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Commissioners report ‘considerable progress’ at Sandwell Council

The government last week (Thursday 16 March) published a report by the Commissioners appointed to support Sandwell Council. Having met the Commissioners at a Sandwell Business Ambassadors meeting in September, we wanted to share the findings.

In March 2022, the Secretary of State appointed Kim Bromley-Derry CBE DL and Jim Taylor as Commissioners to Sandwell Council. They were to work collaboratively with the council to deliver improvements.

With the reasons for their appointments bringing bad press for Sandwell, it was good to hear how openly both Commissioners talked about the process – and indeed to hear that Sandwell Council was moving in the right direction.

Now we have more information about this progress, as the Commissioners submitted their second report to the Secretary of State in December. Lee Rowley MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, has published his formal response.

This second report gives a formal update on progress nine months into the period of intervention.

‘Considerable progress’

The Commissioners’ report details considerable progress being made at Sandwell Council. The report states: “In summary, we are of the view that there has been significant hard work and considerable progress made at the council in the past six months.”

The report praises the council for requesting follow-up visits from auditors. It notes: “this is no longer a council shying away from scrutiny or unprepared to listen and learn but a council demonstrating self-awareness and a maturity that was previously absent”.

The appointment of Shokat Lal, Sandwell Council’s new permanent Chief Executive, one of the statutory requirements in the government’s improvement notice, has been seen as an excellent and positive appointment. The appointment of a permanent chief executive now means Kim Bromley Derry has become Lead Commissioner at Sandwell with responsibilities for the day-to-day running of the council passing to Shokat.

Positive, collaborative work

The work the council has undertaken to help residents during the cost of living crisis was mentioned throughout the report. It noted the positive, collaborative work the council and the cabinet have undertaken to support Sandwell residents.

Sandwell Council’s financial resilience was commended despite the backdrop of significant pressures all local authorities are facing.

Since the Commissioners’ report was submitted, external auditors CIPFA reviewed Sandwell’s progress in the way it manages its finances. Sandwell’s rating has been upgraded from two to three stars out of a possible five. This has been acknowledged in an addendum to the report submitted by Commissioners in January 2023.

In his letter in response to the Commissioners’ second report, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Local Government and Building Safety Lee Rowley MP, said:

“I recognise the progress since June and that the Council is now better placed to tackle the complex, long-term challenges it still faces. However, the progress against your proxies for success confirm that there remains a lot to be done in Sandwell.

“I note your priorities for the coming months include much needed work on the customer journey and culture within the Council, and that your assessment tallies with that of the follow-up reviews by Grant Thornton, the Local Government Association and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy.”

Transparency and reasoning

During the Commissioners’ reporting period of June to December 2022, the council was faced with difficult decisions including the decision to develop the site at Brandhall for housing and a school – a decision for which the call-in process has seen the decision reaffirmed. There has also been the SEND transport contract, Sandwell land and property and the Sandwell Leisure Trust contract. Commissioners report that these decisions were “based on clear evidence and with a transparency and reasoning which was previously lacking”.

Sandwell Council has implemented an improvement plan which details actions that are needed to make services better. Progress is tightly monitored and reported on regularly with areas of weakness highlighted to ensure efforts are concentrated correctly. The latest progress update was presented to Sandwell’s Cabinet on Wednesday 15 March by Councillor Kerrie Carmichael, Leader of Sandwell Council.

‘We are not shying away from the hard work’

On receipt of the Commissioners’ report and Lee Rowley MP’s response, Councillor Carmichael said:

“The latest report and the comments from the minister recognise the significant progress we have made.

“I have been delighted to welcome Shokat to Sandwell as our permanent Chief Executive and look forward to working with him.

“It’s really encouraging to see our progress in financial management from a progressive two-star authority to a three-star authority in such a short space of time.

“We are not shying away from the hard work and difficult decisions that lie ahead. We will continue to improve the way we work and ensure these changes are embedded and sustainable.

“I want to thank our council officers for everything they are doing. We know this is hard work, and I know I speak for all of Cabinet when I say that we are completely committed to building on the improvements we have already seen.”

While significant progress has been noted by Sandwell Council, there is acknowledgement that there is still more to be done with the focus in the coming months including improvements to the customer service that is delivered to residents.

Kim Bromley-Derry CBE DL, concluded: “There is still a lot of challenging work to be done but we consider the council is on the right path to the sustainable improvements needed.”

The commissioners will submit their next report to government in June 2023.

All documents relating to this report can be found at www.sandwell.gov.uk/commissioners: just select ‘Commissioners’ publications’.

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