Friday 19 July 2024
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Nottingham City Council: Councillors will defend any sale of important public assets – as Government steps in

The leader of Nottingham City Council says councillors will strongly oppose the sale of important publicly-owned assets after the Government decided to impose commissioners to  run the authority.

The Labour-run council issued a Section 114 notice in November, because its expenditure was expected to outstrip its income amid a £23m in-year budget gap.

A separate budget gap of £53m in the year beginning April 2024 also prompted plans for a series of sweeping and significant cuts to services.

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The council was already under the watchful eyes of an Improvement and Assurance Board (IAB), which was first appointed by the Government in January 2021 following the collapse of Robin Hood Energy the year before.

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The move to appoint commissioners was announced by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on Thursday, February 22.

They will replace the IAB and remain in place for two years, effectively removing power from Nottingham’s elected councillors and placing it in the hands of three officials.

If they see fit to use them, they will have powers to control governance, scrutiny and decision-making on aspects such as budgets and the hiring and firing of council officers, in a bid to ensure best value is being achieved.

Asked if the city will experience further significant cuts in the future under the commissioners, Cllr David Mellen, the leader of the authority, said: “Time will tell.

“They do have powers. I haven’t met them yet, I am meeting them on Tuesday morning and although it was our submission to Government this was not necessary we will work constructively to better run the council for the benefit of the people of Nottingham.

“It is too early to say, councillors are still in place and there will be some decisions we hope will be retained by councillors to represent people in the communities.”

So far Tony McArdle OBE has been appointed as lead commissioner, while Margaret Lee has been selected as commissioner for finance.

A commissioner for transformation will be appointed later.

The lead commissioner will be paid £1,200 per day, while the commissioners for finance and transformation will be paid £1,100 per day.

Any expenses must also be paid for by the council and therefore ultimately taxpayers, and they may work up to 150 days in any one year.

Speaking of the cost, Cllr Mellen added: “I understand [the concerns]. It does seem strange when we’ve asked for this not to happen for the Government to decide it is happening and for the costs to fall on the taxpayers of Nottingham, but that is the system.

“All I would say is the letter from the minister for local government says they should be here for two years, often commissioners are put in longer than that, and we will be working with them but actually to also see them complete their work and move on.”

Nottingham residents also raised concerns over the future of publicly-owned assets such as the award-winning bus company Nottingham City Transport (NCT).

“I think Labour would be very strong in their opposition to the sale of NCT,” Cllr Mellen said.

“That is something that is a great service to the people of Nottingham and it is publicly run and well-regarded across the country.”

The council has cited soaring inflation, increased costs in social care, demand for homelessness support and reduced Government funding – by around £100m a year over the last decade – as reasons for its financial troubles.

However it also acknowledged past mistakes played a part in damaging reserves.

These issues include the unlawful spending of Housing Revenue Account money intended for council homes and tenants, which is estimated to cost £51m to make amends, as well as the collapse of Robin Hood Energy which cost taxpayers an estimated £38m.

Cllr Mellen said he would not be making a decision on his position as leader.

“If I decide I no longer want to do this job I am sure I will let local media sources know, but that is not a decision that is being made,” he said.

“We are a great city. We have a lot of assets but we also have a lot of challenges. Councillors will do their best to represent the views of the people of Nottingham and we hope for better times in the future.”

Cllr Andrew Rule, an opposition councillor for the Nottingham Independents and Independent Group, said the appointment of commissioners before the March 4 Full Council meeting, where the budget is due to be set, could have been to avoid political “shenanigans”.

Executive councillors had refused to back officer-proposed budget cuts due to the impact on communities, however the council has a legal duty to balance its budget each year, prompting uncertainty over what would happen next.

“The Executive Board meeting will have been the red rag to the bull,” Cllr Rule said.

“The executive councillors will now take a back seat and will be consulted with by the commissioners, and I hope opposition councillors will be consulted with for their views, but ultimately commissioners will be calling the shots.”

• Read more: Government appoints commissioners to run Nottingham City Council

• Read more: Nottingham City Council releases statement and reaction after Government takes over

• Read more: Robert Jenrick MP comments on Nottingham City Council commissioners decision

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