In their analysis of Graham Baxter, the judges of the C’llr Achievement Awards described him as a ‘visionary’ – a leader who believes in open government, community involvement and team work.
The transformation in standards during Cllr Baxter’s six years as leader of North East Derbyshire District Council (@nedDC) has been one of the most dramatic in local government – taking the council from ‘weak’ to ‘excellent’ in the Comprehensive Performance Assessment. His work saw him awarded the MBE last year for services to local government and the communities of his district.
In these years, efficiencies equivalent to 20% of the budget have been made, several services with neighbouring councils have be shared and an initiative to boost staff empowerment has registered huge increases in morale and reduced sickness levels. North East Derbyshire’s efforts for tackling deprivation in the ‘Shaping the Future’ project have also been selected as a national pilot.
“High levels of staff involvement is crucial to creating dynamic councils”, says Cllr Baxter. “Refuse staff, lifeguards, groundspeople – they all play their part in council operations and are the frontline of the services we provide. To many residents, they are the physical face of the council”.
“All members and staff must therefore be given all the information about council policies and informed how and why decisions are being made. This is why I chair our Communications Group – I want all staff and members involved in any changes in council decision-making and operations.”
This team-first approach and desire for close-working relationships appears to have been embedded into Cllr Baxter during his days as a trade union representative. “Back then, all the workers knew who their elected representatives were, so in my role I was directly accountable to my peers who I worked with every day.
“Operating openly and collaboratively was then really the only way to do it – and it’s very much the same here in local government – after all I walk the same streets and shop in the same shops as those who have elected me”.
‘Team North East Derbyshire’ – in which members are invited to both support and challenge council policies –underpins this philosophy and underlines the progress made so far in council.
“Before Cllr Baxter became leader in 2004 we experienced difficult officer / member relationships and moral was poor”, says Mike Goodwin, Chief Executive of North East Derbyshire District Council. “However, under his leadership and teamwork ethos we now enjoy close, mutually-supportive officer / member relationships. We even have a respect charter signed by officers and members”.
District councils have particular challenges, such as less flexibility with powers and budgets, which results in a difficult context to exercise leadership. Evidence of real transformation under Cllr Baxter’s leadership is shown by an increasingly cross- council collaborative approach to service provision.
“I’ve really put a focus on budget efficiencies and getting this area in the best possible shape for the future”, said Cllr Baxter. “That’s why in response to the challenges of the CSR we’re currently formalising a Strategic Alliance with the neighbouring Bolsover District Council”.
North East Derbyshire currently provides ICT for two others councils – with a third on the way – which saves £35,000 a year. The council has also just agreed a joint recycling program which will save a further £300,000 a year.
In a nutshell, Cllr Baxter’s contribution to the communities of North East Derbyshire seems to have gone far beyond what is expected of a council leader. The council is routinely benchmarked by councils through local government, they’ve won or been shortlisted for 15 regional and national awards in the last year alone and have been nominated twice in the past three years in the LGC awards as ‘Most Improved Council’.
From one of the worst district councils in 2004, they are now one of the very best.
We believe strongly in the C’llr Achievement Awards. They exist to find, highlight and celebrate the dedicated effort that councillors put in throughout the year to strengthen local democracy and help improve the lives of citizens. LGiU is therefore proud to support these awards alongside CCLA.