ST HELENS Council is in “strong place” to reset post-Covid despite facing a potential £20 million budget gap next year, the Local Government Association (LGA) has said.

In 2018 the LGA, which represents councils across England and Wales, was commissioned by St Helens Council to carry out a corporate peer challenge.

The aim of the review was to help drive improvements within the authority, through the eyes of an independent body.

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The corporate peer challenge dealt with a range of issues, including the enormous challenges faced by the authority within children’s services.

At the time, the LGA raised concerns around the “limited understanding” of the scale and seriousness of the problem within the children’s services among some members and senior officers.

The findings from the LGA’s corporate peer challenge and subsequent culture review, which looked at cultural issues within the authority, were published in July 2019.

Since then, the authority has begun a period of transformation, with several changes made to its senior management team.

On September 28, 2020, St Helens Borough Council undertook a remote LGA Recovery and Renewal Panel, which focused on how the council intends to ‘reset’ existing ways of working post-Covid.

The council has now published a summary report of this session, which noted the improvements that have been made since the 2019 review, including those within children’s services – something recently noted by Ofsted.

The LGA report said: “It is clear that since the council’s corporate peer challenge in January 2019 a number of the recommendations have been acted upon.

“These have helped put the council in a strong place to lead and deliver on a local reset post-Covid.”

The council is “keen to continue this improvement journey”, the LGA said, adding that the pace of this is evident.

The LGA also discussed the huge challenge of meeting a projected £20.4 million funding gap for 2020-21.

It added that the council’s approach of “preparing for the worst whilst hoping for the best” may be the most suitable course of action.

In conclusion, the LGA said: “The council is progressing its improvement agenda at pace, the positive impacts of which are detailed throughout this report.

“With a new leadership team now formed, the foundations of an approach to reset and recovery established and a vision for a new way of working with the community emerging, the ingredients are in place for this to continue.

“Key to achieving all of this is addressing the budget challenge the council now faces.

“This will require making tough decisions and ensuring these are delivered within agreed timescales with overspend avoided.”

The summary report was noted by the council’s cabinet on Wednesday.

Labour councillors also approved an action plan that has been developed following the session with the LGA.

Cllr David Baines, leader of St Helens Borough Council, said: “The LGA made it clear that since the council’s corporate peer challenge in early 2019 significant progress has been made, and that this has helped put our council in a strong place to lead and deliver on a local reset post-Covid.

“Examples include the progress made in children’s services, as highlighted in a recent Ofsted virtual monitoring visit, the movement to a ‘One Council’ approach, the addition of new senior officers and greater capacity, and the further development and hard work of senior councillors.

“The LGA also highlighted that the pace of this improvement journey is evident.”

St Helens Star: Cllr David Baines, leader of St Helens Borough CouncilCllr David Baines, leader of St Helens Borough Council

Cllr Seve Gomez-Aspron, deputy leader of the council, said the LGA’s reflections are “poles apart” from the peer review in 2019.

Reflecting on the council’s response to the pandemic, Cllr Baines said he has “never been more proud of St Helens” than this year.

As part of St Helens Together, a partnership between the council and the voluntary sector, around 850 volunteers have registered to work alongside the council in responding to Covid-19.

Cllr Baines said the people of the borough have shown during these dark times that our “community spirit, our kindness and our strength can’t be beaten”.

The council leader’s comments were echoed by Cllr Gomez-Aspron, cabinet member for reset and recovery.

The Newton Labour councillor said: “The thing that’s reassuring is, we know how good our community is and we know because we’ve met them and we work amongst them, and we’ve seen what they’ve done during coronavirus.

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“We’ve been in there with them, we’ve rolled our sleeves up and we’ve got dirty.

“I think it’s fantastic that somebody else recognises that as well, that’s what’s always good about this.

“We know they’re great, but it’s always nice to be told they’re great as well by people who aren’t from here.”