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Another shambolic end to a Scrutiny meeting at Wrexham Council

NOTE: This content is old - Published: Thursday, Nov 2nd, 2017.

A scrutiny meeting ended in confusion and questions over its effectiveness yesterday, with some councillors walking out as the meeting evaporated to its close.

Members of the Employment, Business & Investment Scrutiny Committee had been meeting to discuss the impacts the closure of the Communities First programme will have in Wrexham.

The ‘Communities First’ programme, which has been active in Wrexham since its inception in 2001, has seen millions invested into 52 ‘cluster areas’ across Wales over the past 15 years.

However in October 2016 Communities and Children Secretary Carl Sargeant stated he was ‘not convinced that continuing to focus on 52 small areas is the most effective way to deliver for Wales’ and that he was minded to phase the programme out.

Speaking at yesterday’s meeting Council Leader Mark Pritchard explained that the council will not subsidise projects operated by Communities First once the scheme ends. He said: “The bluntness is we cannot subsidise it. I don’t want to be seen to be cruel, I am honest, we haven’t got money. We can’t afford it, when the funding stops Communities First will close in Wrexham.”

Cllr Brian Cameron, whose ward has received project support from Communities First funding, gave an impassioned speech on the impact losing such services would have locally.

Cllr Cameron said: “I would like to thank officers for this report. It is very good and goes a long way to highlighting the effects in losing Communities First, it makes depressing reading. We must all be concerned about the huge risks involved in the future.

“The knock on effect for other agencies, schools, housing, children’s social services is likely to be very severe.

“The Venture and Gwenfro Valley are likely to close without funding being found. They have both operated for 40 years and 10 years. The Venture acts as a home for health and education services and early years centre.”

He continued: “Finally, if the worst happens and several organisations are forced to close, has there been any analysis of what the likely costs are for the council and if so what this is?”

“Regardless of who is to blame, what are we going to do as Wrexham has a major problem.”

The questions remained unanswered, with Cllr Pritchard stated that while he wouldn’t disagree with any of the comments, most services will likely be at risk as they would not be subsidised by the council.

Cllr Dana Davies queried how the council would manage the objectives within its tackling poverty strategy once Communities First was complete.

The meeting was told by Lead Member for Youth Services and Anti-Poverty Cllr Paul Rogers that work on a new strategy was being undertaken and it was hoped that it would be put to members in the new year.

Cllr Pritchard said: “We have strategies and policies coming out of our ears. We’ve had £52m taken off us and now another £13m. Everything has to be considered by finances. We can only spend what we’re given.”

Cllr Davies said: “I understand where we are. I also understand that not all 22 local authorities could tap into the funding pot for Communities First, they have their strategies for tackling poverty.

“It isn’t just two specific areas in Wrexham. It is across the county. From that point of view, if we didn’t have a Communities First programme, how would have Wrexham have addressed poverty issues in the county?

“There are lots of strategies in the council. You as Lead Members are the creators of the policies, are you saying you’re creating something that will never come to fruition?”

Cllr Pritchard said Wrexham Council had had a ‘double whammy’, with budget cuts for several years and the Minister announcing the end of Communities First.

He continued: “You said if we didn’t have the money, but we did have the money from Welsh Government.

“There are officers working tirelessly to put plan in place to work with most deprived areas in Wrexham. We deal with poverty on a day to day basis and we continue to do so.

“It is a double whammy. We have budget cuts for years and the Minister announces in 2016 he is going to close Communities First. That is an impact over £1m, we can’t subsidise the services and we won’t.

“I want members to have reality and honesty, we haven’t got the money. As soon as everyone sits and realises it, the better.”

The meeting was also told of a ‘Legacy Fund’ which had been announced by the Cabinet Secretary “to maintain the most effective aspects of Communities First”. Wrexham has been allocated £236,447 for 2018/19 and 2019/20.

However there was criticism from the council leader and several members of the committee over the seemingly lack of information from Welsh Government on how the money could be spent.

Cllr Marc Jones called upon the council to push the Communities and Childrens Secretary in the ‘right direction’ and to ‘firm up the guidance’ on how the funding could be spent.

He added: “It is staggering we are not being told what it should be spent on. That’s shameful as far of Welsh Government not giving guidance, they know it is coming to end.

“To leave services in limbo is staggering. I know from talking so people they’ve already lost some services.”

Cllr Andrew Atkinson queried why members of the community who have previously accessed services provided by the funding are “ceasing to engage”.

