COUNCILLORS in Northumberland still have trust issues despite the local authority making “progress it can be proud of” since a damning independent review.

A report by the Local Government Association assessing how well Northumberland County Council is performing in certain key areas has been published ahead of a full council meeting next week.

The report follows a visit from senior local government councillors and officers from around the country, and looks at issues around finance, partnership working as well as how well the council listens to residents and staff.

The review has been welcomed by the Conservative leader of the council, Glen Sanderson.

However, the leader of the Labour opposition group said more work needed to be done.

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The report states that the council can be “proud” of the progress made since the independent review of governance conducted by Max Caller. The report was commissioned after a long period of poor relations between the council’s Conservative political leadership and its then-chief executive Daljit Lally.

However, the latest report adds that there remains “residual mistrust” across some elected members and warns that these issues “continue to impact” on the council.

A “desire for more engagement” with backbench councillors and cross-party involvement is described, along with a “real commitment to openness”. There is also a call for clarity on the council’s BEST programme, calling for it to be “data-driven, embedded, and collectively owned across the council”.

The BEST programme is key to delivering future savings at the council. The deputy leader, Cllr Richard Wearmouth, has previously said the programme is about modernising council services to make sure they are as efficient as possible.

The report recommends that the progress made on the council’s improvement journey be ‘celebrated’ while members should also continue to grow the “environment of openness and trust” to “find a way to draw a line under the past”.

Cllr Sanderson said: “I’m delighted with this report and thank colleagues from the peer review team for their excellent work with us. Over two years ago I asked for an independent review of the council’s governance because I knew things were not right. 

“This Peer Review Report underlines the rapid improvement the council has made in those two years – in their words, our pace of change has been impressive. We’ve come a long way and I’ve always been clear our improvement does not mean ‘job done’. So, I welcome the report’s recommendations for how we can continue to improve. 

“On a personal note, I’m really happy the report makes special mention of our staff, their loyalty, commitment and passion. I’ve always said our staff are very special and a huge asset for the county.    

“The progress in this report is testament to the excellent work of our chief executive, her senior team and all staff working fantastically well with councillors and partners, and I thank them for their hard work. Moving forward I will work with all councillors to continue the very positive progress we have made.”

Responding to Cllr Sanderson’s comments and the report itself, Cllr Dickinson said: “We want to champion improvement where it’s genuine but we cannot fail to uncover more of the deep-rooted issues that unless highlighted and tackled will never be resolved. A superficial, well-presented spin of improvement will only cause issues down the line.

“We champion the effort of our staff and recognise they have been through a difficult political time, and continue to be in some areas. We continue to support our staff in that respect and I know that is valued.

“Openness, trust and relationships are referenced time and time again, which is something thing I am pleased about as this is something that actually is a problem. Given ongoing issues, how can we trust about what we are told be achieved? Work needs to be done on this.

“The Labour Group welcomes “green shoots” as the report describes improvement but urges the governance pages in particular to be looked at seriously. We need a true, strong and capable renewal of Northumberland and take with us our great staff and communities.”

The peer review will be debated by councillors at a meeting on Wednesday (March 20).