When he became director of finance and resources at Croydon LBC nine months ago, Nathan Elvery took on one of the biggest challenges in local government.
With zero reserves, a severely overspent budget and a question mark over its 'good' comprehensive performance assessment rating, Croydon was achieving the kind of notoriety that turns recruitment into a nightmare and does little for the morale of those already employed.
So has Mr Elvery, who was brought in last summer from Westminster City Council to turn round Croydon's finances, achieved what he set out to do?
'No, I haven't, is the honest answer,' he says. 'The financial challenges are still there. We still don't have balances, we still have budget problems to face up to. Things have got better, but there is still a lot to do.'
He describes his approach as 'one step forward and no steps back', the priority being to ensure the council avoids repeating past mistakes. 'We must never forget where we've been because we don't want to go back there again,' he says.
On the plus side, Croydon has hung onto its 'good' rating, and is now appealing for an upgrade to 'excellent'. And, where it had been dipping consistently into its reserves, general fund balances now stand at£1m.
That is considerably less than the£2m-£3m targeted by Mr Elvery at the start of his tenure. However, Mr Elvery says it is a significant increase, given the council's in-year savings targets and the loss of asylum-seeker grant support from the Home Office (LGC, 28 January).
'The council is on course to be within budget for 2004-05, the first time in five years,' he says. 'Our£37m savings target has been achieved through some tough decision making, curtailing non-strategic growth and additional measures, such as a slow down on recruitment.'
The pension fund funding level now stands at 62%, he says - no worse that many other funds across the country, all of which have been hit by the downturn in equities and increasing liabilities.
'During the last nine months, I have reviewed the portfolio and changes are being made to balance the level of risk and return,' he adds.
Croydon has also planned for a phased increase in the fund's employers' contributions over the next five years.
One of Mr Elvery's main triumphs has been the transformation of the benefits service, which was taken in-house last April. Since then, the time taken to assess new claims has improved by 37% and the time taken to deal with change of circumstances claims has improved 57%. There has also been a 25% improvement in the recovery of benefit overpayments.
Less successful has been the council's drive to increase its council tax collection rate, which has slipped fractionally to 93%. 'I have now implemented a much more vigilant approach to outstanding debt. Collection rates are already above the 94.5% target for 2005-06,' he says.
Mr Elvery is also overseeing a recruitment drive within his department. 'We are appointing 35 posts in the central finance team over next three months, which shows how under-resourced it was,' he says.
The recruits will join an organisation gradually feeling its way to financial health. Mr Elvery will be hoping the recovery is both swift and sustainable.
Nathan Elvery's to do list...
>> Complete recruitment of 35 new finance staff
>> Improve council tax collection rate from 93%
>> Strengthen reserves and balances
>> Increase visibility with the team and get out of the office
>> Establish localised centre of excellence for procurement
>> Successful outcome for use of resources assessment
>> Move to three-year budgeting
>> Deal with changes, including revaluation and Lyons inquiry.
>> Most importantly - keep in touch with my people. Oh - and have a holiday