Carl Sargeant, Minister for Social Justice and Local Government
I would like to update Members on recent developments within the Isle of Anglesey County Council, and how I propose to respond to them.
The Assembly will recall that in July 2009 the Auditor General for Wales identified very serious failures within the Council: poor behaviour by members, weak relationships between members and officers, inadequate strategic planning and low levels of public engagement. The Auditor General recommended that we intervene to help secure recovery, and a month later Brian Gibbons directed the Council to address all of the problems that the Auditor General identified within 18 months. He also removed certain functions from the Council and appointed an interim Managing Director and a Recovery Board to monitor the Council’s progress.
Since then, it is fair to say that the Council has moved forward in some areas. It has overhauled its scrutiny system to give all councillors a better say in Council business. It has ended the practice of appointing councillors to committee chairs and outside bodies on the basis of political loyalty and favouritism.
However, some of the most serious problems have not gone away. The conduct of many councillors suggests that their primary aim is to manoeuvre for personal and group advantage rather than to deliver for the whole of the island. Making and breaking political deals remains a pervasive feature of the Council’s political culture, leading to turmoil and uncertainty that is in no-one’s interests. Last June, for instance, the Leader left his group, which he believed was undermining him and the recovery. He formed a new alliance which nonetheless failed to attract majority support. Since Christmas, there have been several attempts to overthrow that alliance and replace it with one of a number of different configurations, all of which would involve former allies being in opposition to each other, and put former opponents in power together.
Alongside that, Council politics remains dominated by a number of shifting independent factions which seem to be little more than alliances of personal convenience. Since we intervened, two new groups have been set up and an old one has been dissolved. Many executive portfolios have been held by several different members over the past 18 months. And it is sometimes hard to keep track of allegiances and rivalries from one week to the next.
Some might say that politicians are by nature a fractious bunch, and what we have seen is no more than routine local politics. I disagree. I have no interest whatsoever in who the leader of the council is, or who forms an administration. What I expect, and what recovery demands, is stability. As I have made very clear on many occasions, all councillors need to focus their energies on delivering for the island, and in reforming the Council’s structures, practices and culture to that end. This is not just a matter for the Council’s leader and the executive – whoever that may be. There is a collective responsibility for members to ensure that the Council delivers for the people of the Anglesey.
Of course, any democratic body has the right to choose its leadership, and to replace a regime it does not support. But this constant jockeying for advantage undermines recovery and hinders the business of the Council. What is profoundly disappointing for me is that now many of those apparently involved in recent developments gave personal assurances to my Recovery Board that they would not destabilise the current administration in the interests of securing recovery. Those assurances have proved to be hollow. All this suggests that little has changed during our intervention, at least in the minds of some councillors. It can only deter those seeking to work for or collaborate with the Council, or those contemplating investment on the island. And it gives me no confidence that the Council will be able to address the severe financial and delivery challenges that all local authorities face coherently and strategically. Overall, it appears that the corporate governance of the authority is not improving as I had hoped.
Amidst all of this it is too easy to lose sight of the Council’s staff. They continue to work very hard in the most trying of circumstances to deliver for the island, and it is to their great credit that Anglesey’s services remain mostly good and sometimes excellent. But that can only work on a day-to-day basis: even the best officers need sound and consistent political leadership to address strategic delivery issues like school rationalisation and social care reform. Staff are not getting that, and until the political culture changes, nor will they. On the contrary, they are profoundly and understandably dispirited and demotivated by what they see within the authority from some elected members. It is only a matter of time before this starts to affect front-line services and the necessary improvements to them.
I cannot ignore this situation or pretend that everything will turn out right in the end Our intervention so far has aimed to help the Council to achieve its own recovery, and with the considerable support of the Recovery Board and the WLGA some progress has been made. But I am becoming seriously concerned that in some important areas the Council’s members do not want to recover. That leads me to believe that the current intervention does not stand a reasonable prospect of success if such conduct is allowed to continue. If so then I will have to consider a new and more stringent form of intervention, both to hasten recovery and to protect the island and its citizens.
I have already heard the views of my Recovery Board on this. They acknowledge the progress made but see little prospect of a sustainable recovery. That suggests a case for further action. The status quo cannot continue as the lack of stability and good corporate governance strongly suggest an inability to take cogent strategic decisions, and could quickly start to affect routine service delivery. What any further form of action or intervention should be is not clear to me at present. While my powers are wide-ranging, their potential implications mean they need to be exercised very carefully and equally I need to ensure that any action I decide to take will be secure the improvements which appear to be essential. It is also important to realise that Anglesey’s problems are fundamentally about political culture and values – not issues that can be easily resolved by a stroke of the Ministerial pen.
I have therefore asked the Auditor General to re-inspect the Council urgently, and, if appropriate, to make recommendations. That is part of his statutory remit, and also allows him to consider how far the earlier recommendations have been discharged within the 18-month deadline that our 2009 direction set. But the Council should be in no doubt about the gravity of the situation it is now in, and a situation which it has largely brought on itself. I will consider the recommendations from the Auditor General very carefully in deciding what further action to take. I will not speculate on any consequences for the Council in advance of any report from the auditor as I do not want to prejudge the issue. However, I will say that if the Council spurns opportunities to resolve its problems, and the extensive support we, the Recovery Board and the WLGA have provided as part of that, it will only have itself to blame.
I will make a further statement to the Assembly once I have received and considered the Auditor General’s findings.