Wirral Council is set to back out of plans to create a new bank, draw up new financial plans and transform the way it does elections after a recent report slated the local authority.
At the start of this month, Wirral Council was told to consider closing libraries, leisure centres and golf clubs, as well as selling Wallasey and Birkenhead Town Halls after a damning government inspection revealed the struggling authority is close to financial crisis.
Two reports, one on finance carried out by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA), and another by Ada Burns on governance, made for grim reading.
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The reports include strong criticism of elected councillors and officers, stating that the 'prevailing culture' at the council prior to the pandemic had been to avoid difficult financial decisions, meaning the council's emergency reserves had been dramatically reduced in recent years.
The inspections came after Wirral Council requested exceptional financial support of more than £10m from the government in order to try and balance its budget.
It has now reduced this request to £7.2m after it received more government support to help deal with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic, but the situation remains incredibly serious for the local authority.
Tonight, the council’s most important cross-party committee, Policy and Resources, met to discuss how the authority should respond to the report.
All members, apart from the leader of the Lib Dem group, Cllr Phil Gilchrist, agreed on a set of responses which included drawing up new financial plans to help the council balance its books, reducing the number of election periods and halting plans to put £5m into a community bank.
This agenda would mean the council adjusting future budgets to boost its reserves, something which would leave less money for services such as leisure centres.
It also means the council will move from a model where a third of councillors stand for election in three out of every four years, to a system where every seat is up for election once every four years in a so-called ‘all out’ model.
It is thought that this will mean political parties are not distracted from the important business of fixing the council’s finances by always having an election around the corner.
Another key move made tonight was the decision to suspend the council’s £5m support for a community bank, something it was set to support along with Liverpool Council and Preston Council.
Backers of the scheme said it would help the poorest to access bank accounts and help small, local businesses who could not secure support elsewhere to grow.
But Wirral’s support for the scheme will not continue, something council leader Janette Williamson admitted she personally disagreed with, but suggested she was prepared to accept given the council’s financial position.
Cllr Gilchrist, the Lib Dem group leader, said the situation was the worst he had seen in more than 40 years on the council.
But he chose not to back the council’s plans, as he felt the public would not be involved enough in decisions going forward given the increased powers set to be given to council officers and said the council was in the position where services are closing “by stealth” and with little consultation.
The Labour leader of the council, Janette Williamson, said she was really disappointed.
She thought the Lib Dem leader had performed a “cheap stunt” by opposing the plans and thought he had fallen foul of the sort of electioneering which had been criticised in Ada Burns’ report.
His Tory colleague Cllr Helen Cameron said facilities were not closing by stealth and sarcastically asked Cllr Gilchrist if he could send her any details of this happening if he had any.
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Green councillor Pat Cleary said that while he disagreed with some of the recommendations he wanted to back officers who he said had earned his trust at this stage in the process.
The committee also discussed a move to holding elections just once every four years.
The Conservatives wanted the ‘all out’ elections to take place in 2022, but its motion was defeated by Labour’s plan to put all of Wirral’s 66 councillors up for election in 2023.