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In Conversation with Cleland Sneddon, Chief Executive of South Lanarkshire Council

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Photo by Gary Ellis on Unsplash

Taking part in LGIU’s local government leadership spotlight series, Cleland Sneddon, Chief Executive of South Lanarkshire Council discusses the opportunities and challenges facing their Council as well as the broader sector overall.

Chief Executive Cleland Sneddon. Copyright @Cleland Sneddon

The challenges in South Lanarkshire

Securing the medium to long term financial sustainability of the Council is the key priority in South Lanarkshire. Like all councils, we are feeling the impact of real term reduction in funding and to put it into numbers, since 2013-2014, the Scottish Government budget has increased by 4.3% in real terms, while local authorities’ budgets are down 4.2%. If you look at Audit Scotland’s recent work, when you strip out funding to deliver national goverment priorities the core budgets for Scottish Councils have fallen 9.6% in that period.

For context, if our budgets kept pace with the Scottish Government, no more no less, sharing the same fiscal fortunes, we would have £1.29bn extra annually to support our communities and invest in local services.

Fundamentally reviewing the functions and purpose of local government and making large scale changes to services

Looking forward, our budget forecast is for even greater pressures due to inflation and increased demand. Ultimately what we will have to do is have an open and honest conversation with communities about the situation we are facing and the decisions that are needed. When politicians throw contrasting figures about, it is not always clear what this means in terms of budgets and quite often our communities are frustrated or confused. They hear about large funding awards, but they cannot equate that to the service reductions they see in their communities.

Local government needs to forge a different relationship with both Scottish and UK governments

Related to this financial sustainability challenge, as a sector we need to forge a different relationship with both Scottish and UK governments, one that’s founded on a parity of esteem and mutual respect.

The distinct democratic mandate of elected members needs to be respected, to quote a former COSLA President, the X that marks the ballot paper for a Councillor is no bigger or smaller than the one that elects an MP or MSP.

The imbalance in this relationship has been growing over time and it needs to be rebalanced in the form of a new partnership between central and local government. This is the only way that we can actually tackle the scale of challenges facing us – from the growing complexity of care needs to post-pandemic recovery.

We need to stop playing at climate emergency, get realistic about the resources needed and take action

To overlay our current challenges with climate change clarifies this even further. Even though South Lanarkshire has one of Scotland’s most modern school estates, our exercise on non-domestic stock showed a need for over £500m of investment to hit zero emissions targets. Doing that at a time when the council capital grant is reduced to £21m is simply not feasible.

We need to develop closer relationships with communities and partner agencies, and we need to target resources more effectively. Technologies often offer a means to do this, but it has to be about more than improving efficiency, and also look at improving the customer experience. People want to transact with the Council at times of their choosing and we need to ensure people can access new technologies to improve their experience. One thing I’m particularly keen on is that the Council looks at commercial opportunities that might open up for us to reduce our exposure to changes in grant levels.

Finally, we need to care for the staff who work in the local government, as well as those in the wider public sector, to ensure those staff are fairly rewarded and valued.

Scottish Budget 2023-24 and funding for public services – more hard times ahead for local government

Housing in South Lanarkshire – “get the right homes provided in the right places”

Our new Local Housing strategy for 2022-27 sets out the Council’s role in relation to the supply of affordable housing, improving housing quality and energy efficiency, tackling homelessness and creating sustainable places.

To give a flavour of the housing context in South Lanarkshire, over the last five years, we have delivered an additional 1000 new homes and we’ve just committed to deliver a further 1300 houses by 2027-28. To do this, the strategy sets out for a mix between new build developments, purchasing directly from developers mixed tenure developments, and where it works, the acquisition of suitable existing homes through open market purchase schemes.

Ensuring that our housing strategy aligns with the wider Council plan and Community plan, housing in South Lanarkshire is integrated right down to the health and social care strategic commissioning plan.

All councils will have challenges meeting national, domestic decarbonisation and energy efficiency standards

As mentioned, we are also focused on the quality of existing Council homes. We’ve got fairly significant investment programmes in place to achieve the Scottish Housing Quality Standard and EESSH standards.

The programme includes a range of actions to reduce emissions such as district heating systems, EV Charging infrastructure and new heating types like ground source heating systems.

Overall the key for us is investment which ensures housing remains affordable for tenants and that as Council we are tackling climate change.

