Lesley Griffiths AM, Minister for Local Government and Government Business
Since 2011, audit and regulation inspection programmes in Wales have raised concerns at weaknesses in how Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council is run and have emphasised until these were addressed, it would be unlikely the Council would sustain significant improvement.
The Auditor General for Wales’ most recent Annual Improvement Report, published in April 2013, concluded the Council needed effective leadership, consistent management and delivery in order to be successful and secure the necessary improvements. The most recent improvement assessment work carried out by the Wales Audit Office has shown that since May 2012, the Council has been working to make progress to address the significant challenges it faced. The Auditor General for Wales’ Improvement Assessment Letter to Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, issued in October 2013, made clear leadership and decision making were still inconsistent and the Council had not introduced proposals to address its predicted financial pressures and varied service performance with sufficient urgency. In light of these conclusions, the Auditor General for Wales made two statutory recommendations to the Council for them to address their financial planning, decision making and scrutiny arrangements.
The letter also included a recommendation for me to use my Ministerial powers (under Section 28 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2009) to provide short term support to the Council in order for it to remedy its problems, as soon as possible, as the Council did not have the capacity to take forward the actions necessary to address them. The Auditor General for Wales suggested the support should be in the form of suitably skilled and experienced external support to enable the Council to take prompt and significant action in the areas identified. I was also pleased by the commitment of the Leader of Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council to address the Council’s difficulties by formally requesting support in October 2013 to help address the immediate financial difficulties and wider challenges it was facing.
I notified members in at the end of October 2013 of my intention to use my powers under Section 28 of the Measure to provide the Council with a formal package of support. We secured the expertise of a team of external advisers to work alongside the Council, providing support, challenge and advice to the senior management team and focusing on the areas of short-term budget management and longer term financial planning; programme management and delivery. My officials have also been working with the Council, and the Centre for Public Scrutiny, to put in place a programme to address the concerns raised by the Auditor General for Wales on the existing scrutiny arrangements.
The advisers were as follows:-
- Sir Peter Rogers (lead Adviser), former Chief Executive of Westminster City Council
- John Shultz, former Chief Executive of Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council
- John Maitland-Evans, former Chief Executive of Vale of Glamorgan County Council
- Derek Davies, former Director of Finance and Corporate Services, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council
- Carl Walters, South Wales Police
The advisers began their work on 4 November 2013 with the expectation the support period would finish by the end of January 2014. It was hoped that the support would place the Council in a position to address its short term financial challenges for 2013-14 and set a balanced budget for 2014-15, and to develop a single Transformational Change Plan setting out its priorities for delivery in the medium term (up to three years). The Advisers were purely advisory and had no authority to take decisions or to approve, amend or veto decisions of the Council, its members and officers. They did not represent their current or past employers, or other organisations with which they are or have been associated, in any way.
The package of support provided has also been fully aligned with the existing intervention provided by the Minister of Education and Skills regarding the Education Services in Blaenau Gwent, with John Maitland Evans a member of the newly established Education Recovery Board for Blaenau Gwent.
I have met twice with the external adviser team and the Council leadership during the process to ascertain how the Council were engaging with the support provided and what progress had been made against the agreed areas for improvement. I am pleased to report much progress has been made. In particular, there is now a robust delivery arrangement in place for 2013-14 and as a result the additional call on balances to finance expenditure in the year has been avoided with the Council not needing all of the reserves it intended to balance the budget. There are also strong plans in place for delivering a significant savings target of around £10million in 2014-15. The work of the advisers has helped significantly to produce holistic business plans linking finances, transformation and personnel changes.
Given the scale of the changes and the short timescale the Council has had to develop these new processes some of this is still work in progress. This should not be interpreted as a lack of pace within the Council or a lack of will to make these changes. My advisers have been impressed by the work ethic and commitment the Council has shown in improving their processes and the willingness of the political leadership to make difficult decisions to deliver the necessary changes. Therefore, in order to make the changes effective I believe it is necessary for the Council to have continued assistance for a limited period to further develop and integrate specific areas of work to provide a total business plan and performance framework going forward. This support would ensure all project plans were resilient and fit for purpose; the integration of the various plans into a co-ordinated programme and the finalisation of their Performance Management and Reporting Model to provide internal and external stakeholders with a level of assurance the savings plans for 2014-15 are on track without compromising service standards.
In conclusion, the Council has made significant progress and with a further package of support which will be much more limited than the original support package I am confident the Council will have the necessary tools, systems and processes to effectively deliver on the strategic priorities outlined in its Transforming Blaenau Gwent Plan, including the projected budget savings for 2014-15. The revised support will be provided by three advisers, namely John Maitland Evans, Derek Davies and Carl Walters. It is envisaged this support will come to an end on 31 March 2014 with some limited monitoring by the advisers in July and October to determine whether delivery has been successful in the first half of 2014-15.