular approach to communication - directly linked to the development and delivery of the Corporate Plan - will be important. By aligning the Corporate Plan to service plans, appraisals and NCC’s new values and behaviours, a delivery framework based on clear internal accountability, and grounded in positive action around equality, diversity and inclusion will become more easily achievable. (Capacity for Improvement Paragraph refers).
NCC is well regarded by key stakeholders across the City, spanning the public, private and third sector. The strength of its partnership working is a source of pride, with the Council recognised for taking a collaborative ‘convening role’ in working with anchor institutions on priorities ranging from health and social care innovation to climate change. Its positive partnership is evident, with NCC having successfully forged regional relationships at pace to capitalise on the potential to secure a devolution deal on a wider geographical footprint. It will be important to ensure that all partners know NCC’s new direction and understand how they can be part of it. Devolution is a huge opportunity to secure greater influence over transport, skills and investment which could bring significant economic and social benefits for Newcastle and the wider North East region. NCC should continue to engage as a pivotal member of the North of the Tyne Combined Authority and wider region in seeking to secure an ambitious devolution deal on a wider geography.
The partnership landscape in which NCC operates is understandably complex and constantly evolving. Some partners reported being unclear on their role and responsibilities within partnership arrangements such as Collaborative Newcastle and Culture Compact. (Culture paragraph refers). Now is an opportune moment to undertake a light touch review of existing partnerships and strategies to ensure the arrangements are serving the City, are widely owned, properly resourced and align to NCC’s priorities, to best effect. This may necessitate considering refreshing, redefining, or simplifying existing arrangements, as well as strengthening political engagement. Political engagement and representation within the partnership arena can be an impactful demonstration of place leadership, whilst also ensuring reach into communities so that NCC’s activities remain rooted in community benefit. NCC may also want to consider managing the relationships with key partners through the office of the Chief Executive to aid strategic join-up.
4.3. Governance and culture
The Leader and the Chief Executive have established a positive relationship and are aligned in seeking to shape and be the advocates of an open and dynamic organisational culture. (Organisational and Place Leadership refers). They are supported by a new Cabinet who are working well together as a team with a clear sense of political priorities. The establishment of new Cabinet Portfolios reflects a desire to transmit a dynamic positive message. It will be important to take time to communicate these Portfolios and their specific responsibilities so that they are well understood both inside and outside of the Council.
With the new political leadership and senior management changes bedding in, new ways of working between the new Cabinet and wider organisation are still being established. Investing in managing this transition needs to be a priority to help support clear decision-making, foster strong open and honest Member-Officer relationships, and empower Cabinet to drive forward their priorities for the City. An important aspect of this will be enhancement of training and development opportunities made available to new Cabinet members and newly elected councillors. Supporting this smooth transition will help create an environment in which opportunities can be harnessed and embraced. Furthermore, as with all Councils, there are opportunities to learn lessons from the agile working necessitated by the pandemic to reduce bureaucracy without sacrificing the primacy of Member decisions or robustness of process.
The Overview and Scrutiny (O&S) function within the Council was described to the Peer Team as a strength, with changes to further strengthen its role in policy development and constructive challenge to decision-making having been recently agreed. This openness to greater scrutiny has generally been welcomed and the creation of a new Committee focused on economy, jobs and skills has potential to add significant value.
4.4. Financial planning and management
NCC has a strong track record of delivering savings, with financial constraints having inevitably been felt by communities and staff. In the past eight years it has achieved savings in the region of £267 million, addressed historic overspends on Children’s Services and delivered a balanced budget in 2020/21 despite the unforeseen financial challenges arising from the Covid-19. The Council is reporting a sound financial position which is a significant achievement within this context. This track record provides a strong, resilient, and robust platform to deliver upon the challenges NCC will face in the next few years.
There are, however, still significant financial challenges, volatility, and risks ahead that the Council will need to address. NCC has identified an indicative budget gap of £18.4m in 2023/24 and £11.5m in 2024/25 which will increase further because of cost pressures relating to pay, price inflation and utility expenditure. Additionally, future Government policy changes will inevitably impact, with the potential implementation of recommendations of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care just one example. There is also a significant pressure in Adult Social Care (ASC), with £4m overspend in 2021/22. Whilst this was significantly impacted by COVID-19 and demand increases in commissioned services, this pattern of overspend in ASC over several years will need to be managed.
