COUNCILLORS in Merthyr Tydfil have discussed an Audit Wales report which highlights improvements made by the authority and those still needed.
The report which went before the full council, April 21, updated councillors on the performance of the council in addressing some key concerns that have been raised.
Audit Wales’ letter to the council in May 2019 raised concerns about the council’s financial situation, service pressures, leadership, capacity, and governance.
It lead to the council seeking assistance from the Welsh Government which has included the establishment of an improvement and assurance board, support with social services, governance and leadership, and advisers for education and HR.
The council submitted a recovery, transformation, and improvement (RTI) Plan to the Welsh Government in August 2020 which sets out a series of actions aimed at transforming and improving the council and underlines that “the status quo is not an option”.
The main finding of the latest Audit Wales report is that the council has “shown resilience in its response to recent challenges and has made progress in developing an improvement plan but it urgently needs to address its lack of capacity to drive the transformation needed and use its available resources to strengthen its resilience over the medium to long term”.
Audit Wales acknowledged the unprecedented year of challenges for the council with Storm Dennis and then the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic but added it is important that the council focuses on addressing the ongoing concerns and implementing its plan.
The report said that the council cannot continue to rely on there being positive financial settlements in the future and warned the council will need some form of continued support as it lacks the capacity to address the medium to long-term issues at the same time as operating from day to day in the short term.
Audit Wales said while it had not undertaken a comprehensive review of the council’s services and performance it did not consider services to be at immediate risk of failure.
Audit Wales highlight that the council’s short-term financial position has improved and have said there is now a “window of opportunity” to prepare for the medium to long term.
Relationships between the cabinet and the senior management team are said to have improved and the 2021-22 budget includes £705,000 for resources to help fill the capacity gap.
The council has filled, or is in the process of filling, many of the gaps identified
including additional posts in environmental health, housing, additional learning
needs, engineering, and social services.
On education, Audit Wales highlighted progress on the setting up of a partnership panel and the development of the RARS (Raising Aspirations, Raising Standards Strategy) and recommended that the council continues to work with the Central South Consortium.
Audit Wales has made 10 recommendations for the council, including:
Address the lack of capacity and expertise to drive and sustain the transformation agenda; Continue with its capacity review to reflect the transformation needed and learning from the pandemic; Strengthen its communication and engagement with staff; Ensure it remains focused on improving education outcomes of all children and young people, and continue to strengthen its performance management and scrutiny arrangements.
Councillor Andrew Barry said:
“Whilst in principle it’s difficult to disagree with much of the report (from 2019) I think some context of our own is justified.
“From a historical perspective, there have only ever been three deficits declared. Interestingly all three are directly attributable to the unpredictability of the social services budget.
“Over the past six years, three of those years we’ve declared surpluses of £3m plus and in 2015/2016 a surplus of £4.1m.
He said that 2018/2019 returned a surplus of £2.89m which had previously been predicted to be a £20m deficit year.
He said this year they’ve seen a surplus of around £3m and added: “We can safely say that the finances have been in the best order for the past 16 years showing a sustainable two years of circa £3m surpluses.”
Comparing them to councils in the rest of Wales, Cllr Barry said “it’s not all doom and gloom for us.”
He said they have a more robust approach now in particular around social services, the ongoing review of fleet management, asset and estate management, decarbonisation and human resources.
He said: “When we came into this administration in 2017 we inherited the £20m deficit, social services budgets out of control, no individual performance monitoring to speak of, organisational performance monitoring ineffective for our business needs.
“So of course there were questions of our sustainability and our finances. Service pressures, they’ll always be there.
“Leadership and capacity, Kevin O’Neill has taken the lion’s share of driving this organisation forward.
“With Lisa being handed the baton we continue to improve. We’ve invested £750,000 in improving capacity to date and that journey continues.”
He said the authority is on a journey of improvement and that they’re not at their aspired destination and that never will be the position as that’s the nature of aspiration but the improvement has and is being made.
Councillor David Chaplin said that the leadership’s aspiration needs to be matched with action.
Councillor Julian Amos said: “We’ve come a long way. Because last year let’s face it we were looking quite bad and over this year we’ve come quite a long way.”
He said staff have done a tremendous job in coping with the storms and the pandemic and that the leader had done a fantastic job of bringing together elected members.
Councillor Chris Davies said the recommendations were a work in progress anyway and said the aspiration is absolutely there to work smarter to maximise on the funds that we have to ensure that we get the best outcomes for our residents.
“We are all in this together. This isn’t just about holding the cabinet to account this is about holding the whole council and officers to account.”
Councillor Darren Roberts thanked the leader for “far better communication” since she’s been in post and said they have had some meaningful discussions with the council tax and budget setting being evidence of this.
Councillor Geraint Thomas said they are well on their way to transforming the council and that hopefully next year they will be a long way along the road to turning the council into a 21st Century authority.
But he said: “We’ve got to be realists and it shows us exactly where we are.”
Councillor Gareth Lewis called it a “detailed and constructive appraisal” of the progress being made in addressing key concerns and that he looks forward to seeing how the council progresses.
Councillor Lisa Mytton, the leader of the council:
“We can’t fail to recognise that despite there being a great deal of work still to be undertaken, we must remember that this council and its officers in the face of a pandemic and of course one of the worst storms on records our officers kept their eye on the ball keeping all those plates spinning.”
“Yes there are still areas of weakness but there are also a lot of strengths in Merthyr Tydfil.
She said the true guts and determination shown by all in getting on with the job was recognised by Welsh Government especially on mass testing and dealing with the pandemic.
The leader gave assurance that her cabinet has and will continue to work on this report to support their plans and aspirations. She said engagement is imperative with all councillors, scrutiny and officers.
“Nobody wants Merthyr Tydfil to fail and we won’t,” Councillor Mytton said.