Government to intervene at 'dysfunctional' Doncaster council

Dave Higgens,Press Association
Monday 19 April 2010 14:45
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The Government will intervene in a local authority after a report identified a series of severe failings, Communities Secretary John Denham said today.

The Audit Commission report on Doncaster Council, in South Yorkshire, was ordered after a series of crises at the local 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.

The report found that the "failing" council would not improve without external help due to a number of problems, including "dysfunctional" politics and "long-standing political antagonisms" being given priority over improvements to services.

Speaking after the publication of the report, Mr Denham said: "I take very seriously the failure of Doncaster local authority - the mayor, cabinet, chief officers and councillors - to serve the people of Doncaster well.

"From the outset, I have made it clear that I would take whatever action was necessary to look after the best interests of local people. I can make it clear today that I will use my statutory powers to intervene.

"The Audit Commission's report on Doncaster Council shows the severity of the problems in the local authority across the board and concludes that the local authority is failing the people of Doncaster, not just on one service or issue but in the very way it operates. This is absolutely unacceptable."

He appointed Rob Whiteman, the new chief executive of the local government improvement organisation IDeA, to chair an emergency advisory board to provide, if urgent decisions are needed, leadership and clear support to the acting chief executive.

Mr Denham said he was now considering what form the intervention in the local authority should take and said meetings would be held this week to discuss the future of the council.

He said: "There should be no doubt that I am actively considering appointing commissioners to take over some or all of the functions of the council.

"I call on everyone at the local authority to accept the report's findings, acknowledge the severity of the failings, and work with Government and other partners to move on from this unacceptable state of corporate paralysis for the good of Doncaster."

Today's report found that the elected English Democrat mayor, Peter Davies, the cabinet, senior officers and some councillors were not capable of making improvements

It opened: "Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council is failing.

"The council is not properly run and as a result it is failing in its legal obligation to make arrangements to secure continuous improvement in the way in which it exercises its functions, having regard to a combination of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.

"Those leading the council - the mayor and cabinet, some councillors and some officers - do not collectively have the capacity or capability to make the necessary improvements in governance.

"The council will not improve without significant and sustained support from external bodies.

"This corporate governance inspection was undertaken because of repeated evidence, over more than 15 years, that the council is not well run."

The report said that Doncaster Council had a "troubled history of poor governance" and said the shadow of a corruption scandal which saw 21 councillors convicted of fraud in 2001, in an affair known as "Donnygate", still hung over the area.

People voted to adopt the elected mayoral system in a referendum in the same year and the current mayor, 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 report found that the people of Doncaster were "not well-served" by the council because "the desire to pursue long-standing political antagonisms is being given priority over much-needed improvements to services for the public".

It described the council's politics as "dysfunctional" and said "bullying and intimidating behaviour" needed to be eliminated.

The report found that issues surrounding poor working relationships between the council, the mayor and the cabinet and a lack of leadership shown by the mayor, the cabinet and some chief officers had led to failures to improve services.

It found that council officers had not acted as a team and found "antagonism" from councillors towards the mayor, whose behaviour it said had sometimes failed to meet required standards.

"Some influential councillors place their antagonism towards the mayor and mayoral system, and the achievements of their political objectives, above the needs of the people of Doncaster and their duty to lead the continuous improvement of services," the report said.

"The mayor does not always act in a way which demonstrates an understanding of the need for an elected mayor to lead his authority and represent all the people in Doncaster."

It continued: "Some (council officers) have become used to the dysfunctional politics of the council and no longer seek to maintain proper boundaries between the respective roles of officers and councillors."

Speaking after his appointment to the Improvement and Development Agency (Idea), Mr Whiteman said: "The residents of Doncaster quite rightly deserve assurance that every possible effort will be made to help the local council improve.

"It is absolutely vital that changes are put in place to the way the authority operates, services are safeguarded and local people start to receive a better deal."

John Ransford, chief executive of the Local Government Association Group, earlier described the report as "a brutally frank assessment of the huge difficulties that have beset Doncaster for many years".

He said: "The situation is not acceptable, things must improve, and we will play our full part in helping this happen.

"The LGA Group will work with the council, the Audit Commission and the Government to make sure that the people of Doncaster get a better deal.

"There are no quick-fixes or easy solutions but the LGA Group is determined to help set Doncaster on a course of improvement in the coming years."

Peter Davies, the Mayor of Doncaster, described the report as "broadly right" but said he did not agree with all of the detail.

He said: "Many of the problems at the council were embedded before I arrived and I see this as time to draw a line in the sand and move forward for the good of the council and the people we serve, and I am confident we can do this.

"The report speaks for itself. When I became Mayor I knew that there were shortcomings in the performance of Doncaster Council. I was, and still am, determined to provide a lead to make Doncaster a better place to live and work.

"My Cabinet and I are committed to turning the council around with the support of strong leadership and members who are willing to work together so that the council can improve."

The Audit Commission said the council's history of poor governance, the record of its poor performance and slow improvement in some services, and the "potential loss of public confidence caused by the Edlington case" led to the corporate governance inspection.

However, it stated that the events of the Edlington case were only the latest in a series of failures by the beleaguered council to keep children safe.

The authority's social services department has been under an intensive spotlight following the deaths of a number of children known to the council.

Last year, Children's Minister Beverley Hughes ordered a "thorough diagnostic review" of its child safeguarding services.

Children's Secretary Ed Balls later sent in a new management team to take over the leadership and management of children's services at the authority.

There have also been a series of high-profile departures of senior leaders, including chief executives.

Speaking at a press conference, 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 that we may all disagree with.

"This is a watershed moment in the history of Doncaster and we now have to work together, under my leadership as elected mayor, to make Doncaster a better place to live and work in with a council focused on serving its people rather than its own petty jealousies."

After he read his statement at Doncaster Rovers's Keepmoat Stadium, the mayor left without answering any of the questions which were being shouted at him by reporters.

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