Developing greater joint ownership and stewardship of the Medium Term Financial Plan (MTFP) - including greater visibility and transparency of the assumptions that underpin the MTFP and reserve position – will be important as NCC navigates these financial pressures. This will help foster a collective understanding, accountability, and ownership to meet the new leadership’s expectation of a more open and consultative operating model.
NCC’s financial management is sound, with internal audit and finance teams working well and the Audit Committee viewed as effective in providing robustness to the management of risk. Collectively these components - working closely with Portfolio Holders and Directors - will need to respond to the Council’s refreshed Corporate Plan and strategic priorities to enable delivery of them. These solid foundations provide a strong platform to support NCC through the challenges and expected uncertainty the whole local government sector is anticipating in the months ahead.
Change will be required to face the challenges ahead so NCC should look to better integrate financial, change and performance reporting to deliver on its transformation ambitions. Closer, more visible alignment of resources to priorities – both revenue and capital - will be critical to provide a stronger more transparent framework for delivery. A more systematic gateway approach for the development of the capital programme is one example of this. It will also be important that the MTFP and reserve position responds, supports, and aligns with the requirements of the Council’s strategic priorities and change programme. (Capacity for Improvement paragraph refers).
4.5. Capacity for improvement
NCC has a dedicated and passionate workforce, with staff that are proud to represent the City and care about its communities. This was exemplified by staff exceeding expectations in responding to COVID-19. Continuing to take time to recognise and celebrate these and other successes will be important so staff feel valued and appreciated. Effective two-way communication between the leadership of the Council and all staff will be vital in achieving this outcome. The Jubilee staff celebration event is a positive example of this which NCC can continue to build on.
Nevertheless, staff across all levels reported fatigue, stretched capacity and lack of development opportunities, reflective of the ongoing Covid-19 impacts, years of operating within a challenging financial context, staff turnover, pay scales, vacancies in certain services and difficulties in recruiting to some professions. Whilst this feeling among local authority staff is not unique to NCC, taking steps to address this will be important to support staff wellbeing, retention, and safeguard delivery as NCC continues its change journey. Plans to develop a larger cohort of leaders, and mandating appraisals are already underway, with the latter having been largely welcomed. Expanding NCC’s leadership development plans to encompass an organisational-wide Leadership and Management development programme would further improve skills, staff retention, and workforce satisfaction. Creating more opportunities for CLT and the Assistant Directors and Heads of Service leadership cohort to come together would improve communications and promote greater joined up cross-Council working. (Organisational and Place Leadership refers).
Aligning corporate priorities and resourcing, with a clear read-across to the Corporate Plan, service plans and staff appraisal system, will provide the framework to build capacity to drive change and positively shape workforce satisfaction. (Financial Management and Organisation and Place Leadership paragraphs refer). It will not be possible to do everything so prioritisation on issues that will have greatest effect on the citizen experience will be important. For example, around: active engagement with the NHS to tackle health inequalities, tackling child poverty, effective neighbourhood working and ensuring social housing is positively connected to public health.
Whilst NCC’s aspire for its workforce to reflect the diversity of the City, this is currently not the case. There is ongoing work on equality, diversity, and inclusion, such as career events for BAME communities, LGBT, Disabled and BAME staff networks, and status as Stonewall Diversity Champions. To make a significant difference however, activity however needs to be accelerated, focused, and underpinned by developing an inclusive recruitment and retention programme. Advertising new staff roles should capture Newcastle’s unique identity and set out its exciting ambitions. This can increase the diversity of its workforce and help to make NCC a more attractive place to work. The renewed vigour from the leadership around inclusion being at heart of NCC’s vision and values provides a good platform to galvanise momentum across the City, as well as within NCC.
Innovation is valued in the Council with numerous successful examples across a range of policy objectives. Notable examples include being ranked UK’s smartest city in the Global Smart City Index 2022, its Zero Carbon Strategy and Newcastle University’s Campus for Ageing and Vitality. However, the culture of innovation exists in pockets and is not always present across the organisation. Further work is needed to embed innovation and fully harness the potential of digital and data insight to drive service improvement. An example of an area NCC would benefit from focusing on would be exploring stronger collaboration with the Urban Observatory which could potentially add significant value and further organisational priorities. (Local Priorities and Outcomes Paragraph refers). Nevertheless, with such a strong platform to build on, NCC could do more to utilise its strength in innovation and promote its successes more fully. Consideration should be given to improving its internal and external positioning to leverage these successes to help boost flows of investment and talent.
