Cllr Chris Read became leader of Rotherham Council in March 2015, the same week as government-appointed commissioners arrived following two reports that uncovered significant council failings that contributed to child sexual exploitation.
“At the time I described us as the Millwall of local government”, reflects Cllr Read, in an interview in a new report on the impact of sector-led improvement (SLI) in local government.
SLI is the locally accountable approach to improvement put in place by local authorities and the LGA, following the abolition of the previous national performance framework. The LGA’s role is to provide tools and support to help improve performance.
“Just having somebody at the end of the phone became really important
Cllr Read says the early support his council received from the LGA felt like the arrival of the cavalry: “They created the structure for proper help and support.”
The mentoring support he received was particularly important. “It is the one to one support for me that I remember most clearly. Just having somebody at the end of the phone became really important – somebody who could say ‘yeah, I think you are doing that right…not sure about that.’”
It was a new experience for him, “and, actually, when we were in that kind of hole, much as that support is welcome, it’s also difficult to accept”.
Mentoring is something that he now recommends to other leaders. “It’s not somebody else coming in and doing the job for you. And you’ve always got to feel free to reject the advice…But having somebody who’s available to you, who you can have a frank conversation with…I think that, perhaps particularly for leaders, is really valuable.”
Reflecting on the state of the council he inherited, Cllr Read said that Rotherham had become isolated. “We didn’t have anything to compare to, we weren’t engaged with the rest of local government, we didn’t know what good looked like, we didn’t know what was a reasonable standard.”
The peer support Rotherham received meant that Cllr Read and his colleagues “had lots of comparative information across the whole range of council services… We had a real sense of direction of what we were trying to do and what that might look like.”
For him, a real strength of the peer support was that it was really tangible. It did not set a gold standard, but the message was “we can see where you are, you’re a bit better at this, you’re a bit worse at that, the next thing you should try to do is this.”
Government intervention in Rotherham formally came to an end in March 2019, with the former commissioners saying that the pace of improvement across the council had exceeded their expectations.
Today, Cllr Read says: “It’s about how do we maintain that improvement. It’s much less intense. But it’s about having that network of people and friends who help us and we help them. That’s how we look at it now.”
He has subsequently been a member of LGA peer challenge teams, giving support to other councils.
“That was absolutely fascinating,” he says of his first visit. “It was brilliant. It was a really good week, to go in, to be able to understand where someone else was, hopefully to impart some of the things that I’ve learnt doing this job, but also to pick up things that I could bring back here. I want to do more of that personally.”