Details in the report presented to councillors notes that since the announcements to stop the Communities First funding were made, there has been disengagement from some partners and sections of the community and a drop in usage in some cases.

The meeting was told there are “two parts to disengagement”, the perception of service closure following the announcement in October 2016 and the reduction in staff numbers.

Cllr Pritchard said: “We have tried to be honest with people. There are individuals working in that area who are losing their jobs. We are closing down this service.

“I have always struggled with the wording of Legacy Funding. It gives people aspirations that it will be a legacy, and the fund behind it could continue.

“There is £237k for two years. I know officers have engaged with individuals who work there. We have said when funding ceases we will not subsidise it. It is the closing down of a service area.”

Cllr Atkinson added: “I agree that the language is right about closing down. My point with the Legacy Fund is in someway seeing it as a transition for some services while they explore other grants, some could stand on their own two feet.”

After nearly two hours of debate on Communities First, there was confusion ahead of the vote on the recommendations put forward, with some expressions of frustration by Councillors after proposed changes to the recommendations were effectively rejected.

This was in the context of the first 40 minutes of the meeting that had debated how and what could or could not be scrutinised by the committee. A request had been put forward to look at the recent ‘difficult decisions’ budget document, as well as a request to scrutinise how Sprouts came to close.

That piece of business was tetchy at times between councillors, with Cllr Jones pointing out that councillors had been told in the Executive Board meeting recently to use Scrutiny to inspect decisions independently. The budget is a time sensitive issue, as it comes before the council in the new year, and therefore there is a limited meeting time open to look at it. Queries were raised over the effectiveness and point of the committee if it could not scrutinise what the body wanted in time.

Cllr Pritchard said he would be ‘very surprised’ if there was enough time for Council Officers to prepare a report to come back to the committee, with most in the room including ourselves taking that as comment on the time sensitive issue – the budget. After it was pointed out the information must exist and be quite fresh for the budget formation, Cllr Pritchard told the meeting he was talking about the Sprouts request.

Cllr Pritchard made it clear several times he had no influence over what the committee wished to look at, despite the Chair of the meeting Cllr Skelland calling him to voice his opinion many times.

With the peppery nature of the opening of the meeting being mixed with the elongated time in the room, the irritation levels rose in line with the clock ticking towards 6pm.

The ending of the meeting can only be described as shambolic, with Cllr Davies effectively walking out prior to the final vote taking place. Others had left beforehand in the usual manner and Cllr Marc Jones also leaving to attend another meeting.

Cllr Davies, upon packing up her bags said it ‘was not effective scrutiny’ and questioned what the committee had spent two hours debating ‘if changes to the recommendations could not be put forward’. There were also mutterings of ‘I don’t think I’ll bother coming again’ from Cllr Alun Jenkins.

The issue was over Cllr Pritchard sticking with the recommendations in the report he had presented, a position he was entirely allowed to hold. Often committees adapt and change recommendations as and when they see fit alongside the person presenting the report, however there was no leeway on offer.

Cllr Jenkins appeared to want new recommendations to encompass more recent data rather than the data covered in the reports, however in the mess of the final minutes of the meeting, with councillors talking over each other and over the Officer helping run the meeting, they were effectively ignored.

This riled the meeting, as normal practice is to firm up recommendation proposals, and if properly proposed and seconded, vote upon them. As that did not happen the angry exchanges as outlined above, and more, took place.

Support for the initial recommendations, including commenting on the reported impacts of Communities First and feedback on the Legacy Fund as provided in the report’s appendix, were moved by Cllr Geoff Lowe and seconded by Cllr Atkinson. A reference was made to noting extra requests from the committee, but not as part of the recommendations. A vote for the recommendations took place and was deemed passed – despite some committee members being absent, walking out or not appearing to raise their hands to vote or being asked if anyone was against or abstaining as is normal.

As with previous meetings in the new timetable format things appeared to be wrapped up overly promptly to meet the demands of the clock and locking up the Guildhall rather than the business of the committee.

Annoyingly this meeting was not one of the ones video streamed to the internet (if only to capture the looks of disgust from Councillors as Cllr Graham Rogers took phone calls during the meeting) as we wrote when it was announced some scrutiny meetings would be televised, “We strongly recommend having a view of the webcast either live or on the catch-up service as Scrutiny meetings can showcase the best and worst of Councillor work. This ranges from excellent questions and probing of details, right through to farcical moments when we have seen votes taken without members knowing exactly what they are voting for!“.

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