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“Clearly lessons need to be learned” as closure of council run Sprouts nursery to finally face scrutiny

The closure of a council operated nursery will be scrutinised by councillors next week, with questions over the viability and management of the project.

Councillors have been told in a report ahead of the meeting that there are ‘clearly lessons to be learned’ and the recommendations will be based off a note to ‘learn lessons’ – with detail expected on what impact version controlling of documents compared to using Wrexham Council’s childcare team in the childcare project would have had on the viability of the nursery.

Sprouts, which had been based on Rhosddu Road before its closure last September, was deemed unsustainable without support from the local authority.

In July 2017 Wrexham Council’s Forward Work Programme inadvertently revealed that the future viability of the nursery was up for discussion by the executive board – a conversation that later took place in part two (excluding the press and public)

Less than 24 hours after that meeting a letter was sent to parents whose children were in Sprouts, confirming that a decision had been made to close the facility.

The nursery was opened in 2015 using £155,000 of funding awarded to Wrexham Council through a Welsh Government Vibrant and Viable Places (VVP) grant. A further £90,000 was allocated to the project by the council.

Shortly after the closure was confirmed, Cllr Marc Jones, who represents the Grosvenor ward, submitted a topic request form for councillors to explore the reasons behind the closure and to “learn lessons” from the procedure.

Information requested included:

– Original Submission for VVP Funding
– Welsh Government funding criteria and monitoring arrangements
– Business case for Sprouts
– Wrexham Council contract monitoring arrangements for Sprouts
– Sprouts Project Management
– Management arrangements for Sprouts

Speaking at the time Cllr Jones, who represents the Grosvenor ward, said: “It is important we do scrutinise what happened with Sprouts. It was public money and lessons to be learned. We’ll scrutinise, challenge and find out what wrong.”

Now 12 months after the topic-request form was submitted, members of the employment, business and investment scrutiny committee will be asked to consider reasons for the closure of the nursery.

Within next week’s report several contributing factors which could have stopped the closure of the nursery have been listed, including the projects “two levels of governance” described as being unhelpful.

The council’s £10 million share of the VVP fund has been split into several departments in recent years, with the likes of the arts, the creation of a town centre masterplan and the creation of a social lettings agency, receiving a share of the regeneration fund.

However it is acknowledged that along with some of the successes of Sprouts and VVP, there are “clearly lessons to be learned which should be considered for the future”.

The Sprouts project itself was managed within the council’s lifelong learning department. But next week’s report states that officers within that department “feel the project could have been delivered more effectively had they better utilised the range of expertise within the council”, a possible ‘lesson’.

It adds: “Whilst it was entirely appropriate for the project to be situated within the lifelong learning department, especially in relation to its remit of training and ‘skills development’, it may have been useful if the childcare provision had been managed in partnership with another team within the childcare field e.g. WCBC’s childcare team or an external partner.”

Another line notes: “Any issues related to management and performance of staff have been addressed in accordance with WCBC policies and procedures.” No detail is given on what performance issues there were.

The report also reveals that: “The business case for Sprouts does not include headings which might be expected within a business case, such as: options, stake holder analysis, affordability, financial information etc.

“Whilst the business case makes clear links with the evidence from the CSA, it does not include any additional/further research (e.g. with the childcare market) to strengthen the initial evidence gathered.

“There is no evidence that further research was undertaken at any point prior to submission of VVP bid or the awarding of grant from Welsh Government.”

The report will be discussed by members of the employment, business and investment scrutiny committee on Wednesday 5th September at 4pm.

You can read the council’s report ahead of next week’s meeting, here.

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