Local authorities must meet their statutory obligations around environmental health, or the consequences may be severe, writes Tiffany Cloynes, partner at Geldards LLP and Clare Hardy, senior associate lawyer at Geldards LLP.
A report to the Audit Committee of Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council towards the end of last year identified action that had been taken by the Council to respond to the findings of a report from the Wales Audit Office which was published in 2018 and which looked at the impact of cuts in resources on the delivery of statutory functions relating to environmental health.
Whilst this report related to a specific local authority, it illustrated the pressures that local authorities face in managing their budgets whilst delivering all the services that they are required to deliver and complying with all their statutory obligations.
In the area of environmental health, as the Wales Audit Office observed in its report, local authorities have numerous statutory duties. The report also noted that citizens highly value many of the services provided and that environmental health services directly impact upon the health, well-being and safety or residents and visitors. In such circumstances, any reductions or difficulties with delivering services could have a significant impact.
Factors which could have an impact on the delivery of services which local authorities have statutory obligations to provide could include:
- Reductions in staff numbers. If local authorities have limited budgets, they might find it necessary to consider reducing staff numbers. This will have an obvious impact on a local authority’s overall capacity to deliver a service but there could also be a loss of particular expertise and the benefit of experience.
- Acquisition of additional obligations. As circumstances change, the UK Government or the Welsh Government, as applicable, might decide that statutory obligations should increase or change. For example the 2018 report of the Wales Audit Office on Merthyr Tydfil was a follow up to a review in 2014 of the environmental health services of all Welsh councils. The Wales Audit Office observed that in the time between the two reports local authorities had taken on additional statutory obligations as a result of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 and the Public Health (Wales) Act 2014 being made.
- Changes to the finance available to a local authority and pressures on the demands that needs to address with its finances.
Steps which a local authority might take to ensure that it complies with all its statutory obligations at a time of financial pressure could include:
- Identifying the extent to which the services it is currently providing are mandatory. The local authority is obliged to provide those services but if it can find any scope to reduce or adapt discretionary services, that might ease some pressure on managing its resources to deliver mandatory services.
- Identifying any best practice standards that apply to the relevant services and assessing the extent to which the local authority meets them.
- Ensuring that there is effective scrutiny of services and that members involved in scrutiny receive appropriate training and information to enable them to carry out their roles.
- Monitoring provision of services and using information collected to help them plan effectively for ongoing provision.
If local authorities fail to meet their statutory obligations, the consequences could be severe. They could find themselves subject to complaint and challenge. In some circumstances, if there is sufficient concern about the extent to which a local authority is meeting its obligations, a Government might decide to exercise intervention powers.
Even if a local authority does not get to that stage, any identification of failure to meet statutory obligations or inadequate or poor quality delivery of services could lead to reputational damage and loss of confidence amongst the people that a local authority services.
It is therefore in a local authority’s interest to take a proactive approach to achieving and monitoring compliance with all its statutory obligations.