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Turning the corner

Rochdale MBC is working with the private sector to create council services that will the envy of other authorities and could even pick up work from them. Damian Arnold reports.

Rochdale has suffered from generations of blight and high unemployment but the Lancashire town is set to be transformed under one of the biggest regeneration initiatives in Britain.

The town centre will be renewed with a new integrated transport hub, new council offices and leisure facilities. New schools and GP surgeries are being built while blighted streets will be demolished and new housing built. The planned £350M Kingsway business park will be Europe's biggest.

Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council wants to create 1300 jobs in the next 15 years and to achieve this it has formed a 15 year strategic partnership known as Impact with engineering consultant Mouchel and information communications technology specialist Agilysys.

It is hoped that Impact will transform the council's services in areas such as transport, design and property so effectively that other public agencies, developers and businesses will work with it to transform Rochdale.

"Within Rochdale there are massive opportunities; and outside the borough as well. We want staff to come up with particular ideas around their services," says Impact managing director Chris Lavery. "We think there is scope in areas like facilities management and some of the design services such as landscape architecture, and on the structures side, particularly bridges."

Having delivered the council's services, an estimated 30% of the time of the seconded council staff is dedicated to winning new business for the partnership and in return the council wins a percentage of the profits.

Eighteen months since its start up, Impact has already created 200 jobs. Many of those came about when a contact centre was opened to handle customer services for the council and also win private sector work. Meanwhile the highways and transportation team has already grown by more than 10 and Impact is actively recruiting more engineers with the ultimate aim of boosting numbers from 90 to more than 200.

Impact aims to deliver council projects to time and budget and make efficiency savings of 2 % year on year in accordance with the Gershon Review into cutting public sector waste. This would result in savings of around £20M over 15 years.

The key to achieving this is migrating private sector project and performance management tools into the council to better manage risk, measure performance and introduce greater flexibility of resources across different departments.

"We have introduced much, much greater visibility on programming of workload, monitoring of progress and spending so we are able to say where the money is being spent and when it's being spent," says Impact's director of highways and transportation John Cheetham.

"People are more accountable about what they are doing and how they are spending their time," says Lavery.

The difference has already been felt in highways and transportation where Lavery claims there has already been a "marked improvement in the quality of the service". An asset management plan has been created which allows more forward planning and less simple reaction with regard to revenue activities such as highways maintenance and street lighting, and better programme management on capital works, particularly with regard to the difficult interfaces with utilities that often lead to delays.

Council staff noticed the difference very quickly.

"The council talked about setting up a contact centre for a long time but three months into the partnership, Impact opened one," says Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council's Strategic Partnership Manager Mark Widdup. "There was an immediate transformation of the council offices. Suddenly we had hot desking, 50 filing cabinets were taken off the wall and all the information was scanned."

"Communication with the public is crucial especially when it comes to things like roads that are blocked off. It's fair to say that Impact has taken that to another level," he adds.

Not everyone has welcomed the change in culture and in particular the close monitoring of staff performance, but the positive results have kept most people enthusiastic, says Lavery.

"Some of the council staff were very nervous on being seconded into a more commercial business but as the business has started to mature, people have started to see services transforming and a broader potential in terms of what they can deliver," says Lavery.

Widdup agrees: "With any partnership there are going to be ups and downs but we have created opportunities for council workers to move on to bigger and better things.

"We are bringing people together from the council, Mouchel and Agilysis and each body has its own terms and conditions. What's important is to keep coming back to the shared values it was set up on."

This means reinforcing the branding within the partnership even using minor aids like mugs, pens and screen savers to get buy-in from the staff, he adds.

"We are developing a totally new business with its own culture, identity and brand. Many of the council staff have never been in this environment before and there has been some resistance but as the partnership matures, it will get easier."

The future could see Impact teaming up with other strategic partnerships Mouchel has set up in the North West. In April the consultant started the Unity Partnership with Oldham MBC and it is likely that services between Oldham and Rochdale will be shared.

Rochdale has just gained private sector credits to negotiate a street lighting PFI contract in 2009. The deal could be a shared model with Oldham.

"There have got to be some opportunities for closer working that would bring economies of scale. We can explore this with three or four similar authorities nearby," adds Widdup.

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