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SANDWELL: PM says investigation into council “may be needed”

SANDWELL: PM says investigation into council “may be needed”

Boris Johnson. Copyright

Boris Johnson has said an investigation into the governance of Sandwell council “may be needed” after a multitude of fiascos for the troubled local authority.

Speaking at a media event on a train from Wolverhampton to Coventry last night, the Prime Minister said he was “very concerned” to hear about alleged corruption at Sandwell council.

When questioned by the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) if the government would formally commit to an investigation into the governance of Sandwell council, he said: “I’m very grateful you have asked me this. I have been told about this a couple of times now.

“Obviously we may need to step in and ensure that things are straightened out, but that is really a matter for Michael Gove.

“I can’t comment on exactly what is going on in Sandwell, forgive me, I don’t know enough about the details, but I am very concerned to hear this. I think this is the third time this has been raised to me in the last couple of days. We are on it.”

Andy Street, Mayor for West Midlands, said: “I know that Michael Gove is taking a very, very close personal interest in this, and he has been briefed on the most recent things. It would only be fair to say I don’t think he has decided yet what to do. But he is definitely very close to it.”

Mr Street told the LDRS that if the reporting service wanted to put a question to the secretary of state for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, “I’m sure we could get a formal answer to you.”

The Prime Minister’s remarks come after Sandwell council confirmed Mr Singh, who had previously represented the Bristnall ward under the Labour party, has stepped down as leader on Tuesday and as councillor on Wednesday this week.

Mr Singh said it was for “personal reasons” he decided to quit Sandwell council.

He said: “After much thought during a family holiday in India, I have come to the conclusion that I cannot continue to balance the heavy demands of council leadership with the responsibilities I also have to my young family and my businesses.

“It has been huge privilege to serve my community at such a young age and one day in the future when my personal circumstances are different, could seek opportunities to serve the community.”

The 41-year-old had first been elected into Sandwell council in 2018.

The unusual move to quit partway through a term of office is likely to see the seat remain vacant until next May’s local elections, the Local Democracy Reporting Service understands.

In the last three years, the Labour-dominated authority has had five leaders and three chief executives.

Kim Bromley-Derry is the current temporary chief executive, who leads the council’s paid staff, as the authority attempts to find a permanent replacement. Interviews for the role scheduled for next week are understood to have been cancelled without explanation.

Cllr Maria Crompton (Labs, Tividale) has taken over as interim leader for a second time, and has pledged “business as usual” and “stability” at the authority.

The authority has had scandal after scandal.

This week it emerged that Sandwell council undertook a consultation to force tenants to agree to changes to their tenancy agreements which could prevent legitimate complaints being made against the council on social media if implemented.

Shortly after Mr Singh’s appointment the council was embroiled in a scandal after school transport contracts worth more than £20 million were awarded to two firms owned by a disgraced ex-employee of the council.

A leaked review into the Wragge Report, which investigated corruption allegations in the borough, accused those carrying out the probe of racism, bias and political interference.

And an industrial dispute between waste disposal workers and Serco, which is contracted to operate waste services by Sandwell Council, continues to rumble on although threatened Christmas strikes have now been cancelled.

Meanwhile the decision to halt the closure of Tipton’s Walker Grange care home and upgrade it was announced yesterday after a sustained campaign by families of individuals who live there.

The political turmoil has come amid regular changes in paid leadership.

Mr Bromley-Derry was brought in as interim chief executive in August this year after David Stevens stood down after 18 months in charge.

Mr Stevens had himself been the interim boss before being handed the role permanently after Sandwell council failed to advertise the role nationally. He was the only candidate to apply.

This time the council has added £38,000 onto the boss’s salary and the major recruitment agency hired to entice the right candidate has been advertising a yearly wage of £185,000.

Stevens’ predecessor was Jan Britton who ran the council for eight years, including being in charge during the Wragge investigation before resigning after a series of rows with his political bosses.

Words: Rhi Storer, Local Democracy Reporter

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