Tackling homelessness in South Lanarkshire

From my background, tackling homelessness remains a priority. In our new housing strategy, a rapid rehousing transition plan builds upon our long-standing approach of trying to prevent homelessness in the first place and making sure that where we can’t prevent homelessness, we are able to put in the right services and support to help.

South Lanarkshire has seen substantial improvements in reducing long term homelessness, reducing the time that people would spend in temporary accommodation, and reducing repeat homelessness.

While we have a strong set of results on those metrics over the last 2 years, recent pressures on household finances are driving a countrywide impact on homelessness. South Lanarkshire and our partners are actively trying to make sure we intervene as early as possible to try and prevent homelessness.

For this, our Housing Services deserves a special shout out as one particular strength of South Lanarkshire’s approach is the support it provides to the people with particular needs. For example, the work we do with older people, armed forces veterans, care experienced young people, gypsy and traveller community and those displaced from Ukraine.

Town regeneration – “Our aspiration is for town centres that are vibrant, healthy, creative and enterprising.”

Town centre work is particularly active given the introduction of the new National Planning Framework which seeks to encourage town centre development. Mirroring NPF-4, our Local Development plan also recognises towns as a national asset and we focus on a town centre first approach to help our town centres adapt positively to long-term economic, environmental and societal changes.

By encouraging town centre living and repopulating them, development planning will be directed to the most sustainable locations through a range of different transport modes and access to goods, services and recreational activities.

The purpose of the town centre changes as retail models adapt or exit the market

South Lanarkshire vacancy rates within retail have held up reasonably well, either below or just on the national average, but covered shopping malls like East Kilbride are experiencing a notable rise in retail vacancy.

East Kilbride is unique as the shopping mall is effectively the town centre. Made up of 5 separate malls that were consolidated, it is Scotland’s largest covered shopping mall and before shopping patterns changed there was an enormous footfall.

But the mall is currently in administration, and while we are working with the administrator to agree a new master plan and with partners to secure levelling up funds, we need to reimagine a strategic intervention to ensure East Kilbride has a future as a multipurpose town centre.

Similar town centre strategies are also being prepared elsewhere which feature the consolidation of retail areas and introducing opportunities for town centre living and the modern commercial space across all of our communities.

We want multipurpose towns where people will live there, work there and others will want to visit. In some of our smaller towns, such as Larkhall, Biggar and Cambuslang thrive in their retail offer. If you go to some of these towns, you will see the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker and these strong long-standing businesses foster a sense of local identity and help those centres thrive.

Key Learnings from the Scotland Town Partnership Conference

Tackling the educational attainment gap in South Lanarkshire

Educational attainment is a much broader child poverty issue. While a key aspect lies with our education establishments and the learning offer, the overall response involves all of our council services working with families and those with greatest needs and trying to intervene early and providing practical support for issues like the cost of living.

Closing the poverty related attainment gap is our key priority and to do that, we need to focus on high quality universal learning offer that is built on foundations of literacy, numeracy, health and well-being and ensuring that those who require additional support, receive it.

We look to tackle poverty related inequalities outwith the core school offer by ensuring that our children can not only access the full school curriculum, but also participate in a full range of affordable activities, such as school trips, music, drama, and sport.

South Lanarkshire has done some really positive work on this, especially around managing the cost of the school day and progress in free school meals and breakfast clubs are making a real difference. Research shows if a child hasn’t eaten properly the previous day, the ability to concentrate and focus is greatly challenged.

We have the opportunity to ensure that the child is ready and supported in their learning

In South Lanarkshire, we have 7,000 pre-school children and they currently benefit from the introduction of 1140 hours of early learning and childcare, and over time, we hope to see the impact on the attainment of children from that positive start.

We have built on the work of the Children and Young People Improvement Collaborative that focused on pathways from midwifery, through health visiting and into early learning and childcare/ schools, and this provided focus on developmental milestones and ensuring our targeted intervention and support is in the right place.

It will take a generation of young people to see the true effect of this, but to quote Sir Harry Burns, “We need stickability”

Children are generally resilient and bounce back quickly, but for some children the pandemic has left a real legacy

A couple of other points. Although our children and young people will now have had a return to a more normal education for over a year, the effects of Covid-19 pandemic are still a significant disruption to education. School establishments are addressing issues that are rooted in attendance, increased distressed behaviour and, for some, delayed speech and language development. We need to keep the focus on inequalities and supportive intervention.

