The leader of Nottingham City Council says he expects a Government-appointed improvement board to soon use extra powers given to it by Ministers to try to force improvements at the authority.
However, Cllr David Mellen (Lab) said he takes heart from the fact the council has avoided further Government intervention in the form of commissioners on two occasions already.
As part of its ongoing improvement work, the Labour-run authority was given a list of 67 requirements it needed to meet by the end of November last year.
An improvement board, appointed in 2020 upon the collapse of Robin Hood Energy, has been monitoring progress and chairman Sir Tony Redmond regularly reports back to the Government on progress.
If the pace of change was deemed insufficient by ministers at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the councillors would have faced tighter controls and potential commissioner intervention – meaning Government-appointed officials would run all or part of the council instead of locally-elected members.
Providing an update during a scrutiny meeting on February 8, Cllr Mellen (Lab), said:
“I just wanted to emphasise, so there is no doubt about this, that I am under no illusion everything in the city council is rosy.
“It certainly isn’t and we still have many things to do to bring us up to the standards we would aspire to.”
The council narrowly avoided commissioner intervention after the uncovering of a multi-million pound misspend in its Housing Revenue Account, whereby money intended for housing tenants and council house improvements had been transferred to another account.
This figure is now understood to be in the region of £51m, including inflationary pressures.
In June last year, the department said it was “minded to” send in commissioners until this decision was scrapped during a Government shake-up.
Instead of commissioners, Sir Tony was given more powers to direct change, rather than just advise.
On February 6 the Government responded to the council’s most recent progress towards meeting the 67 requirements.
In a letter penned by Lee Rowley MP (Con), Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Local Government, the department noted “good progress” at the council and, as such, it avoided further intervention.
When questioned if Sir Tony may still use his powers of direction, Cllr Mellen added: “I think it will be up to the board as to whether they think powers of direction will be necessary, and I suppose I am slightly surprised they haven’t used those before and probably would expect they will use them, but Sir Tony’s way of working is he heralds things beforehand.
“The minister uses the words ‘expediently’ and ‘decisively’ [in his letter] so that suggests it might be surprised if he doesn’t use them.”
Despite clear progress, the Government stated the council must not now loosen its grip or lose focus.
Around £3.2m in savings must still be sought to bridge a £32m black hole in its 2023/24 budget.
So far £29m in savings have been proposed.
During the meeting, committee chairman Cllr Sam Gardiner (Lab), said: “I was just wondering if there was the possibility of commissioners in the future, still being appointed if the improvement board is not satisfied?”
Cllr Mellen said: “At the end of Mr Rowley’s letter, it says that upon receiving further reports from Sir Tony he and his colleagues will assess whether further powers under the Local Government Act 1999 should be used, which could include commissioners.
“But I think we have to say we have escaped that threat twice now.
“It was threatened in July last year and it was certainly an expectation of the results of Sir Tony’s report in December and January.
“So I take heart from the fact that the Government, which has not been shy in putting in commissioners in Liverpool and Slough, have said about Nottingham ‘you are making progress but you have still got further to go, but we don’t feel it is necessary to put commissioners in’.
“I am not cracking open the champagne, but I am at least relieved that the threat is not one that is being realised at this moment.”