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Soon-to-be City Council deputy adamant commissioners would not be good for Nottingham

todayMay 7, 2022 1

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The soon-to-be Nottingham City Council deputy leader has insisted the Government is ‘content’ with the Labour-run authority’s progress. It has been argued commissioners taking over control of the council would be of no benefit to the city’s residents despite years of significant failures which have cost the taxpayer millions.

Marked problems have been plaguing the city council for years, with many taking root while the authority was under the leadership of Jon Collins, including the collapse of Robin Hood Energy and – more recently – the misspend of up to £40m between the council and its arms-length housing provider Nottingham City Homes.

The recent discovery of the payments, £15m of which have already been deemed ‘unlawful’, date back as far as 2014/15 and have further tainted the reputation of the council in the eyes of the city and, particularly, council tenants. The money was, by law, intended for tenants and housing stock improvements but a large amount was instead transferred to the council’s general fund to help prop-up other services.

Read more: Council leader responds to call for action at authority

These problems were uncovered as the council remained under the scrutiny of the Government appointed and independently-chaired Improvement and Assurances Board, which the authority must appease to stave off the commissioners. Numerous questions have thus been raised following the revelations, including just how auditors missed such significant issues and whether or not the commissioners will ultimately be sent in.

And, following Nottinghamshire Live’s front page splash at the end of April, the council has insisted it will be working in the best interests of the city’s residents as a big shake-up takes place on its executive board. Four councillors are to soon step down, including the current deputy leader and portfolio holder for finance.

Councillor Adele Williams, who represents Sherwood and has sat as the portfolio holder for transport, is currently portfolio holder for adult social care. She will soon be taking up the position of deputy leader. She will replace councillor Sally Longford, who will step down but continue to represent Lenton and Wollaton East and act as the portfolio holder for energy and environment.

Nottinghamshire Live spoke to councillor Williams, who will also be taking the place of councillor Sam Webster, who sits as the portfolio holder for finance. She therefore arguably has some of the most testing responsibilities on the council in face of continued scrutiny.

The changes are set to be made at full council on May 9. Speaking of her approach to the new roles she described the appointment as a “massive honour and a huge responsibility”, adding: “My approach to it and the council’s approach to be able to get towards a four-year balanced budget is we need to change the way we do things.

“Because I was the portfolio holder for adults [and social care] for some time, and transport, adults is a key part of the council’s budget and all councils spent a huge proportion of their revenue spend on adult and children’s statutory services. I am well used to thinking how best to deliver statutory services really well but as efficiently as possible so in a way that is a really good foundation for this.”



Nottingham City Council's Loxley House HQ
Nottingham City Council’s Loxley House HQ

The most notable of failures, to the detriment of the taxpayer, have included Robin Hood Energy which cost an estimated £38m, the failed Broadmarsh Centre redevelopment within which the council lost £9m, and now up to £40m must be transferred back out of the council’s already constrained general fund and into Nottingham City Homes’ Housing Revenue Account (HRA). And fixing these issues, on top of transforming the council’s ‘negative’ workplace culture, is coming at a cost, too.

A large amount of costly external support has been required to assess the council’s operations, its companies and subsequently instil change. So far the interim finance director has been paid more than £300,000, as well as numerous consultants, one in which charges £1,000 for a day of work.

“If we did not require external expertise to support us in what is quite a significant programme of change across the city then we would be doing that with our in-house staff, but we don’t currently; in the context of historic cuts to local Government funding, we do not have the capacity within our internal staff to get this done fast enough to deliver the change we need,” councillor Williams said.

The council continues to argue, despite such costs, the issue which has most significantly hit the authority the hardest is years of decreasing grant money from central Government. And this claim is backed up to an extent by some level of evidence.

According to a new report from the Institute for Government, the coalition, the David Cameron and Theresa May governments all cut central government grants to local authorities over the past decade. The report states: “The coalition government changed the way grants were allocated in 2014/15 so that the grant going to each local authority was cut by the same percentage. This meant that in 2014/15 and 2015/16, local authorities that were more reliant on the central government grant experienced larger reductions in their spending power.”

While this was soon changed under the May government to more evenly cut grants, the financial constraints remained ‘baked-in’. Nottingham, in particular, fared worse under this change whereby the Government favours council tax hikes over handing out grants.

Roughly 80% of homes in the city are in tax bands A and B, as they are smaller, meaning much less income can be raised via tax to pay for services. “It has been a very challenging time for all councils,” councillor Williams says.

“The level of Government funding has been cut spectacularly to the city and, if you look at the overall data, places like ours, which have areas where more people are financially struggling, have been hit the hardest. We are in a tight space like many other local authorities.”

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While the council’s argument is echoed across the country by other financially challenged authorities, the continued discovery of serious problems and the resulting cost to fix them begs the question: Ultimately, which route would prove better value for money for the Nottingham taxpayer – sending in the commissioners or sticking with the council’s own actions to improve?

The two commissioners sent in to Northamptonshire managed to turn round the council so it was operating more effectively and the same was done in Slough. In Northants the commissioners charged £800 per day for the lead and £700 for the supporting role, but it was argued by members of all major parties they had been worth the cost to the taxpayer.

In Liverpool, however, which more recently saw the commissioners appointed, concerns were raised over the cost. Day rates were increased to £1,200 for a lead commissioner, a change which proved controversial.

But Kevin Clarke, the leader of the Clifton Independents and councillor for Clifton East, previously said there will be a big price to pay however you choose to look at it. It is therefore arguably about choosing the lesser of two evils.

Councillor Williams put across her argument for trusting the council’s own plans to improve. She said: “Obviously this current leadership under David Mellen has committed to ensuring we are leading a really well-run council and as part of that process we have kicked off these investigations, and got the reports, so we could fully understand the issue.

“We’ve also been working with the improvement and assurances board and we have a really good working relationship with them. They are really pleased with the progress the city is making.

“The big difference [between the council and the commissioners] is we were elected by the city of Nottingham and when they voted for us to lead the council they understand the type of values a Labour council brings. We’ve got a municipal bus service and, not only that, but a bus service that wins repeated awards for its really good service.

“We’ve got council run care homes that are excellent, residential care that is excellent, many council services that are outstanding and that’s under our leadership, and under our leadership we would want to retain and develop all of that. The difference is we want to deliver the programme Nottingham has elected us to deliver.”

It is right the electorate would have no say on what the commissioners would decide to do and cut to get the council back on stable footings, but is it the best value for the people of Nottingham? “What would happen differently that would be good for Nottingham if the commissioners came in?” councillor Williams argued.

Councillor Williams says the council’s aim is making the authority an employer of choice, while also increasing the “really concerning” healthy lifestyle expectancies in the city. But is this possible with an already tarnished reputation?

“We had a new leadership in the council in 2019 that committed to reviewing and understanding our position in relation to some of these issues,” she said. “When the HRA issue was pulled out last year there was decisive and swift action to commission the reports and fully understand the issue.

“It is worth noting that the improvement and assurances board has been content with our progress. We all recognise this is a difficult issue that needs to be dealt with, a difficult issue based on historic actions that is being understood, addressed and resolved swiftly.

“Will this affect the city reputationally? I think we should be seen as we are and as a council that is committed to working well in partnership and hard for Nottingham people. I hope that the work we have done to get the council onto sustainable footing will be taken as it is by Government.”

Written by: thehitnetwork

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