The government has thanked Middlesbrough Council for best-value improvements it is making but wants more to be done over the next six months. A revised Best Value Notice was issued to the council today by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC).
It acknowledges improvements that have been carried out since a notice was first issued in January 2023 because of concerns about the council’s capacity to comply with its Best Value Duty but says more is still needed.
Middlesbrough’s first notice followed serious concerns highlighted by the external auditor in July 2022 around governance arrangements, and cultural and governance issues published by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) two months later.
Today’s renewed notice acknowledges the steps taken already to identify the serious issues at Middlesbrough including the council’s “timely and helpful engagement” with the department and says that the DLUHC now expects the council to identify and implement arrangements to secure continuous improvement.
Since the first notice was issued, says the DLUHC, “the council has worked effectively with the department setting out and implementing a range of improvement measures to effectively address the identified concerns. We thank the council for this work.
“We are also aware that more work is still to be embedded to ensure sustained and material improvements particularly in relation to financial sustainability, delivery of transformation and effectively implementing new strategies to embed positive cultures.”
The new notice will remain for six months and could be re-issued if ministers think it is still needed. It could be withdrawn or escalated at any point. Meanwhile, the government expects the council to continue to work with the Independent Improvement Advisory Board (IIAB) it set up to support it in delivering improvement strategies and organisational transformation and to monitor progress.
The government also expects the council to continue with an action plan accepted at a full council meeting on 30 November 2022, meeting the set milestones and success measures established.
Ministers also want to see cultural change, particularly in relation to the relationships between officers and members, and that this will be an important continuing focus of the IIAB.
The council will further have to work with the DLUHC to secure financial recovery and return to financial sustainability by setting a balanced three-year medium-term financial plan over the period to 2026/27.
“If the IIAB and external auditor recommendations are not met in full, with necessary improvements delivered at sufficient pace then the department will consider whether statutory intervention is needed,” the council has been warned.
“To complement existing engagement between the authority and the department, we expect that contact at working level should continue on a quarterly basis, recognising that this may change according to need over time. We expect any requests for information to be fully and promptly met.”
The DLUHC warns the council: “The department will also look to the IIAB Improvement Board for assurance on your authority’s plan and its delivery as part of our engagement on this matter. Whilst your authority may continue to receive and be awarded government funding whilst under this notice, we would emphasise that receipt of funding does not indicate the department’s broader view of the performance of the authority, nor would it indicate any change in the status of this Notice, with individual funding programmes being managed and assured independently by their respective departments…
“[A] failure to demonstrate continuous improvement may be judged to contribute to Best Value failure and the Secretary of State will consider [statutory] powers as appropriate.”
Middlesbrough’s Labour Mayor, Chric Cooke, said: “I’ve been in the role for almost nine months now and we have been working hard on solving problems from the past. I had a very productive call with the minister earlier this week and it’s very encouraging to see that the updated notice reflects the progress the council has made.
“We are working incredibly hard with the IIAB, the Local Government Association and the DLUHC to respond properly to all the concerns. Governance and demonstrating value for money is absolutely fundamental to all public bodies. We know what still needs to be done and we won’t be taking our eye off the ball.”