Merthyr Tydfil is a place its people tend to be proud of. They'd much rather see the local council's St Tydfil logo than the emblem of a merged Heads of the Valleys council. That's an idea which was fought off nearly thirty years ago, leaving it as the smallest of the 22 Welsh councils.

Local politics is fierce, the local MP and AM are both Labour but the party always faces a battle in council elections. Labour currently has just eight of the 33 councillors, with independents providing both the ruling group and the main opposition.

The council is led by Cllr Kevin O'Neill Credit: Merthyr Tydfil council

Last year, the council's leader, Cllr Kevin O'Neil, asked the Welsh Government for help with the challenges he faced. A task force found that the council was locked into what it called "survival mode", with a budget that relied in part on being able to pull "accountancy rabbits" out of the hat.

This approach was described a "not sustainable", with a confusing and unclear structure caused by financial cutbacks.

None of these points is put forward as criticism. From the interim Chief Executive, his deputy and other senior officers, we have been impressed by the ongoing commitment to the people of Merthyr Tydfil and the council. All the elected members we have spoken to, including the Council Leader, Cllr Kevin O'Neill, his cabinet and opposition leaders, are passionate about improving the county borough and continuing the impressive journey of economic transformation.

Improvement and assurance Board Report

Nevertheless, the task force found that the politics of the council were too often a "drama" played out on Facebook.

This is part of the cut and thrust of local politics. Democratic debate must be robust and rigorous. But in the case of Merthyr Tydfil this can consume enormous organisational energy, often at the expense of more important matters. With the debilitating lack of capacity highlighted in this report, the council can ill afford to be subsumed by this. Senior officers are all too often being asked to play the role of 'referees', as opposed to professional advisers.

Improvement and assurance Board Report

Outside advisers are to be brought in to look at education and social services. GCSE results have been getting worse, with the council ranked 22nd of the 22 Welsh local authorities. The number of children in the council's care can vary by as much as 30% because of the small population, making planning difficult.

Next year, the Welsh Government will give Merthyr Tydfil £97 million to spend. That's a 4.8% increase, one of the biggest in Wales. But with less than 2% of the Welsh population, Merthyr will still get less money than anywhere else.