An improvement board set up to help Merthyr Tydfil council could be done ‘by next year’.
Steve Thomas who chairs the improvement and assurance board set up by Welsh Government to help Merthyr Tydfil Council deal with several challenges.
At the full council meeting on July 14, members of the improvement board updated councillors on the progress that had been made since they first arrived and Mr Thomas said that he would be shocked if the board was still there this time next year or long after Christmas if progress continues but the decision will be ultimately for Welsh Government.
Wales Audit Office had raised significant issues around finance, leadership, and governance at the council which prompted the authority to ask for support from the Welsh Government.
The Welsh Government minister appointed an improvement and assurance board in 2019 made up of independent external members including former Mr Thomas a former Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) chair, Christine Salter the former corporate director of resources, Section 151 and returning officer at Cardiff Council, Chris Burns the former interim chief executive at Caerphilly Council and former assistant chief executive at Carmarthenshire Council and Tony Garthwaite the former director of social services at Bridgend Council.
External advisers were also appointed in areas such as education, social services, corporate governance and leader, cabinet and member development.
The board told a meeting of the full council the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats facing the council.
Strengths included its new leadership, the response to the pandemic, the recovery, transformation and improvement plan, two years of reasonable financial settlements, the economic recovery board and the performance of cleaning, green and safety services despite budget cuts.
Some of the weaknesses included further changes needed to the management structure, a budget approach dominated by “short termism”, capacity issues in staffing, variable performance of scrutiny, huge challenges in education post pandemic to improve outcomes and improve Merthyr’s position at national level and the HR function not fulfilling the needs of the council.
Councillor Andrew Barry, cabinet member for corporate services at the council, said he was worried about how long the board would remain.
“It does worry me because this is a sovereign and democratically elected authority and it does worry me when you talk almost as though it has been taken over by Welsh Government. We haven’t been taken over by Welsh Government. This is a voluntary arrangement.”
Mr Thomas said: “We stressed from the outset that this is not an intervention. This was an extraordinary approach by Welsh Government and I pay tribute to Welsh Government because they have invested a lot of money into the authority in terms of support.”
“We want to get out as quickly as we possibly can and I will give you an assurance on that point that we will get out when the time is appropriate. There is no Welsh Government takeover. This is about us working jointly with yourselves as a council to sustain the improvement that we have all worked on.”
The response from councillors to the board’s work
Councillor Julian Amos said the council is now in a “far far better place as an authority” since the board came in and that it “isn’t a coincidence. “Before you (the board) came in we were in a bad place and now we are not. Things have come on leaps and bounds.”
Councillor Tanya Skinner praised the leadership of Councillor Lisa Mytton saying her approach and ability to foster professional and effective relationships was “exactly what was needed.”
Councillor Lisa Mytton, leader of the council, said: “There’s much to be singing our praises about. There’s many challenges still ahead for us we’re not naïve in that at all.”
She said they are going to have challenges with some of their toughest areas like social services and education and the impact of Covid-19. She said the challenge from the board has been welcomed because “it has really made us sit up, listen and make some invaluable changes as well.”
She said: “It’s often said that Merthyr Tydfil is an area of deprivation, we’re a deprived local authority. I don’t want to use those words any more. Merthyr Tydfil County Borough is a place of opportunity and we can see that can’t we?”
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