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Report into Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council highlights monitoring officer also being its sole qualified childcare lawyer as example of risk of ‘all hands to the pumps’ approach

A rapid assessment carried out by the Improvement and Assurance Board set up at Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council has highlighted a situation where the authority’s monitoring officer is also its sole qualified childcare lawyer and has additional responsibilities as an example of why it has significant concerns about the ability of the council to deal with ongoing practical issues.

The rapid assessment, commissioned by Wales’ Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James, said the lawyer provides advice, runs cases and conducts advocacy on behalf of social services. She is also responsible for HR, Legal and a range of other services.

“This ‘all hands to the pumps’ approach can only be sustained short term and inevitably means that the council is precariously reliant on goodwill,” the rapid assessment said.

“If problems emerge in services, whether through sickness absence or personal issues, filling the gaps becomes intensely difficult and a major corporate risk.”

These observations in the rapid assessment – commissioned to look at the skills and capabilities required to provide short-term and targeted governance, corporate and service support at Merthyr Tydfil – came in a section of the report on how transformation projects could only go so far and how the fragility of the council’s situation was real.

Merthyr has seen an overspend in children’s services caused by a spike in looked after children cases. The council has “invested huge efforts into tackling this”, the report noted. A projected overspend of £779,000 in July 2019 has been reduced to a net deficit budget outturn of £85,000 projected for 2019/20.

The Board said this was commendable, but added that it had “significant concerns about the ability of the council to deal with practical ongoing issues”.

Elsewhere in the report, the rapid assessment found that:

  • The council’s ambitions had been set in a deteriorating financial context where the council’s reality has been "retrenchment and downsizing".
  • The absence of a transformation agenda stemmed from a debilitating lack of capacity and resilience throughout the organisation.
  • The organisational culture at the council was one that showed willingness to change but was stymied by the lack of a hinterland to take this forward whilst simultaneously doing the “day job”.
  • The officer response had been praiseworthy. “It is essentially an approach where everyone pitches into a ‘firefighting’ management approach. By its very nature the emphasis is reactive and incremental. It is not surprising in this context that the council currently lacks a clear vision for Merthyr Tydfil.”
  • The impact on the council’s operating model was problematic. “The organisation functions by keeping its nostril above the waterline.”
  • There was a clear case for greater exploration of shared services and collaborative ventures in other areas particularly support functions of the council. Immediate discussions should commence with neighbouring authorities.

The rapid assessment concluded that the council needed to be closely monitored, including in relation to its political culture. It said that across the council there were political “hotspots” and “dramas” associated with a variety of issues.

“Much of this plays out on social media sites especially Facebook. The team fully accepts that this is part of the cut and thrust of local politics. Democratic debate must be robust and rigorous,” it said.

“But in the case of Merthyr Tydfil this can consume enormous organisational energy often at the expense of more important matters. With the debilitating lack of capacity highlighted in this report the council can ill afford to be subsumed by this. Senior officers are all too often being asked to play the role of ‘referees’ as opposed to professional advisors.”

This must be addressed with a clearly signalled shift in thinking from antagonistic to strategic, the rapid assessment said. “It is vital that this occurs otherwise the governance of the council will subject to ongoing concern from regulatory bodies like the WAO [Wales Audit Office].”

The Welsh Government has been providing an ongoing statutory support package, provided under section 28 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2009, to the local authority following an independent assessment of the council’s key challenges undertaken by John Gilbert during late summer 2019.

Following the rapid assessment the Minister has agreed to provide Merthyr Tydfil with external advisers in the following areas:

  • Education and Social Services.
  • Corporate Governance: an external adviser will be appointed to assist with developing “a fit for purpose and meaningful transformation and improvement agenda, as well as an effective performance management and scrutiny system”.
  • Leader, Cabinet and Member Development.

An adviser has also been appointed to provide support for political leadership and relations.

In a written ministerial statement, Julie James said: “Running alongside this, a longer-term programme of support will also be developed, in conjunction with the WLGA, in relation to wider member development, chairing skills and scrutiny training.”

All external advisers will be appointed on a short-term basis only (for a period of three to six months maximum) “to help the council address its immediate and longer-term challenges”.  

James said that in addition, the Improvement and Assurance Board would continue to monitor progress and seek assurance from the council that it has a robust improvement plan in place and is delivering at pace.

She added: “There needs to be widespread commitment from all members and officers to achieve a sustainable future for the council and to deliver good quality services to the people of Merthyr Tydfil.”

The Minister said she would be looking for a view from the Board on the whole council’s progress at the end of May.