Nottingham City Council's improvement 'encouraging' but 'much still needs to be done'

By Joseph Locker

The man appointed by the Government to oversee the improvement of Nottingham City Council says he is encouraged by the progress so far but emphasised it still has a lot to do in very little time.

Sir Tony Redmond, a former local government ombudsman and former chief executive of the London Borough of Harrow, was appointed as the chairman of the Improvement and Assurance Board to oversee the council's improvement following the demise of Robin Hood Energy.

It is estimated the collapse of its energy company cost the tax payer roughly £38m.

The council now has three years to improve its financial stability and improve a number of aspects within its operations, culture and constitution.

Sir Redmond reports back to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, who is also the MP for Newark, on a quarterly basis.

If progress stalls the Government may be forced to take control of various elements of the council, including its spending.

An overview and scrutiny committee meeting was held at Loxley House on Wednesday, September 8, where the council heard from Sir Redmond and his views on the council's progress.

The meeting after a Centre for Governance and Scrutiny assessment - the latest in a long list of reviews into the council - discovered the way its committees held the authority to account was not sufficient.

The report was conducted in June and its key findings say: "Scrutiny itself is essentially disconnected from the extraordinary challenge that the council now faces and has largely been absent in its duty to challenge the activities,decisions and events which have led it to the point of crisis."

Scrutiny of the council's finances and budgets were "superficial", the assessment also found.

Sir Redmond outlined his role to scrutiny committee members and said areas of focus include financial resilience, the budget of financial planning and reserves, service planning and how services are constrained by resources.

He also said there will be a focus on whether robust governance arrangements are in place as well as a review of commercial and company activity alongside communication, consultation and engagement with the citizens and stakeholders of the city.

Castle Ward Councillor for Labour, Angharad Roberts kicked off the questions for Sir Redmond.

She said: "Are there any things where your perception has shifted? Do you see things in a slightly less good place than you anticipated or a better place than anticipated?"

Sir Redmond said: "The biggest challenge the council faces, and it is not an unreasonable challenge to be fair, is the ability to produce a lot of fundamental change in a relatively short space of time.

"We were commissioned to carry out this work in January and already we have realised the council is carrying out a review of its strategic council plan.

"But that needs to be related to a service plan, in other words, how does it actually relate to the services the council is going to deliver over the next three years and how they are going to be resourced? Much still needs to be done.

"That's an area the scrutiny committee could look at to see how these changes to the way you do things in Nottingham City Council are being effective in practice.

"The second area I think is around the constitution and again as a council you have produced a revised constitution. But within that is a very important question about decision making and to think about how decision making is undertaken by members and officers within the council and how individuals are held accountable.

"The final one is relating to the culture of the council."

Sir Redmond added such improvements prove a "very substantial challenge for you".

So far the council has devised a revised strategic plan, the draft of which set out last month, as well as a recovery and improvement plan following the collapse of Robin Hood Energy.

The council's constitution has also been rewritten, changing the way it makes decisions.

For example, the council's executive leaders, such as portfolio holders, could make a decision with a value of up to £1m.

Now they may only make a decision between the value of £150,000 to £749,999.

The Centre for Governance and Scrutiny assessment revealed "worryingly" most council committees did not have sufficient anticipation of the implications of corporate financial challenges and how that will affect services delivered to the people of Nottingham in the future.

Responding to this concern, Sir Redmond emphasised there "needs to be a very deep analysis in risk", including what sort of risk appetite the council has and what sort of tolerance it has to taking risks.

Councillor Georgia Power, who represents the Bestwood ward for Labour, questioned how the improvements on paper would best be put into practice.

Sir Redmond responded by saying there "needs to be clarity in what exactly each individual does".

He added: "Outcomes of the the work people do will be measured and they will be the best test as to whether the culture has changed.

"It starts with the staff in how they are supported, trained and guided to the actual delivery of the service and outcome provided."

Nottinghamshire Live spoke to Sir Redmond following the committee meeting.

He said the council's next big step is the production of a medium term financial plan.

This needs to be published towards end of the year and must explain the financing of its services for the next three years.

"A lot of the areas we wanted to see developed have been done and a lot of hard work has been done, there is no doubt about that, and we are very pleased to see that progress," he said.

"There is now quite a lot to do in a relatively short space of time and we are looking for quite a lot of quick progress in the next two to three months and that is important.

"If one looks back and reflects on where we started in January this year and awful lot has been done.

"At this point in time I can say I am encouraged by the establishment of a director of transformation and also the work that has already started.

"Lots of progress has been made but there is still more to come and the time-scales are challenging".

Asked if the council will achieve its targets he added: "I believe it is realistic at this point in time."


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