Council marks ‘significant moment’ as watchdog set to step down

Wirral Council has marked “a significant moment” as the watchdog overseeing it prepares to step down.

The local authority has been overseen by an independent assurance panel since 2021 that was set up following critical reports into its finances and decision making after it had to request emergency government funding to support its budget. The panel has overseen and scrutinised the council since.

Now the local authority’s chief executive Paul Satoor said the panel was looking at standing down, satisfied the local authority has taken the steps needed to address issues within the organisation. However, this is subject to a final report being presented to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities.

Mr Satoor said, “This marks a significant moment for the council and the culmination of the hard work by our political leaders both past and present and the officer core responding positively to the need to improve the governance and finances of the council,” adding the panel recognised “the strength of political leadership and cross party collaboration in making significant progress.”

The announcement was made at a local authority policy and resources committee meeting on 20 March where the council made a number of key decisions. A £12m funding pot to regenerate Liscard will become part of a wider pilot that gives the local authority more flexibility when it comes to spending government money.

Councillors also agreed to move forward with a £2.2m project fund that will invest in a number of services across Wirral to help clean and tidy up the borough while £2.7m will be spent on consultants over two years to provide skills currently missing amongst council staff to help deliver its regeneration plans for thousands of homes.

However, concerns were raised about two plans presented to the watchdog panel that hadn’t been changed following feedback from councillors. Conservative councillor Helen Cameron said the council framework for managing performance didn’t include enough detail in two areas.

On a separate policy detailing how the council will bring in changes over the next few years, Cllr Cameron criticised the council saying it had finished a policy transferring a number of libraries and a golf course. While the political decisions to give community groups the chance to take these facilities over have been made, many of the legal agreements still need to be finished.

She said it had been “a torturous process,” adding, “It’s not ending. There are community groups, particularly in the libraries report about how resilient these groups were, how resilient these communities were.”

She said, “My god, that resilience has been tested. They still don’t have the keys. They are still trying to get into the building and get some of the repairs done,” adding: “It would be really hard for me to have faith and to encourage any groups to come forward.”

Labour councillor Liz Grey said she agreed with Cllr Cameron’s comments on the framework, adding, “It’s almost as though we didn’t have a workshop. It hasn’t changed at all. This is what was presented to us, which we then unpicked and we changed quite a lot and we rejected some of these and we added others.”

Officers said they would look to come back with an updated version of the plan. Explaining why a draft version had come to committee for approval, Mr Satoor said the framework was one of the things the panel wanted to see, adding, “Some of this is around timing because this had to get here for that purpose.”

Concerns were also raised by Green councillor Jo Bird in relation to contracts linked to the local authority’s new £75m offices. Cllr Bird asked about checks on contractors and payments, adding, “Concerns have been raised with me about potential conflicts of interest with contractors and subcontractors who have delivered more than one piece of work for the council.”

Council officers said they wouldn’t be able to comment on any particular specific examples but Mr Satoor said, “We do follow all procurement processes and contractors, anybody else goes through checks and are legitimately appointed.

“Speculation and all that again, we need to be really clear we are following processes and we are going things properly here.”

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