Narrowing of the attainment gap – a reality check

Local government leadership and a changing workforce

Our landscape is increasingly complex and challenging and the role of our local government Chief Executive is constantly changing. Councils are often the glue connecting with communities and other public sector partners. However, similar to other areas of the public sector, local government has witnessed a significant turnover of senior staff and this shows no sign of stopping.

Senior roles in local government are demanding. We have been operating in emergency mode for 3 years and this takes a toll. Now more than ever, we need to ensure that the contribution of senior officers receives equal consideration and at some point, we need to deal with the disincentives that can exist in taking on these senior roles.

More than anything, we need to continue to invest in leadership development and create opportunities for colleagues to expand their networks. I’ve had terrific support through the SOLACE network, and as Chair in Scotland, I would thoroughly commend the learning and development, the networking and support through SOLACE as the most significant in my career.

In terms of that evolving leadership role, colleagues in those senior positions constantly spend time refining leadership skills, building confidence, and encouraging other colleagues into senior roles. And part of this is planning for the future through succession planning and mentoring colleagues.

We’ve got a time bomb coming in workforce planning issues

There are a number of other professional areas where the age profile of the workforce, the levels of turnover and the limited output of qualified workers from higher education suggests that a tipping point is coming. For areas like Environmental Health Officers, Planning Officers and Social Workers, local government needs to be influencing the capacity of further education courses to address skills shortages and refresh those professions. We need to be creative and innovative around para-professional roles and entry points to those professions.

More generally, local government needs to be positioned as the employer of choice and have to offer cutting-edge policies and terms and conditions to attract people to come and work with us. Across a number of workforces, tight labour markets mean we need to be open to changed recruitment processes. Specifically, we have to be flexible for support staff work-life balance and support the resilience of staff after three bruising years.

Leadership in a time of change is the key requirement

Ultimately, we need to raise the profile and attractiveness of those careers and local government generally. A career in local government is to be prized – it is that important. We touch on the lives of a huge number of people in our communities and our staff in local government deserve to be well-led and well managed

Finally, the support we provide to our workforce needs to extend to include future changes and pushing back against counterproductive changes – such as the National Care Service proposals. This is not what that sector needs, it will not lead to improved care outcomes and instead, we should be focusing on robust and focused improvements that are needed within health and social care without the distraction of unnecessary structural change.

Personal reflections on the local government sector

Local authorities will all feel different. In my career, ranging from Strathclyde Regional Council which was the biggest local authority in the UK to my time in Clydesdale which was much smaller, but what struck me in each Council I have worked at is the genuine commitment of the staff to provide the best services they can.

Local government is there for people who need us, and time and time again we deliver

Most of my early career, 13 years, was with South Lanarkshire and I am extremely grateful for the 10 extraordinary and wonderful years I had at Argyll and Bute Council, representing a diverse geography, large rural areas and 26 inhabited islands.

After 3 and half years as Chief Executive of Argyll and Bute, returning to South Lanarkshire was somewhat of a homecoming, especially with old acquaintances and colleagues easing my transition back in. Importantly, those networks were particularly pertinent when Covid-19 pandemic hit about eight weeks after I arrived back in South Lanarkshire and it allowed me to hit the ground running.

The two councils share very different profiles –  the nature and challenges faced by the communities, the focus of their business sectors, the geographic challenges and political environment.

Nonetheless, the similarities between different councils are much greater than the evident differences.

For one, the commitment of the staff in both Councils is second to none. People genuinely care about what they do and as an example, I am still struck by the award I presented to 2 care staff who rolled across snow-filled fields in order to get medication to an elderly lady.

And in South Lanarkshire Council, when the pandemic hit, our IT team built a system from scratch over a weekend for outbound welfare calls during the first lockdown. This simply did not exist at the time, and we were getting a download of thousands of records of people who had a potential vulnerability. On Friday night, we were scratching my head about how we were going to record, coordinate and mobilise responses. Two of our team came in over the weekend and built a system, shared it with 8 other local authorities and we were up and running 10 days before the national system went live.

These two examples demonstrate the level of passion and dedication you find in the local government sector, and it constantly humbles me as a senior officer to see the commitment of staff. Local government is there when people need us and time and again it delivers – as a sector it deserves better consideration than it has had over the last decade and more.

In conversation with Jim Savege, Chief Executive of Aberdeenshire Council

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