This case study shares insights from Cllr Peter Fleming, Leader of Sevenoaks District Council and Chair of the LGA Improvement and Innovation Board on their inventive funding strategy [2]. The council has been praised for becoming financially self-sufficient in the face of significant budget constraints. Here, we will discuss how they have been successful in thinking outside of the box [1].  

The Problem 

Local Government budgets are shrinking while costs and demand continue to rise [3]. In January 2020, prior to the Covid-19 lockdown, confidence in the sustainability of local government finance remained very low, with three quarters (74%) of councils saying they do not feel confident [4]. The situation has only been exasperated by Covid-19. Following funding constraints, councils increasingly need to develop innovative commercial solutions [1].  

In 2010 Sevenoaks District Council recognised that government funding was unlikely to rise. So, they became the first council to decide that they wanted to be self-sufficient. This required a significant culture shift, to become less risk-averse.  

They took no shortcuts, reducing revenue spending by a third over two years [1]. Utilising a longer, more holistic approach, they set out a 10-year rolling budget and a 20-year plan.  

The Solution 

The council began exploring different income streams. Peter explains that their journey has incorporated development, regeneration, and investment. They now have a property investment strategy that allows them to invest and build assets in Sevenoaks.  

They look for opportunities that will offer a return that enables them to deliver and maintain their range and quality of services [1]. 

Their first project was an office block that they extended, adding capital and rental value. Since, they have purchased a pub, petrol station, built a car park, and developed a hotel which they now lease to Premier Inn. They also built a car park in Sevenoaks town centre which they funded through building and selling 10 one-million-pound houses. Peter notes that none of these investments were bought for purely monetary return, they also provided services for the district. 

Continuing this adoption of a business approach, the council follow the motto “a customer is anyone who isn’t me” [2]. This guides how they treat everyone, internally or externally.  

Through bringing all services in-house the council have managed to maintain control over service quality.  Alongside this, they have developed their own development programmes and changed their approach to training, which has had a direct impact on staff and organisational culture. In turn, contributing to public satisfaction. 

Following the returns on their investments, Sevenoaks District Council became financially self-sufficient in 2016. 

Hotel developed by Sevenoaks District Council [5]
Development of White Oak Leisure Centre [5]

The Future 

Moving forward, Sevenoaks District Council are building a live/work hub and regenerating a local leisure centre. They have also bought retail space that has access to land they already own. The council hope to regenerate this area. Similarly, they recognise the opportunities with surge pricing across car parks. By increasing charges during busy periods, they can influence how people use car parks. It is forecast that this will reduce traffic at peak times and improve air quality.  

Secondly, they want to explore further opportunities around eco finance and clean growth hubs. This includes starting a car club, where residents don’t own a car but have shared access to e-vehicles.  

Finally, Sevenoaks District Council recognise the importance of understanding data. They plan to upskill their staff so that they can operate more efficiently. The council recognise that it is often the same people contacting them with questions. They can save time and resources if they are able to identify and answer any future questions someone may have during their first communication with them.  

Lessons Learnt 

Reflecting on this change of approach, Peter highlights the main lessons the council have learnt through their change in approach [2]: 

  • It is important to have a strong organisational culture. Invest in and upskill your staff 
  • Make sure you are always questioning; asking why and what if 
  • Break free from any central government funding if you can, or at least lower dependence on it. Planning over the longer term will lead to better-informed decisions  
     
  • Make your council exciting to attract the best people 
     
  • Be different – that is what puts the local in front of ‘government’, otherwise we would all be the same 
  • Be a bit revolutionary. Understand risk but don’t be risk-averse  

The agile and professional approach adopted by Sevenoaks District Council has not only earned them a good reputation within local government but also with businesses.   

Peter concludes with the advice:  

“Not everything will be successful; it’s OK to fail.”

Cllr Peter Flemming. 2021. Local Government Commercialisation Conference

Sources:

[1] Local Government Association. 2017. Enterprising councils [online] [Accessed 23/04/21]

[2] Local Government Association. 2019. Profit with a purpose [online] [Accessed 23/04/21]

[3] Countycouncilsnetwork.org.uk.2019. New report reveals councils face £51.8bn black hole over next six years – local authorities warn that they will resort to the ‘bare minimum’ [online] [Accessed 23/04/21]

[4] lgiu.org. 2021. LGIU MJ State of Local Government Finance Survey 2020 [online] [Accessed 23/04/21]

[5] Fleming, P., 2021. Local Government Commercialisation Conference 

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Local Government budgets are shrinking while costs and demand continue to rise. This case study shares insights from Cllr Peter Fleming, Leader of Sevenoaks District Council and Chair of the LGA Improvement and Innovation Board on their inventive funding strategy.

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