A failing local authority faces government intervention to tackle its "deep-seated culture" of poor governance, bullying, political in-fighting and incompetence. A withering report by the local government spending watchdog, the Audit Commission, described Doncaster Council in South Yorkshire as "dysfunctional" and called for direct intervention to address the problems.
The report was ordered after a series of crises at the authority, including the shocking case of two brothers who were in the council's care when they tortured two young boys in the village of Edlington last year.
John Denham, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, said he may appoint external commissioners to end the "corporate paralysis" gripping the council. He said Whitehall officials would meet this week to discuss what measures to implement. "I take very seriously the failure of Doncaster local authority – the mayor, cabinet, chief officers and councillors – to serve the people of Doncaster well," he added. "There should be no doubt that I am actively considering appointing commissioners to take over some or all of the functions of the council."
The Audit Commission's damning verdict was described by its chairman, Michael O'Higgins, as the worst in the history of its investigations.
Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council has featured regularly on lists of Britain's worst-performing local authorities since the mid-1990s, when it was shaken by a corruption scandal that saw 21 councillors convicted of fraud. The so-called "Donnygate" case ended the Labour Party's political hegemony in the town.
The authority, whose children's services department is already the subject of Government intervention following the Edlington case and the deaths of seven children in care since 2004, was found by the Audit Commissionto to have failed in each of six areas of assessment, with no prospect of matters improving within a year without external help.
Inspectors saidDoncaster's elected English Democrat mayor, Peter Davies, the cabinet, senior officers and some councillors were not capable of making improvements.
Describing the "dysfunctional politics" of the council, the report said "the desire to pursue long-standing political antagonisms" was being given priority over much-needed improvements to public services. It concluded: "The people of Doncaster are not served well by their council."
The Audit Commission said that despite a succession of increasingly damning assessments over the past 15 years, the council had been successful in "deflecting" all attempts to address problems in areas ranging from education and housing to healthcare and development. Although the Edlington case further undermined confidence in children's services, it added, this was part of a more deep-rooted culture which had failed young people.
Mr O'Higgins said: "This is the worst report we have produced on council failings in the history of producing these reports. Doncaster needs improvement – that is why we have reported to the Communities Secretary and advised him he should use his powers to intervene in the council."
The report accused "influential" councillors for putting their antagonism towards Mr Davies and the system of elected mayors above the needs of Doncaster's people. Some councillors bullied or harassed officers who gave advice they did not like, making such comments as "we have long memories" and "we will get you", the commission said.
Doncaster adopted an elected mayoral system following a referendum in 2001, and Mr Davies was elected in June 2009. There are no other English Democrats on the council, which has 26 Labour councillors, 12 Liberal Democrats, nine Conservatives and 12 independent councillors. The Audit Commission criticised Mr Davies for failing to show leadership and making comments that some residents might perceive as "legitimising their racist and homophobic behaviour".
Despite taking a self-imposed cut of £43,000 in his mayoral salary, Mr Davies has been attacked over a series of pronouncements, including plans to withdraw funding for translation services and the town's gay pride festival. He has also praised the Taliban for having an "ordered society".
Tim Leader, the council's acting chief executive, who had clashed publicly with Mr Davies and whose behaviour was also criticised by the Audit Commission, resigned three weeks ago.
Mr Davies said: "Doncaster has been broken for over 15 years and, despite many good aspects to the town, it has lurched from problem to problem.
"I have only been here for 10 months and what I want is a line to be drawn in the sand, for everyone in Doncaster to accept broadly the findings of this report, even if there are points of detail we may all disagree with."
*Westminster City Council
The "homes for votes" scandal had its roots in the Building Stable Communities policy instituted in the 1980s by Westminster's ruling Conservative group. It had the effect of selling council housing to potential Tory voters and excluding likely Labour supporters from marginal wards. Dame Shirley Porter, the council leader, was found to have conducted "disgraceful and improper gerrymandering" by an investigation and ordered to pay £27m. She eventually settled the case by paying £12m.
*Rotherham Borough Council
Garvin Reed, the deputy leader of the South Yorkshire local authority, was jailed for three years in 2002 for a £172,000 fraud in which he used his position with a local government charity to fund lavish hotels and pay for prostitutes. Reed used his role with the National Local Government Forum Against Poverty to set up meetings to coincide with football matches and race meetings.
The architect became a byword for municipal corruption in the 1960s and 1970s when he bribed officials and councillors to obtain local authority building contracts. One of his longest-standing contacts was T Dan Smith, the leader of Newcastle City Council, who received more than £150,000 in kickbacks for smoothing the passage of redevelopment schemes. Smith was jailed for six years in 1974.