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COUNCIL COMMITTED TO A RAPID RECOVERY PROGRAME - WALSALL RESPONDS TO AUDIT COMMISSION

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Walsall MBC today outlined a significant recovery programme, which is already under way following criticisms levell...
Walsall MBC today outlined a significant recovery programme, which is already under way following criticisms levelled at it by the Audit Commission.

Councillors and management were this afternoon briefed on the findingsof the corporate governance inspection and the work already in place to address its severe criticisms.

The joint administration of the council said it would be pleased to meet government ministers to discuss the report's findings and to stress that work was already under way to make rapid improvements.

Walsall MBC leader Tom Ansell said: 'Of course we are taking this very seriously and accept the gravity of the situation. We would like the government to recognise the progress we have already made over the past few months.

'In terms of failing Walsall people our last survey of customer satisfaction revealed that 53 per cent of our customers were very or fairly satisfied with the way the council runs things, a figure which is higher than the national average.

'We are not using these figures to dismiss the report, however they are an indication that the Council does want the best for its local people.'

Mel Usher, executive director of the IdeA, which is working alongside the council, said: 'We were pleased that Walsall MBC turned to the IdeA's recently launched performance service. We believe there is now a real commitment to change and we have seen definite signs of progress during recent months.'

The authority says it is prepared to listen to tough assessment and undertake a rapid recovery programme, accept monitoring by the supervisory board and interest at ministerial level.

Mr Ansell said: 'We are taking action on all of the commission's recommendations and can demonstrate progress in each area.'

He said that action had been taken to improve relationships between officers and members. Respective roles had been clarified already leading to an improvement in the culture of the council, with more work to be undertaken. (mfls)

Liberal Democrat group leader Ian Shires said: 'This inspection has been a catalyst, which has concentrated minds. I am confident that the progress we have already made is tangible and we want the supervisory board to recognise that.

'I believe that this is a watershed, and the council will need to take this opportunity to make considerable improvements.'

Finance director Joanne Tyzzer said improvements had been made to the budget and that the financial forecast for 2002/03 is healthy.

In response to criticisms of the use of capital funds for revenue purposes she said that this was done on a planned basis to ensure that essential services were maintained: for example, it made sure that spending on roads, which has also been criticised, was maintained.

The Audit Commission has not recognised that in the same period the council also won bids for more than£100m for new capital investment such as on schools and community projects.

She said: 'We have worked on budgets for next year (2002/3) and we are confident that they will meet with approval from the supervisory board and members.

'For this financial year spending is within our budgets set in March 2001 and we have kept a working balance which is one of the key recommendations of the Audit Commission.'

Walsall MBC chief executive Hardial Bhogal said: 'Walsall is making fast and comprehensive progress in responding to issues raised by the inspection. Substantial changes to Walsall will be achieved by March 31 this year.

'Managers and employees are working really hard to turn around outdated views of how we operate and what we do, and we are being supported in that work by elected members, however this report cannot have other than a demoralising effect on staff.'

Examples of progress included:

* Restructuring of environment teams to tackle report findings.

* A Strategic Executive Team (SET) has been established to address performance management criticisms and a performance management procedure has been introduced and more than 200 managers trained in it.

* At senior level it has been agreed that a grading review of general managers is linked to performance and two new posts have been established to support performance management.

* The council has also already engaged the services of the Improvement Development Agency to assist it modernise working arrangements between councillors and officers.

* The authority will soon be interviewing for a head of public relations and an internal newsletter is now regularly produced and a press monitoring service had been established.

* There are monthly general managers meetings, weekly SET meetings and weekly meetings between the chief executive and members.

* The council is also pushing major PFI flagship projects like street lighting where every borough street light will be replaced or repaired, large scale voluntary transfer of housing has received a positive ballot, and new schools for St Thomas More, and the Bloxwich area.

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