People 'need to see change on the ground' after 'remarkable progress'

House of Fraser being demolished in Birkenhead to make way for potential future development
A demolished House of Fraser in Birkenhead to make way for potential future development -Credit:Liverpool Echo

People need to see "significant change on the ground” in Wirral, according to a watchdog panel that is to step down.

An independent panel set up by the government has issued its final letter, two years after the local authority was slammed by a critical report into its decision making and finances. The intervention was commissioned following the request for £12.4m of emergency government funding to balance Wirral Council's budget.

Since then, the panel has given the council advice every year, praising progress it sees as having been made. The panel had already indicated it planned to step down and in the letter, Carolyn Downs, the panel's chair, said the council was "much improved" and “now functions positively” though its budget situation “remains very challenging.”

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Ms Downs praised a number of changes that have taken place within the council. She referenced the fact the local authority has not had to use backup funds, known as general reserves, which are currently at a low level. However concerns were raised about more specific reserves which may not be able to cover overspending in the future.

She said long term council plans are now better connected. However the letter did note these were draft policies presented to the panel and had not been revised following issues raised by councillors at a meeting in March.

On regeneration, Ms Downs said: “Delivery to date has been too slow and only in the past six months have resources been mapped to prioritised schemes to speed up delivery,” adding: “It is essential that confidence and pace in the delivery of the programme is increased.”

She said parties working together was a good sign but urged the council to recruit a new director of regeneration as soon as possible. The council has appointed Marc Cole in an interim position following the departure of the previous director David Hughes this month.

She said the local authority “does need to continue to actively manage and deliver its regeneration programme which is very large in ambition. The people of Wirral need to see and recognise significant change on the ground that also represents good value for money.”

Reacting to the letter, Wirral Council’s chief executive Paul Satoor said: "Wirral Council has come a long way in a relatively short period of time. This has been done by acknowledging the council needed to change and then working closely together for the benefit of the people of this borough," adding: "It is good to see the Panel has confidence that Wirral has made such strides and continues to move in the right direction.”

The panel praised the current political leadership since 2023 and work between political parties, adding council reports were “clear, concise, and informative” leading to “speedier decision making” with greater trust in officers by councillors.

Wirral Council's Labour leader Cllr Paul Stuart said: "This report exemplifies the remarkable progress and dedication that has reshaped our council, showcasing the collective efforts of elected members and local authority staff, especially over the last 12 months.

"Our relentless focus is on positioning the council optimally to serve the community of Wirral," adding: "While acknowledging the ongoing journey of improvement, we stand firm in our ability to enhance services for the borough's residents now and in the future."

Conservative opposition leader Jeff Green said: "Today’s news means that the Council is no longer the basket case it had become under previous administrations. We have avoided the bankruptcy we have seen in Birmingham or the scandals in Liverpool.

“However, while Wirral Council is no longer in ‘special measures’, we have still some way to go to stop the bonkers stuff and tackle the issues that affect people in all parts of our Borough," adding: "By working together on those issues of mutual concern, the two largest parties can start to get results, as we have seen with Hoylake beach.”

However not every party feels the same. The leader of Wirral’s Green Party Cllr Pat Cleary said: "Despite the warm words about “improved cross party working” the reality is that Wirral operates a Labour/Tory coalition which is prepared to push through decisions that unnecessarily damage our communities." He pointed to the closure of the Europa Fun Pool and Bromborough Civic Centre, Birkenhead Market's controversial move to Argos, and a recent decision on Hoylake beach.

He said: “The panel correctly highlights the risks around the council’s regeneration programme. The recent fiasco of Labour and Tory councillors undermining the future of Birkenhead Market in the face of widespread opposition calls into question the council’s commitment to the ambition outlined in the Birkenhead 2040 Framework. An urgent reset is required so the public and private sector can regain confidence that Wirral Council is serious about regeneration and successfully implementing its brownfield only Local Plan.

“The panel may be saying goodbye but the failure of Labour and the Tories to put Wirral’s people and its environment front and centre of its decision making mean the public remains rightly sceptical that the council has really changed.”

Liberal Democrat leader Cllr Phil Gilchrist said the council was "not out of the woods by any means" but there was greater work happening between parties, adding: "We will carry on our work to get the basics right. That's what our taxpayers deserve."

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