The government has issued Middlesbrough Council with a Best Value Notice. The letter, to Chief Executive Tony Parkinson and dated 24 January, warned that improvements would have to be made in the next year.
The notice was signed by Max Soule, Deputy Director of Local Government Stewardship at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). It states that despite the Middlesbrough leadership’s action plan to address serious issues at the council, ministers still doubt the authority’s capacity to comply with Best Value Duty under the Local Government Act of 1999.
The notice requires close monitoring by the department. A failure to show continued improvement in the next 12 months could result in a diagnosis of Best Value failure, leading to central government intervening in the authority.
The move has been taken as a result of concerns flagged up by the external auditor in a report published in July last year about the council’s governance.
The town hall’s cultural and governance failings were also investigated in a review published in September by CIPFA, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.
As well as following through with their action plan, the leadership is expected to improve relations between employees, mayor and councillors, which previous inspections found had hit an all-time low, seriously affecting the quality of work.
Parkinson and Independent Mayor Andy Preston made a joint formal statement in reply. They said,
“We fully acknowledge the seriousness of the Best Value Notice and are committed to demonstrating the progress the DLUHC rightly expect. Middlesbrough Council delivers hundreds of services that residents, business and visitors to the town rely on. Our staff do a brilliant job and they have our wholehearted backing and support.”
Andy Preston, Mayor
The role of full-time politician can not been easy for Mayor Preston. He returned to Middlesbrough after working in London’s finance sector. (The Financial Conduct Authority register shows that he was approved for work in various financial roles for seven years.) After the global financial crash of 2008, he turned to property investment in his home town. He started with his brother Chris on converting the long-derelict Kirby school into flats. His high-profile charity work meanwhile made him attractive to voters.
Preston’s new career meant a move from the dapper Georgian townhouse in Islington, to his new home in North Yorkshire – the exquisite Otterington Hall near Northallerton, 28 miles away from Middlesbrough Town Hall.
However he chose to use his father’s Middlesbrough address when he stood for mayor in 2015, only narrowly losing to Labour.
Preston’s relationship with Middlesbrough’s councillors since his 2019 election win has not thrived. The Independents, ruling mostly in two separate groups, hold the power, despite a lack of coherent policies.
In May 2021, his deputy and four leading Independent councillors quit their Cabinet positions, claiming in an open letter that they could no longer work for him and blaming his behaviour as the cause.
The next mayoral election is in May and waiting in the wings is the Labour mayoral candidate Cllr Chris Cooke. In response to the Notice Cllr Cooke issued his own statement:
“The government have served our council with a final warning. Middlesbrough Council is in meltdown and Andy Preston is 100% responsible. The buck stops with him.”
“For the good of the council and the town he should resign.”
” … Andy Preston broke Middlesbrough Council, he can’t be the one to fix it. …We can’t afford four more years of permanent crisis.”