There is a recognition that Newcastle plays an integral role as the key driver of the regional economy, with the City’s success benefitting the wider region. It has a strong record of success in this area, attracting £1.5 billion of planned public and private sector investment to the City (Growing Our City | Newcastle City Council). Other significant strengths include: securing designation as one of only six UK Science Cities; emergence of a thriving creative and digital sector; blue/green battery technology; City wide Zero Carbon Action Plan and activities; Newcastle University Campus for Ageing and Vitality, and Newcastle Helix flagship innovation quarter. There is however scope for communities to have better access to the benefits of local growth – such as the Helix - through an inclusive growth approach that utilises the power of local procurement, apprenticeships and greater use of supply chains to keep growth local and inclusive. (Housing paragraph refers).
Newcastle as a place has an iconic brand and incredible potential. Its advantages include cultural assets, geographic positioning, transport infrastructure, compelling positioning around zero carbon, growth potential, strong local identify based on passion for place, footballing heritage and global ambitions. These elements are not being fully leveraged to be more than the sum of their parts. The potential to do so however is huge. To realise this, NCC must define its distinct growth vision and use the City brand as a beacon to grow the City’s influence and attract visitors, investment and talent. The development of its new Economic Strategy can provide the vehicle to articulate this ambitious growth vision, bringing together supporting strategies in one coherent narrative for the City (eg. Local Plan refresh, City Centre Masterplan and Visitor Economy Strategy). This clarity of vision and political buy-in will give confidence to business investment and strengthen the City’s global positioning. NCC should act as the steward of the City’s brand, working with regional partners and stakeholders to build, safeguard and maximise its potential. By doing so, NCC can make sure investment contributes to NCC’s ambitions for place, benefits communities, and ensures the City's voice influences national policy. The substantial impact of international investment in Newcastle United Football Club, and potentially in the wider City, is a significant opportunity to do so.
A strong programme management approach will be required to ensure the Economic Strategy is joined up across all Departments, with clear oversight of major programmes and opportunities across the City. This will help consolidate priorities and identify areas of future opportunity, balancing the needs of the City Centre and neighbourhood priorities. Linking with NCC’s cultural ambitions will be particularly important so that activities are mutually reinforcing of aspirations to drive wellbeing and economic regeneration through culture. One way this can be enabled is by ensuring the potential for growth in the creative economy is reflected in the Economic Strategy, acknowledging its links to innovation, the future skills need of the City and plans for cultural development. (Culture paragraph refers.)
Partnership and community buy-in to NCC’s new Economic Strategy will be vital to realise its full potential. The Strategy’s development – although at an early stage - is firmly grounded in values-based growth to improve economic and health outcomes and embrace the potential of NCC’s diverse communities and neighbourhoods. This focus on community benefit will be important so residents feel the benefits of economic growth and shape perceptions of the Council. (Local Priorities and Outcomes paragraph refers). There are several tools that can help NCC’s achieve this. These include building on successful partnership regeneration projects, prioritising social value, skills development and procurement, and ensuring priority development schemes actively work to maximise economic and community outputs, with a strong focus on infrastructure. There is an opportunity to ensure the development of the City’s Economic Strategy encompasses community wealth building, NCC’s cultural and events offer, net zero and tackling health inequalities. Collectively these can help leverage social outcomes and generate positivity about the exciting growth opportunities within the City.
Culture is an inherent part of the DNA of Newcastle, with the City benefitting from an incredibly rich array of cultural and heritage assets. NCC fully recognises this and is developing an ambitious, economically and social impact driven Cultural Strategy aiming to harnesses its cultural assets for the benefit of communities, third sector and wider economy. Its credible positioning as a Green City could be better utilised to boost the Cultural Strategy. Organisational join-up will be vitally important to ensure efforts to drive economic regeneration through culture are a success. For example, the Library Service has potential to deliver both social and economic outcomes. Consideration should be given to how the Culture, Libraries, Museums & Archives, Leisure and Place teams work together and collectively contribute, and ensuring sufficient liaison between the relevant Cabinet Members.
