Tuesday 23 April 2024
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Nottingham City Council: ‘More service cuts could be needed’ says Government lead commissioner

The lead commissioner appointed to help run ‘bankrupt’ Nottingham City Council says he intends to be “money well spent” – but warned the authority’s financial woes are so serious more service cuts may be on the way.

The Labour-run council issued a Section 114 notice in November, effectively declaring bankruptcy, following a £23m shortfall in its budget.

Sweeping cuts have also been proposed to services and jobs due to a separate budget gap of £53m in the following year beginning April 2024.

Consequently the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities announced on Thursday, February 22, it would be appointing commissioners to help run the council.

The three officials will take over from the existing Improvement and Assurance Board (IAB), which was appointed three years ago upon the collapse of council-run Robin Hood Energy.

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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.

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Tony McArdle OBE has been appointed as lead commissioner alongside Margaret Lee as commissioner for finance, and a third commissioner for transformation will be selected later.

The commissioners visited Nottingham to meet council leader Cllr David Mellen (Lab), chief executive Mel Barrett and other senior councillors for the first time on Tuesday morning (February 27).

Mr McArdle said he welcomed the fact the council has said it wishes to work with them.

“We arrive with quite a set of powers and our initial way into this will be to leave those powers on the table for the council to use,” he said.

  • Read more: Vicky McClure backs petition against Nottingham City Council cuts and calls on Government for immediate help

“We are not intending to use them in the first instance, the Secretary of State has expressed the desire that we should only use them if we have to and that’s where we would be coming from as well.”

He says their initial work will consist of more listening than talking, while also setting out their purpose and an exit strategy in two years’ time.

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“We will form a view over the next three months or so as to what we think is realistically achievable by then, to meet those key issues about how to return this council to financial balance,” he said.

  • Read more: Auditor issues Nottingham City Council with legal notice regarding its accounts

“If we find it necessary to use [our powers], it is not a case of instructing the council to do things, we would actually be taking them on ourselves.

“We are very hopeful that is not what is going to happen.”

Mr McArdle and his colleagues will be bringing with them a wealth of experience in local government.

In Slough, Margaret Lee and her fellow commissioners ended up utilising their powers, with one of her most notable decisions being the sacking of the council’s chief executive, Josie Wragg, over “gross misconduct” at the time.

Meanwhile Mr McArdle has been credited for his work as chief executive of Lincolnshire County Council, which he joined in 2005 and worked for over a decade.

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He was also appointed as the lead commissioner at the former Northamptonshire County Council, which was the first authority to enter Section 114 status in decades in 2018.

Under his tenure the council went from having several consecutive years of failing to balance its books to balancing them for three, he said.

Substantial changes are now expected in Nottingham, and the 2024 to 2025 budget has to be delivered by law despite what Mr McArdle says will be “all of the pain” that comes with it at the March 4 Full Council meeting.

“The difficulty for Nottingham is it is having to do such a lot in such a hurry,” Mr McArdle continued.

“It is doing a lot of things other councils have done in the course of a decade, therefore it has been easier [for them] to manage the budget into the constraints we all know local government is living with up and down the country.

“But that is the task that is ahead and we will support the council in doing it. Efficiencies will be top of the list of things for us to look at. Running the business more effectively has to be a first priority.

“Of course there may be the need for further service reductions, but I have no idea at this point what they might be.”

Commissioners, including Mr McArdle, have previously come under scrutiny for their costs.

In Nottingham, Mr McArdle 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 the taxpayers, and they may work up to 150 days in any one year.

“If you look at all the interventions that have taken place so far, they have all resulted in a significant improvement in the operating base of the authority,” Mr McArdle added.

“That is something we would wish to continue here.

“I take the point we are an extra cost. We are very well aware of that.

“I don’t know what this council may have spent as a cost on some of the people who have over many years got it into difficulty, but whatever that sum is, what I and my colleagues will cost while here will be a fraction of it and we will take this authority some way to getting it out of those difficulties.

“In that sense I and my colleagues intend it will be money well spent.

“It is not going to be easy. I would not diminish just how challenging the difficulties facing this council are. The financial difficulties are profound and will take some time to work through. That does not mean it is impossible because it isn’t.”

• Read more : Nottingham City Council leader Cllr David Mellen talks about today’s news that Government commissioners will be assisting in running the council

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