Rebecca Evans, MS, Minister for Finance and Local Government
Today, I am providing an update to members on the statutory support package for Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council (the Council) under section 28 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2009.
In June 2019, it was agreed a package of statutory support was to be provided to the Council following a request from the Leader at the time, and in response to a concerning Annual Audit Letter issued to the Council by Audit Wales in May 2019.
The statutory support package – which included a statutory Improvement and Assurance Board, the appointment of short term external advisers for specific areas, and member and officer support and training – was specifically developed and tailored to assist the Council in responding to the risks and challenges identified by Audit Wales. Its overall purpose was to ensure the Council could fulfil its ambitions to provide good quality services to the people of Merthyr Tydfil, and focused on bolstering the Council’s own ability to improve and transform. It was agreed the statutory support package should be phased and regularly reviewed in order to provide assurance that the support provided remained fit for purpose and continued to add value to the Council’s improvement journey.
In October 2021, in light of the progress being made by the Council, I agreed to a final transitionary phase of support ahead of the statutory support ending and the Council moving to locally led arrangements for overseeing improvement.
The transitionary phase was agreed with no fixed end-date, as this was dependent on the Council’s progress against an agreed framework of key tests developed to provide assurance to myself and the Council that Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council no longer required statutory support.
The provision of external advisers in relation to Education and Social Services was drawn to a close in October, with the Council putting in place their own arrangements securing additional capacity and capability in these areas going forward. I agreed the Improvement and Assurance Board would remain in place until such a point where I could be assured that all the agreed key tests had been met (or sufficient plans were in place and progress was being made) and robust locally led governance arrangements had been established.
Last month, I sought formal views from Audit Wales, Care Inspectorate Wales and Estyn on the Council’s current position and progress made to date as well as from the Core Team appointed to the Improvement and Assurance Board. I also sought an update from the Council themselves on the progress made and plans for local governance arrangements to ensure improvement could be maintained beyond the ending of the remaining statutory support.
While there is more work to do, I have been encouraged by the response I received from Regulators, which aligned with the views expressed by the Improvement and Assurance Board’s Core Team and the Council itself. I welcomed the recognition by all of the progress made by the Council since the statutory support package was established in 2019. This, combined with their strengthened financial position and stronger governance and performance management arrangements, means the organisation is now much better placed to drive its own improvement. As a Welsh Government we have been pleased to support this work through the funding settlements we have worked hard to provide local government over the last few years.
On this basis I have agreed that all remaining strands of the statutory support package will formally draw to a close on 31 March. This means the Improvement and Assurance Board’s meeting which took place this morning (Wednesday 16 March) was its last.
However, this does not mark the end of the Council’s improvement journey. The Council recognises that there is more to be done (particularly around scrutiny, reshaping and strengthening their workforce and working on plans to address their longer term financial sustainability) and have put in place their own arrangements to continue to drive that improvement. It is now time for the next phase of that improvement work to begin.
The Council will be assisted in this by the general and targeted sector led support available via the Welsh Local Government Associations’ Improvement and Support Programme. This will enable the Council to continue to access external expertise and advice to help with addressing any remaining challenges and to support their locally led governance arrangements to fully embed in to the day to day running of the organisation.
Finally, I would like to thank the Council, the Improvement and Assurance Board and the external advisers for the significant amount of work they have put in since 2019. The ending of formal statutory support represents a key milestone in the Council’s improvement journey