The landscape in which this Strategy will operate is complex. NCC subscribes to a ‘Newcastle Creates Culture Strategy’ co-designed with Cultural Compact partners within the City. There appears, however, to be a lack of clarity surrounding the role, resourcing, and responsibilities of the Compact which constrains its influence. Now is an opportune moment to undertake a light touch review of existing partnerships and strategies (Organisational and Place Paragraph refers). This can galvanise partners and communities behind NCC’s vision for a dynamic and vibrant cultural offer, and leverage the City’s combined capacity, resources, and passion to realise its potential.
Major events - such as bids to host Eurovision 2023 and Euro 2028 – are an opportunity to build even stronger alliances with the sports, culture, tourism and business sectors, and to increase tourism, as well as galvanise civic pride and sense of place. The iconic Great North Run half Marathon for example could be used as a catalyst to promote a more active City and thereby furthering NCC’s community wellbeing ambitions. To realise this potential, it will be necessary to develop an ambitious Events and Cultural Development Programme and invest in capacity to bid for and produce such major events. The programme of activities will need to balance city centre showpieces with neighbourhood community-led culture, so that both the economic and community value of culture is optimised. This can be achieved by aligning the development of an Events and Cultural Development Programme, the City’s strategic brand objectives, and the development of Tourism Strategy to NCC’s refreshed Corporate Plan priorities. In addition, attention should be paid to developing a Destination Management Plan for visitors’ experiences, as improving this will also improve the experiences, and the perceptions, of local residents.
Now is an opportune time to refresh NCC’s Housing Strategy Policy Statement to reflect the new leadership’s aspirations around housing, and the Council’s place-shaping role within this. Reflecting the outcome of the Housing Service Reviews - into municipal housing and delivery of homes to support independent living - will be key aspects within this. It will be important these reviews are concluded in a timely manner to avoid uncertainty and with thorough staff and stakeholder engagement. Equally important is the need for swift action to ensure that NCC’s Social Housing Investment Plan is informed by a Housing Asset Management Strategy. Without this synergy, there is a risk that the quality of the Council's stock will suffer and the opportunity to deliver greater value for money and resident experience will not be fully maximised
NCC has taken an innovative approach to building new housing and has a strong track record of delivery, particularly around the green agenda. For example, in meeting its delivery target in 2020-21 despite a period of lockdown, piloting new construction methods, and exploring community enterprises to develop skills and occupier engagement.
Furthermore, Registered Social Landlords (RSL’s) – who can make a material difference in delivering NCC’s housing ambitions - have a positive view of the Council. NCC should look to capitalise on this to support the delivery of new housing and raising standards. It can do so by establishing a more structured and coherent approach to new housing delivery focused on delivering homes that are easy to live in and maintain in the most efficient, cost-effective way. Having a pipeline of housing schemes will be an important part of this.
In certain developments and parts of the City, such as the Outer West, infrastructure appears not to have followed new housing development in equal measure leaving some communities feeling dislocated. Going forward, NCC will need to leverage the Council’s influence to ensure developers integrate infrastructure into new and adjacent housing developments so that they work for the City and its residents at large. (Growth paragraph refers). Similarly, it will be important to utilise its Local Planning Authority tools to ensure new housing development is of high quality and carbon neutral (e.g. full suite of tools such as Design Codes, neighbourhood plans and site-specific standards).
NCC has a clear commitment to achieving net zero targets, with a broad action plan in place and a range of exciting retrofit projects underway (eg. upgrading insulation and heating in homes and implemented BEIS funded contracts such as heat pump readiness). The Council needs to build on this work as there is a real challenge to deliver retrofit of the housing stock in the City of both public and private owned properties. NCC would benefit from a focused Housing Retrofit Action Plan given the scale of the challenge, with the Local Plan process also being a valuable tool in driving its low carbon agenda.
It is recognised that senior political and managerial leadership will want to consider, discuss and reflect on these findings.
Both the peer team and LGA are keen to build on the relationships formed through the peer challenge. The CPC process includes a six-month check-in session, which provides space for the Council’s senior leadership to update peers on its progress against the action plan and discuss next steps.
In the meantime, Mark Edgell, Principal Adviser for North East, Yorkshire & Humber and East Midlands is the main contact between your authority and the Local Government Association. Mark is available to discuss any further support the Council requires. firstname.lastname@example.org.