Tuesday 23 April 2024
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Nottingham

Nottingham City Council: Government Improvement Board failed, says councillor

An improvement board imposed by the Government three years ago to oversee critical changes at Nottingham City Council has failed, a senior councillor has argued.

The Improvement and Assurance Board (IAB) was appointed by the Government’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities in January 2021 following the collapse of council-run Robin Hood Energy (RHE) the year prior.

It is independently chaired by Sir Tony Redmond alongside two other independent members and council leader Cllr David Mellen (Lab).

Recently the IAB was given new powers to ‘instruct’ – to make sure officers maximise savings in the latest budget round.

The Government has defended the IAB process, saying it has worked constructively with the council.

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The authority is looking to fill a £53m budget gap for 2024/25, through cuts to libraries, community centres, care homes and jobs, as well as a separate hole of £23m in the current year which resulted in the council declaring effective bankruptcy with a Section 114 notice in November.

But in March 2023 council officers proposed a balanced budget and four-year financial plan, which was approved by councillors.

This has prompted questions as to whether costs could have been better forecasted and decisions more effectively overseen by the IAB.

Senior councillor Steve Battlemuch, who represents Wollaton West, said: “The costs of children’s care placements have gone through the roof [as well as] the overall adult social care demand and the rising costs of homelessness and numbers of homeless.

“I think it is a legitimate question for people to say ‘Could we not have anticipated that more?’

“Between officers and councillors, could we not have looked at the forecast and said have we put enough in the budget for next year? But I think loads of councils have been caught out in that way.

“One of my original criticisms of the IAB was they brought in three older, white blokes from outside the city and what did they know about Nottingham other than reading it from a briefing paper?”

A spokesman for the council echoed Cllr Battlemuch’s comments on planning, citing “exceptional” demand for social care and homelessness services, as well as inflation, as reasons for the additional significant pressures on budgets.

The council also says past failures including the collapse of Robin Hood Energy left it with depleted reserves.

Following the issuing of the Section 114 notice, the Government said in December it was ‘minded to’ intervene further with the appointment of commissioners.

If they are appointed, the IAB will be removed and commissioners will take power away from elected members to make sweeping changes to the authority to make sure its finances are in order.

However, councillors say instructions from the IAB mean their power has effectively been taken away already, with all executive members refusing to back officer-proposed budget cuts at a meeting on February 13 as a result.

Cllr Battlemuch says leader Cllr Mellen has had “less and less” of a say on decisions made by the board.

“David is leader of the council, he is meant to be part of that board, but I think over the last year or so it has just become in effect more like commissioners,” he said.

Cllr Mellen said his involvement on the board is a “waste of time” and he is not paid like Sir Tony and others, who receive up to £1,000 per day.

“I do not really know why I’m on it,” he said. “I’m being held to account as much as anyone else. In my view they should have a politician from somewhere else on the board.”

The IAB has cost taxpayers around £365,000 for the three years it has been imposed, while commissioners would cost around £650,000 for a single year, Cllr Battlemuch added.

Former council leader Jon Collins says questions must now be asked as to how the council, overseen by the IAB, got its budgets “so catastrophically wrong”.

“What I don’t think is clear is if anybody is trying to hold the IAB or any of the officers and senior officers to account,” Mr Collins said.

“You can make your judgement about whether it has gone better or worse since the IAB was introduced and the point of which officers were responsible for running the council, but the last three years have been down to them.

“There’s no point pointing fingers at councillors, they haven’t been able to do anything different to what they’ve been told.”

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities says the IAB has been working “constructively” with the council to address the many challenges it faces.

It notes the required pace to make improvements is still slow and weaknesses in finance, transformation and an underlying culture of poor governance “continue to manifest themselves.”

A final decision on commissioners is expected to be made soon.

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