Watchdog praises Wirral Council progress

Wirral Council has been told it feels “more like a normal council” as a watchdog panel praises progress made by the local authority.

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 is 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 telling it they expect the council to be able to balance its budget for the next three years, and close down the panel later this year noting councillors in Labour and the Conservatives “have greater confidence in the quality of financial reporting and that trust in senior officers has improved significantly.”

At a Policy and Resources committee meeting on 17 January, Ms Downs praised steps she thought demonstrated the council had made progress, adding, “You feel more like a normal council than you did when we came a couple of years ago and that is to be celebrated as well.” She said the panel had “greater trust” in the local authority’s finance figures and noted councillors said the same.

Ms Downs said this was the panel’s most positive report on the council to date but stressed it still had concerns about the local authority’s regeneration plans and its delivery, urging councillors that they “need to keep a very close eye on it”.

In the letter, the panel said it also “remains 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.”

However, she confirmed they would still be looking to stand down the panel but only on the basis that a completely balanced budget is set in February for the next financial year from April 2024 to March 2025.

Councils cannot borrow to fund day-to-day services and so have to balance their books every year to avoid issuing a Section 114 notice or effective bankruptcy.

In response, council leader Paul Stuart said he expected this to be achieved despite the local authority receiving less money from the government than expected in its latest financial settlement.

Conservative opposition leader Cllr Jeff Green said, “As a personal view, incredible progress has been made in the last couple of months,” but added, “We are not out of the woods in terms of regeneration and I know there is a lot of work in terms of regeneration, not only to have a clear plan but match that to resources and to delivery.”

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