Hackney faces first use of intervention powers

Five government departments have issued draft directions to
Hackney Council requiring service improvements in social services, education,
waste management, and housing benefits, as well as a “tough” financial strategy
to balance the council’s budget, writes Jonathan Pearce.

The action represents the first ever use by the government
of intervention powers under the Local Government Act 1999. Hackney has 14 days
to make representations to the government on the draft directions.

Hackney’s leader councillor Jules Pipe said
changes had taken place and progress had been made. He added: “The draft
directions reflect the discussions we have been having with government and
incorporate many of our suggestions for moving forward.”

The directions – intended to “safeguard
frontline services” and “tackle a legacy of financial mismanagement” – include:
production of a strategy to balance the council’s budget and an action plan for
a new system of financial management; key staff recruitment and addressing
skills gaps in procurement and contract management; development of Best Value
reviews for older people’s services and mental health services; and rebuilding
its failed housing and council tax benefits service.

“The government is simply not prepared to let
the present situation continue,” said transport, local government and the
regions secretary Stephen Byers. “It is now for Hackney’s elected members and
senior staff to ensure that people in Hackney see very big changes. It will
involve tough decisions to tackle the years of failure and it will be painful,
but the government is clear it must happen. Hackney Council cannot be allowed
to fail its people again.”

Pipe said the directions were “achievable with
appropriate support in terms of both filling key management positions and
providing financial support to enable us to protect services while we bring the
finances back into balance”.

But Byers indicated the return to financial
stability would be “without the help of government resources”.

In June Byers had said he was “minded” to use
his intervention powers subject to advice from the Audit Commission. In July a
report by the commission found the council was “still living beyond its means”
and recommended government intervention.  

These new draft directions have been issued by
the following government departments: Transport, Local Government and the
Regions; Health; Work and Pensions; Education and Skills; and Environment, Food
and Rural Affairs.

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