Thursday, 12 March 2015

Will councillors choose to ignore this sound advice?

A detailed report from the Accounts Commission, Scotland's public expenditure watchdog, has advised our councillors to get to grips with financial  issues and to request training and support to help them make decisions and scrutinise performance.

They could certainly do with it, I hear you cry. There is a growing perception both here in the Borders and further afield that the local government show is run almost exclusively by paid officials with the elected members fulfilling a minor role by rubber-stamping recommendations, and hardly bothering to make sure they are well briefed before entering the council chamber.

The Commission's report, which appears to have had quite limited exposure, comes at a very appropriate time, and every one of our councillors should be made to read it and digest the contents. As well as some frightening statistics on spending cuts, debts, and interest payments the document contains a list of recommendations as our local authorities face up to an even more austere financial future.

Between them Scotland's 32 councils have overseen a staggering increase in annual interest and debt repayments on borrowing from £946 million in 2010 to £1.5 billion in 2014. Meanwhile repayments for the highly controversial Public Private Partnership (PPP) projects totalled £488 million last year and are expected to peak at around £600 million in ten years time.

Our councillors certainly need all the financial knowledge they can muster with those self-afflicted albatrosses around their (and our) necks. But if the Icelandic banks fiasco of 2008 is anything to go when authorities including SBC risked losing millions of pounds of other people's cash then it must be doubtful whether the men and women elected to represent us are financially savvy.

The Accounts Commission advice doesn't stop there. Information about the council's performance should be clearly reported to the public and...wait for it...local authorities should work with service users and local communities to understand their needs and explore ways of meeting them. Now there's a novelty!

Council budgets should then be targeted towards agreed priorities, including those designed to prevent or reduce service demand in future. No mention here of the Great Tapestry of Scotland or the Easter Langlee Advanced Thermal Treatment facility, two expensive, unaffordable projects on which the public had no say whatsoever.

There's also a warning from the Commission for councils which have paid out £352 million on exit packages since 2011 in a bid to cut costs by decimating their workforces. According to the report: "There is an increasing risk that reductions in staff numbers, and the associated loss of skills and experience, will affect essential support services."

Yet if recent press reports are true SBC is about to embark on another round of people shedding. The council's senior management team was also slashed from 19 to 12 in a recent reconfiguration exercise.

On that issue the report has this to say: "There is a risk that some councils' management teams may now be too small, or lack the skills and experience, to oversee and control their wide-ranging responsibilities. This can make effective leadership and management more challenging."

There's a word of warning too for councils which choose to set up arms length companies, known as ALEOs as an alternative way of delivering council services. Here in the Borders the formation of these separate entities has become an almost full-time preoccupation with the promise of more ALEOs on the way.

The Accounts Commission report states: "As more councils use ALEOs to save money or run more efficient services, they must satisfy themselves that arrangements are in place to ensure the new structures deliver good services within budget. In particular they must manage the financial risks to the council and service users if the ALEO fails."

So plenty of food for thought for members of both the administration and the opposition at Newtown St Boswells. Many of the topics covered in the report can be applied directly to Borders local government. But will many or indeed any of our elected members even bother to read the report entitled An Overview of Local Government in Scotland 2015? For those who might be interested it can be found on the Audit Scotland website.

No comments:

Post a Comment