Thinking big and delivering locally

Chippenham Town Council may be a parish council, but is structured as and acts like a district or borough council – and that was always the plan, says Mark Smith.

Chippenham Town Council is one of the largest parish councils in the country, with a precept of £4m, a revenue budget of more than £4.5m, with nearly 150 staff and 50 volunteers. It is not your typical parish council.

The town hall was purpose built in 1835 by visionaries with a long-term plan for the town. Originally built for a borough council, today Chippenham Town Council is classified as a parish council and its statutory responsibilities are greatly reduced. But the long-term vision remains, as does the ambition to make a difference and make a mark on the town, its facilities, and the services provided.

I've been chief executive at Chippenham Town Council for six years and joined after a long career in the principal council sector. My initial task was to ensure the council's financial security, provide stability, clarity and direction for the officer team, build trust with our 24 councillors and – in line with our heritage – develop a vision via a four year corporate strategic plan and supporting financial plan.

During my first year, I restructured the senior officer team ensuring I had the right people in the right place, doing the right thing. I appointed two directors; a finance director to lead all resource-based services and a community services director to lead all outward facing services. Between them, they manage 10 heads of service.

In that first year I also set myself two long-term objectives. Firstly, to negotiate an asset and service transfer with Wiltshire Council – coming from a principal council background, I understood the unitary council could not sustain the delivery of some of the town's discretionary services. Secondly, I believed we had to deliver a Neighbourhood Plan for Chippenham.

In 2020, after a two year process, we successfully completed the transfer of substantial assets and services from Wiltshire Council. These included Monkton Park, a large town centre open space which the river Avon runs through, seven play areas, and the historic Yelde Hall, a 14th century building and former Guildhall situated in the heart of the town. Frontline streetscene services including responsibility for all grass cutting, street cleansing and grounds maintenance were also transferred to our control.

And the Neighbourhood Plan? So far, we have completed a four year community engagement process and delivered the draft plan to the unitary council, it is now with the independent inspector. The next stage is that our plan will go to a referendum in early 2024.

Chippenham Town Council now provides a wide range of services and facilities for residents and visitors including Stanley Park Sports Ground, a 50-acre award winning facility; The Neeld, a 200-seat town-centre theatre; an Arts Council accredited museum which charts the 4000-year social history of the town.

We've won awards for our parks, open spaces and high street including Green Flags and South West In Bloom awards. The council is one of a handful of small towns who have achieved Purple Flag status for the night time economy through collaborative working with local stakeholders.

We have set and delivered a balanced budget for the last five years, with a medium-term financial plan and a five year capital programme. We take performance management and financial management extremely seriously; we support and invest in our staff, but we expect them to be accountable and to deliver.

We've been able to invest in a state of the art, 56-camera digital CCTV system including automatic number plate recognition cameras. We have a dedicated control room staffed by volunteers overseen by a supervisor with a close working relationship with Wiltshire Police.

We have invested in digital transformation technology including a digital reporting system with an app for mobile phones. By introducing a software package for council meetings, ModernGov, we support the democratic services process for councillors and reduce our reliance on paper.

Having declared a climate and ecological emergency, we have appointed a climate and biodiversity officer to lead the development of a climate strategy, have established a carbon baseline, and commissioned an action plan for the roadmap to becoming a net zero organisation by 2030. Significant investment and progress into the greening of the council's estate and operations has already been made, including air source heat pumps and solar panels at council buildings as well as the transition to an electric fleet.

The visual identity of the council has been transformed into a recognisable brand that is professional, modern, and flexible enough to support the services and facilities the council delivers. Good design, branding guidelines, and clear objectives have empowered the staff team to have confidence in our multi-channel communication strategy.

We were first town council to take part in a Local Government Association (LGA) Peer Review. I brought representatives of the LGA and the National Association of Local Councils around the table and enabled the conversation. As a former LGA officer peer, I am a great supporter of the process and understood the benefits of sector-led improvement. I strongly believe the opportunity should be rolled out to all larger town councils in the country.

You can't move forward on plans and changes like these without internal, external, and political support and my time is split equally between those areas. In particular, I prioritise forming effective relationships with stakeholders, and meet quarterly with the chief executive at Wiltshire Council, and regularly with its operational directors, the heads of the town's three senior schools, the Chamber of Commerce and the local police inspector.

I also work closely with local stakeholders as a member of the Chippenham Town Centre Partnership Board which is chaired by our local MP. The board has recently consulted on a range of initiatives to enhance the town centre and utilise central government and private sector funding.

We may be a parish council, but we are structured, and act like a district or borough council – that was always the plan. We think big, we think long term, we are delivering today, we are delivering locally, and we are delivering successfully.

Mark Smith is chief executive of Chippenham Town Council

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