Wirral’s council leader anticipates departure of watchdog by April

Wirral’s council leader said he expects a watchdog overseeing the council to be gone after April.

An independent panel was set up in 2021 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 in respect of the council’s improvement.”

Two years on from it being set up, Wirral council leader Cllr Paul Stuart said he expected the panel to disband once the council’s next budget is set in March 2024 citing progress with new plans for managing its finances, delivering new houses and regeneration, and a strategy outlining the council’s priorities until 2027.

Cllr Stuart told the LDRS, “I don’t think the panel will be sticking around for the foreseeable. 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 said this was what the panel had told the council but 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.”

The council still faces a significant challenge when it comes to balancing its budget in future years. It’s currently expected to have to find £13m in spending cuts for the financial year from April 2024 to March 2025 and with a total budget gap of nearly £62m over the next five years.

To help close this gap over that time, it proposes a potential council tax rise of £31m with an increase of 4.99% this year to help generate £9m. Across England, the government has now announced a 6.5% increase in council funding with £64bn of support including extra funding for housing and social care.

Cllr Stuart said, “It’s absolutely welcome, of course we want more but the government has already indicated that the settlement is based on an assumption that all councils will increase the maximum council tax.”

He added, “I don’t see how we can’t. If we’re going to be faced with stark choices between closing services, ceasing services, or putting an extra percentage point up on the council tax, I certainly would expect that’s what we’d rather do than cutting our services further. There’s very little left to be cut.”

He said this will help pay for services like street cleaning and bin collections, adding, “They’re the basic services the majority of people want to see for their council tax but unfortunately they’re also the services that are by and large not statutory.”

A large part of the council’s budget is spent providing adult and children’s social care services and the latest figures show a £10.5m pressure on the council’s budget due to adult social care costs rising. It has to provide these services which are called statutory.

While the council has also received millions to deliver regeneration projects in Birkenhead and other parts of Wirral as well as new cycle lanes, this money has to be spent to deliver this and can’t be used to fund other services.

Cllr Stuart said, “It’s got to be used for those specific projects. It’s not a vanity project that we’re using council tax payers money for. They are ring-fenced government grants that come to us.

“Our core budget is to deliver the services. An awful lot of our money gets spent on what a lot of people don’t see and that’s delivering our statutory services, that’s delivering our social care for adults and children.”

Going forward, he hopes all political parties will support a council tax rise to balance the budget and the council will also be looking to introduce an additional council tax on second homes in the borough after it was approved last year.

A number of councils across the country have issued Section 114 notices effectively declaring bankruptcy. The Local Government Association warns one in five could by next year and Wirral Council officers currently predict it could be doing the same in three years.

Asked about this, Cllr Stuart said, “We can’t rule out anything but officers can only predict budget assumptions based on current forecasts and we can see councils right across the country are issuing section 114 notices all the time. It’s a bleak case, a worst-case scenario that was portrayed but based on the figures at hand at this moment in time.”

Image: Wirral Council leader Paul Stuart. Credit: Edward Barnes

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