Thursday, April 02, 2009

Feedback from 31st March Copeland Council meeting

HIGH POINTS

Briarwood: Unanimous agreement from Conservative, Labour, and independent councillors to support a campaign for Briarwood Nursing Home - the council agreed a motion to urge Anchor Trust to either keep it open or find a way to transfer the home to another organisation who could maintain it.

Financial reform: The leader agreed to take away and consider a fifth suggested learning point for the council which I put forward, in addition to the four recommended by the District Auditor, in response to the complaint about the accounts in respect of the sale of land at Whitehaven Golf Course.

Hospital Beds: The leader also joined me in welcoming the news that the new "Step-Up, Step Down" beds at West Cumberland Hospital arising out of "Closer to Home" are due to open on 12th April.

Planning: Although the Labour group voted down two proposals I had made on the planning scheme of delegation to officers, they did agree to review the scheme in six months.

LOW POINTS

Dire reports from the Auditors on Copeland's financial and general management.

With the long-delayed signoff on the accounts for 2006/7 and 2007/8, this should have been the meeting at which to consider the Audit Commission reports - described at the previous week's meeting as being as poor a set of figures as you will find anywhere. As I have previously mentioned,

Copeland is officially one of the eight worst district councils in England in terms of management of it's resources.

The "Annual Audit and inspection letter" begins as follows

Key Messages

"Overall, the council has inadequate arrangements for managing the use of its resources. In this respect, Copeland was one of only eight district councils in England which were assessed as inadequate for the financial year ending 31 March 2008.

Underpinning this assessment was inadequate performance in three of the five areas assessed:

* Financial Reporting
* Financial Management; and
* Internal Control

The council did not have adequate arrangements in place in 2007/8 to produce its annual accounts in line with statutory requirements and in accordance with professional standards. As a result the council was unable to publish its audited accounts for the year by the statutory deadline of 30 September 2008."


Other scathing comments from the Audit Commission include

"Similarly the council continued to experience severe difficulties in producing and publishing its audited accounts for 2006/7"

"The council's published financial statements are a key demonstrator of its accountability for public funds. Failure to publish them on time and to appropriate quality standards can only weaken the coucnil's ability to demonstrate that accountability."

"Weaknesses in financial systems, in 2007/8, meant that members could not be assured that the reports they received were consistent with underlying financial records.

Fundamental weaknesses were also found in the council's arrangements for managing it's asset base."

"The Council experienced significant failings in internal control in the early part of 2008/9."

"On the basis of a selected set of service and other performance indicators the council's overall performance in 2007/8 was below the average for all district councils."

"Due to the inadequate arrangements for managing the use of resources, we anticipate giving a qualified value for money conclusion for both 2006/07 and 2007/08."

"There is a particular need for the council to improve its financial reporting arrangements and to ensure that the 2008/09 accounts are produced in accordance with statutory timescales and professional standards."


"Fixed assets at 31 March 2007 were understated by £3.135 million (9% of the council's fixed asset base.)"


"Draft accounts for 2007/08 were presented to, and approved by the Audit Committee in June 2008 ... these accounts were incomplete and inaccurate and were therefore returned to the council as I considered them to be 'un-auditable'."

The result of that latter point was an extra audit fee of tens of thousands of pounds. Put together, the additional costs of this extra fee and nearly £100,000 on external consultants to sort out the accounts came to significantly more than the £135,000 raised by this year's increase in Copeland council's share of the council tax. In otherwords, if the accounts had not got into such a mess, we could have avoided a council tax increase this year without taking extra money from reserves.

Failure to engage with the probems raised by the Auditors.

The point mentioned at the top resulting from Whitehaven Golf Course was about the single constructive response we received to any of the issues raised about the accounts and the audit reports. When questions were asked during the Executive report about the closure of accouts, the Leader largely alternated between hiding behind the officers or the Audit Committee, using them like human sheilds, or attacking the members who asked the questions for daring to raise them.

Attack may be the best form of defence but it is not the best way for an authority which has just been rated by independent auditors as one of the eight worst in England to learn from those reports and improve.

And the motion which we had tabled for debate on some of the issues arising out of these reports ran out of time after just the proposing and seconding speeches because the Labour majority refused to allow enough time to discuss it. Consequently we have been forced to call a special meeting of the council to permit such a debate.

Not listening to Parish Councils

I moved an amendment to proposed changes to the Planning Scheme of Delegation, which details which planning applications have to come to the planning panel and be debated in public, and which can be delegated to officers and dealt with in private. The effect of that amendment would have been that when an elected Town or Parish council has raised material planning issues in respect of a planning application, those concerns must either be taken on board or debated at the planning panel.

Most of the Labour group - with one honorable exception - voted this down, though they did agree to a review in six months.

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