The government has threatened to intervene in Middlesbrough Council if it does not sort out its damning governance issues.
A letter addressed to the council’s chief executive Tony Parkinson has stated ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) have concerns about the local authority. It adds that the Secretary of State Michael Gove will consider powers to inspect or intervene in the council if there is a failure to improve.
The Best Value Notice – which is a notification that informs councils they are not meeting expectations – is in place for 12 months and improvements are expected at a significant pace.
In July 2022, an explosive report by financial firm EY’s auditors revealed a pervasive lack of trust between councillors and amongst staff and politicians. It also found the appointment of Dave Allan as Mayor Andy Preston’s advisor, and the £32,000 payments to his PR company, which were signed off by Mr Parkinson, were unlawful.
At the time, Mr Parkinson said there was “deep-seated” political dysfunctionality and Mr Preston said the culture was toxic with too many “selfish and lazy” councillors.
Three months later, a review carried out by professional accountancy body CIPFA heard that council staff, who reported being bullied and intimidated, were embarrassed by politicians’ behaviour.
It also highlighted that a clash of cultures led to a difficult relationship between Mr Preston and Mr Parkinson, there was mistrust and dysfunction between council staff and politicians and adversarial language was used by officers and elected members.
Since then, an improvement board has been set up and councillors have also been involved in working groups to tackle key issues raised by the reviews last year. An informal meeting space for politicians has been introduced, culture workshops have been held and a member/officer engagement plan has been developed.
The Government letter to Mr Parkinson states: “The Department expects authorities to identify and implement arrangements to secure continuous improvement and acknowledges the steps you have taken to identify the serious issues at Middlesbrough and the action plan that you have put in place to address these. However, ministers remain concerned as to Middlesbrough’s capacity to comply with its Best Value Duty.”
DLUHC has ordered the council to continue its efforts to deliver the commitments it set out in its action plan at pace while clearly defining how success will be measured. It also wants to see continued efforts to implement cultural change, particularly between council officers and politicians.
The notice could be extended after the initial 12-month period if necessary, or withdrawn or escalated at any point.
In a joint statement, Mr Parkinson and Mr Preston said: “We remain committed to our Governance Improvement programme and are fully engaged with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA) on this work.
“We’ve already taken steps to address these issues and put in place an action plan, and we’re pleased that the DLUHC has acknowledged the progress we’ve made so far.
“We fully acknowledge the seriousness of the Best Value Notice and are committed to demonstrating the progress the DLUHC rightly expect. Middlesbrough Council delivers hundreds of services that residents, business and visitors to the town rely on. Our staff do a brilliant job and they have our wholehearted backing and support.
“Alongside our everyday activities, our dedication to ensuring positive cultural and governance changes will continue.”