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Mayor promises further council improvement as independent financial report is published

Update - 22 February 2017:

At the council's budget setting meeting on 21 February, Mayor Marvin Rees announced a new review to pick up where the review referred to in this news story left off. This further independent investigation is to identify the processes and mistakes that led to the issues described in Mr Bundred's report.

Original story
Bristol’s Mayor Marvin Rees has promised to continue getting a very firm grip on Bristol City Council’s finances and the way it is run following the publication of an independent report on its financial position.

The report, written by former Audit Commission Chief Executive Steve Bundred, finds that the underlying financial pressures were not of the council’s own making. He cites large cuts to government grant income, legislative changes and the increasing cost and unavoidable demand for council services.

It does, however, say that there has been a collective failure of leadership in achieving past savings and in how the council managed the process. It notes that many improvements have been made in the past six months and that people can be confident in the council’s proposed budget plans for 2017/18, but highlights a number of serious issues. These include a failure to deal with issues early enough or accept the need for challenging cuts, an unwillingness to accept ‘bad news’, weaknesses in skills, reporting and governance and the failure of the council’s efficiency-based ‘Single Change Programme’ to deliver the savings it had planned between 2014/15 and 2016/17.

It acknowledges that the council has more recently taken many steps to put things right, with regular and stronger financial reporting, more involvement of elected members and changes in senior management. This includes recruiting a new permanent Director of Finance and making them a full member of the council’s Senior Leadership Team. Whilst Mr Bundred gives credit for this, he notes that more improvements will be necessary and that change must be made over the long term under the council’s new Chief Executive.

Marvin Rees, Mayor of Bristol said: “I inherited a deeply troubling financial challenge and promised this independent report to help us understand the causes and how we could put things right. We are undoubtedly making fast and strong progress already. We know where there are issues and are already putting many of the fixes in place. This means the public, our partners and councillors can be confident in our budget plans for next year, something which the report confirms.

“We have new senior finance officers, an excellent Interim Chief Executive and incoming permanent Chief Executive, so we are in a good position to improve performance, change the council’s culture and be open about our challenges.

“The report suggests that in the past the political leadership was too complacent in trusting that savings could be made without making really hard choices. Scrutiny was focused on our pressures rather than on the savings which needed making. This report proves that our current approach to making savings, whilst very difficult, is absolutely necessary and that we have improved political oversight of our work.”

Stephen Hughes, Interim Chief Executive of Bristol City Council said: “We are very grateful to Steve Bundred for his report. In my short time with Bristol I have worked with the Mayor, his Cabinet and our officers to make improvements. I am confident that our political administration, incoming Chief Executive and Director of Finance provide strong leadership to keep up this momentum.

“However, on behalf of the council I am sorry for its collective failure to do well enough in the past. Whatever the reasons or intentions of those involved, many of whom have not been part of preparing this report and have not put their case to Mr Bundred, the fact remains that Bristol City Council as a whole did not achieve what it should have and did not show the leadership which people have a right to expect. I know that improving the council and tackling these issues will be the top priority of the new Chief Executive.”

Mr Bundred’s report concludes with 12 formal recommendations across a broad range of topics. They include strengthening the council’s Finance department, improving the council’s approach to writing reports and business cases, managing documents and making specific departments accountable for savings. Also listed are the need to improve management culture over the next three to five years, keep backbench and opposition councillors better informed, and maintain more frequent financial reporting to Cabinet, something which has been a regular feature during the past financial year.