Independent panel says Wirral Council progress has been ‘very encouraging’

An independent panel set up to oversee Wirral Council said progress has been “very encouraging” but remains concerned about its regeneration plans.

The Independent Assurance Panel was set up in 2021 by the UK Government to oversee and provide advice on the running and finances at Wirral Council following two critical reports into the way it made decisions and an inability to balance its budget.

The panel is made up of leading councillors as well as local government professionals and was meant “to act as a critical friend”.

Carolyn Downs, the panel’s chair and previously chief executive of Brent Council, wrote to the local authority in November and said they expect the council to be able to balance its budget for the next three years and noted councillors in Labour and the Conservatives “have greater confidence in the quality of financial reporting and that trust in senior officers has improved significantly.”

She added, “You have delivered far greater levels of savings than this over the past two years which gives confidence. You should proceed to identify the required level of additional savings as soon as you can after the budget for 2024/25 is agreed at full council in February 2024.”

Ms Downs said they “too have far greater confidence in the quality of financial reporting,” adding, “We very much hope that if all the factors outlined above are met then we will at that point be able to stand down the panel.”

However, she said the council’s corporate plan and its financial strategy over the next four years “need better linking and there is a need to clearly match your resources to your stated priorities” and “put in place a very robust and comprehensive performance management framework.”

The panel also “remain concerned about the delivery of your ambitious regeneration plans although we fully appreciate the challenging economic context in which you are seeking to deliver. However, the capital spend on your schemes remains relatively low.

“Again it was positive to see the project management and delivery plans that you have now put in place and we would anticipate that the MTFS (Medium Term Financial Strategy) that is presented to February 2024 Council reflects the anticipated levels of spend over the three year period of the plan.”

Wirral Council leader Cllr Paul Stuart previously told the LDRS, “I think the duty is on us as politicians to ensure they go. We shouldn’t have had them here in the first place so the sooner they go the better. That’s no disrespect to the independent panel. I’m sure they don’t want to be spending their time here as well.

“I think we’re in a far better position than we were a few years ago. We’ve instilled that reassurance into the panel and we’ve got our medium-term financial plan in place, we’ve got our council plan in place. We’re so much further forward than we were even at the beginning of this year, never mind in 2021. Once we get through budget council, I think that will be them gone.”

He added, “If they stick around after that, I keep saying this and I will keep hearkening back to it but whether it’s the delivery of our local plan or whether it’s getting rid of the independent panel or whether it’s delivering a balanced budget, the onus is on us as politicians to ensure that happens.

“We have to instil that confidence in the independent panel that we will do the right thing and be able to balance our budget and deliver what is a positive regeneration plan we have got coming forward.”

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