Minister calls in Walsall leaders after critical Audit Commission report

Leaders of Walsall Council were summoned by
local government minister Nick Raynsford last week to explain how
they will address “deep-seated failings”, following a damning Audit
Commission report.

The findings of the corporate governance
inspection reveal that there are significant weaknesses across the
council. It is plagued by financial problems, poor service
delivery, lacks political leadership, has poor internal and
external communications, and there are instances of unacceptable
conduct on the part of councillors, says the report.

“Walsall Council has failed local people. The
council has considerable political and financial problems resulting
in poorly run services and wasted taxpayers’ money,” said Audit
Commission controller Sir Andrew Foster. “Although the commission
repeatedly highlighted these problems during the inspection process
and in earlier audit reports, we do not believe the council fully
accepts the gravity of the situation.”

The commission has set up a supervisory board
to help the council, comprising local government, finance and legal
experts – the first time such an approach has been used to deal
with a failing council.

The board will monitor the council’s
implementation of an improvement strategy, and could at any time
advise the commission to refer the council for statutory
intervention by the government.

The main concerns raised by the report
included the council’s poor financial management, which goes from
one short-term crisis to another. Over-spending is uncontrolled
with unrealistic budgets set too late and serious inaccuracies in
the figures, says the report.

In addition, management and political roles
are not sufficiently defined and relationships between the two are
not properly managed; the council is weak at developing
partnerships; and although there are pockets of good practice in
service delivery, this practice was rarely extended across the

It also understood that the council is
currently considering a draft of a highly critical Audit Commission
report into its social services department which says the
department kept back the full extent of its financial deficit from
the council.

Meanwhile, local government secretary Stephen
Byers is expected to announce £25m funding to bail out Hackney
Council, East London, so that it can meet the terms of a revised
budget agreed last year, following statutory directions issued
under government intervention powers.

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