Leighton Andrews, Minister for Public Services
Local Authorities are responsible for managing and improving their own performance. On both corporate and service levels, Local Authorities are expected to set out and monitor improvement objectives, identify specific governance and performance challenges and take responsibility for addressing and managing these.
We are all aware of the challenges some Authorities have faced in respect of their corporate and service management. On occasion, this has resulted in my Ministerial predecessors issuing directions to intervene, or to provide formal support, under the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2009 to drive improvements in the corporate performance of particular Authorities.
There have been examples of significant progress as a result of this Ministerial intervention and support, most notably at Anglesey County Council and Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council.
In considering the impact of recent Ministerial intervention, Members will all be aware of the problems which plagued Anglesey County Council for a number of years. Fundamentally, they related to poor Member behaviour and a lack of strategic direction, and the impact this had on the delivery of services to the people of the island. The situation within the Council was extremely serious, and demanded vigorous and sustained action to prevent the Council from reaching the point of no return.
In 2011, the Auditor General for Wales conducted a special re-inspection. His findings and recommendations were damning. The then Minister, Carl Sargeant AM, was left with no choice but to suspend the executive functions of the Council and appoint five Commissioners to run the Council on his behalf.
This was not an easy decision. It was totally unprecedented. No other Local Authority in the UK had ever had all of its powers withdrawn. However, it was necessary given the seriousness of the Council’s problems and such stern action was essential to protect the future of the Council and, more importantly, the delivery of services to the citizens of Anglesey.
The decision to appoint Commissioners and to allow them time to establish sustainable functions and processes proved to be a turning point. Following the appointment of the Commissioners and their hard work, the Council turned itself around, and made remarkable progress. Everyone involved in the recovery process benefitted greatly from the Commissioners’ oversight, experience and expertise.
Following significant boundary changes and the subsequent election in May 2013, the Council has clearly demonstrated it is capable of delivering functional and sustainable democracy, and continued and sustained improvement. It became clear the Council could manage its own affairs without external intervention and support. This was endorsed by the former Commissioners, and by the Auditor General for Wales (AGW). As a result, the Ministerial intervention formally came to an end at the end of May last year. Members will appreciate this was a remarkable turnaround, and a major achievement for the Council
Despite the situation in Anglesey County Council being an unprecedented one, it does not mean a similar intervention will not be needed in another Local Authority in Wales in the future. In light of this, the Welsh Government commissioned an independent evaluation of the Anglesey intervention. The purpose of the evaluation was to assess the effectiveness and outcomes of the model of intervention employed in Anglesey, and to identify the lessons and good practice to inform any similar interventions which might be necessary in the future. The evaluation report is being published today and will be available on the Welsh Government’s website.
Road to Recovery: An Independent Evaluation of the Anglesey Intervention
The evaluation shows the Welsh Government intervention was a success and gives particular recognition to the work of the Commissioners. It identifies useful lessons, particularly in relation to the importance of being clear as to the most appropriate form of action from an early stage. I will consider the evaluation and take account of these lessons in the event of any future interventions. We will also consider the evaluation in the context of Reforming Local Government.
In respect of directed support, my predecessor, Lesley Griffiths AM, advised Assembly Members of her planned support package for Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, after concerns were raised as part of audit and inspection programmes.
The Improvement Assessment Letter from the AGW to the Council in October 2013 made it clear leadership and decision-making in Blaenau Gwent were inconsistent, and the Council had not put in the work to address its serious financial position and variable service performance with the necessary urgency.
In view of those concerns, the AGW made two statutory recommendations to the Council to address its financial planning, decision-making and scrutiny arrangements. The assessment also included a recommendation to my immediate predecessor to exercise Ministerial powers to offer the Council support, as it was clear the Authority did not have the capacity to take the action necessary to deliver improvements by itself.
At the end of October 2013, the Minister notified Assembly Members of her intention to use her powers to require the Council to accept a formal package of support. This support was in place for six months, and concluded at the end of March this year.
Through tailored support, challenge, and expertise from the appointed Advisors, the Council has made significant progress, which simply would not have been possible without Ministerial support. The support provided access to, and advice on, the tools and processes needed to enable the Council to establish corporate and financial systems to move forward and deliver on its budget. The Council is in now a stronger position to meet its democratic responsibilities, and to deliver better services for its citizens.
Since the end of March, the Council has continued to progress. The Advisors returned in June to review progress, and will be returning to Blaenau Gwent to undertake a final monitoring visit in October.
More recently, a similar but shorter term support package was established in Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council. This support package came as a request from the Council itself to assist in addressing financial concerns raised by the AGW.
Advisors were appointed to carry out a health-check of the Council’s financial position, and to provide an independent perspective on, and external validation of, the robustness of its financial planning and the processes supporting it. The Advisors were also asked to assess the Council’s transformation work programme, to ensure it was fit for purpose. Most importantly, the Advisors were asked to make an assessment of whether, in their view, the Council had the capability and capacity to deliver the necessary improvements without external support and challenge.
The Advisors identified, not unexpectedly, areas for improvement in the Council’s finance function, and in its transformation programme, but the overall outcome of the support package was, again, positive.
As a result of the Advisors findings, no further Ministerial support will be provided to the Council at this stage. The Advisors will, however, be returning to the Council in October to ensure the position remains stable and sufficient progress is being made.
I will be meeting the Advisors after their visits to Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil to receive an update. I expect both Councils to build on the support, challenge and expertise they received from the Advisors, and ensure the beneficial changes are sustained, and remain embedded in the everyday business of both Authorities.
Whilst we have seen positive progress in the corporate performance of Anglesey, Blaenau Gwent and Merthyr Tydfil, there remain serious issues in relation to Blaenau Gwent's and Merthyr's education services. They remain in special measures, as do Monmouthshire and Torfaen. Ministerial recovery boards continue to operate in these four local authorities.
Intervention and support packages should be a means of last resort, or for unanticipated emergencies. Intervention and support can be costly and time-consuming. They can confuse local democracy and reflect serious reputational damage to the Council concerned, and to Local Government in Wales more generally. Reactive, radical and sometimes intrusive external intervention and support are not sustainable solutions as they often deal with failure after the event.
Local Authorities need to take full responsibility for the functioning of their democracy and the performance of their services; and for promoting well being through preventative, rather than reactive, action. Authorities must take responsibility for their corporate and service improvement, making use of effective scrutiny to provide challenge and hold them to account. The onus should be on Local Authorities identifying and responding to emerging issues of performance or governance before they are highlighted by auditors or inspectors.
The Local Government Intervention and Support Protocol was developed to minimise the need for formal support or intervention by promoting honest self-evaluation by Local Authorities, information-sharing between national partners, and prompt offers of support. We know this happens in some Local Authorities for some services but it is by no means widespread.
We also know there are considerable costs to the current approach. The Welsh Government makes significant investment in supporting improvement. It would clearly be better to target this investment towards prevention and longer term well-being, towards service improvement and good governance, rather than recovery. The consultation on our first White Paper on Reforming Local Government closes on 1 October. We will be considering the responses in light of the experiences I have just outlined.
I will keep Members informed of developments.