The Conservative-run authority has been issued with a ‘statutory recommendation’, which criticises gaps in its senior management team and the slow response to suggestions from other local authority leaders about how to transform the council’s structure and culture.
One of the audit team told a meeting of the borough’s governance committee that he “stood by...the relatively unusual decision” to issue the warning, after he became the focus of polite, but pointed, exchanges with cabinet members at the meeting where his findings were presented.
The annual audit report concluded that the council was in “a relatively healthy [financial] position”, but there was concern that the role of the most senior finance officer had been carried out by four different people in the space of nine months.
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“Whilst we accept that the role was sufficiently discharged, it is difficult to see how a fully strategic approach could be taken when there was so much change,” the report’s authors noted. Other vacancies at the top table of the authority were also identified.
The Local Government Association (LGA) carried out a so-called ‘peer review’ at South Ribble in March 2017, following the wider fallout from a series of failings in the borough’s licensing department.
Auditors found that there had been progress towards some of the LGA’s recommendations and noted that public satisfaction with the council is high. But for the third year in a row, they issued a qualification to their overall conclusion that the council offers value for money.
The report highlighted several areas which required a robust and urgent response, including the implementation of a new senior management structure and “ongoing political issues, [which are] causing a distraction and delaying the improvement journey”.
Speaking at a meeting of the authority’s governance committee, deputy leader of the council, Caroline Moon, said work to address the auditor’s concerns was already well underway.
“It feels like the recommendation has come after we have already dealt with [the issues].
“Life has moved on - it feels like this report is already out of date,” said Cllr Moon, who took up her post in a largely new cabinet in April.
Cabinet member for assets, Warren Bennett, added: “I don’t think [the recommendation] is appropriate. This has signficant ramifications.”
In response, Simon Hardman, Engagement Manager for auditors Grant Thornton, said he understood members’ frustration. But he added: “Having plans in place is fine, but seeing them actioned is important.
“We have seen plans in place before which haven’t been actioned.”
A public meeting now has to be convened by September to hear the council’s formal response to the notice. The authority has the option to accept or reject its auditor’s recommendation.
View from the opposition
Labour opposition leader at South Ribble, Paul Foster, said:
“For the third year running, the auditor has determined that this Tory administration does not offer value for money. It’s spanking taxpayers’ money like there is no tomorrow; it’s going from bad to worse and it’s clear now the auditor has had enough.
“The administration last year spent Â£2.8m more on delivering fewer services. The majority of that money went on interim consultants who are earning [up to] Â£750 a day and the auditor is rightly asking what value the taxpayer in South Ribble [is] getting for that.
“The facts are stark - we have had a statutory intervention from the auditor. I want the administration to tell me what they are going to do about this.
“We have done everything we can to support the administration, [but] we are not responsible for the toxic turmoil within the Conservative group. The only way this is going to draw to a natural conclusion is with the elections in nine months.”
South Ribble Borough Council declined to be interviewed about the audit report. In a statement, deputy leader, Caroline Moon, said:
“We can take a lot of positives from it: the findings declare that the council “has proper arrangements to secure economy, efficiency and effectiveness in its use of resources”, which is a healthy indicator of where we’re at. Over the past 12 months, the council has moved from a deficit position to one which is positive. The savings have been achieved in part through a management restructure which has saved more than Â£400,000.
“[Regarding] the management structure… we are now well on the way to externally securing permanent recruitments: two new Deputy Chief Executives and two new Assistant Directors, applications for which close this week.
“The council has approved the expansion of our shared services agreement with Chorley Council which also generated four new posts. A recruitment process will begin shortly.
“The permanent new leadership team will soon be in place, which will allow this council to continue to deliver excellent services implementing our new five-year Corporate Plan; and maintaining our strong financial position for the years and decades ahead.”