This week I addressed the County Council’s Cabinet as they were discussing the quarterly finance report which showed they were already looking at a multimillion pound overspend right at the very start of the new financial year.
I complained that they were moving away from public monthly updates on the Council’s finances, and although these updates would still be shared with Cabinet Members in private, the public reports would now only be coming out quarterly.
I said I was “still very concerned that at a time of greater uncertainty (and according to this report) ‘the Council is currently operating in the most financially challenging period of local government history’, we are continuing to move towards quarterly finance report rather than the normal monthly ones”.
In response the Leader of the Council said they had decided to present the reports every three months because “some Opposition Councillors were making the same points every month”. I suspect she means me, and is effectively saying it is my fault that the Cabinet will now only discuss their financial position four times a year instead of every month!
Had I been given the opportunity to reply I would have offered no apologies for at every opportunity pointing out the dire financial position the Council is in, and that actually it is the duty of an Opposition to do so. The interim report from the independent auditor recently questioned the Council’s financial record and their plans to make the required savings, and it is only right that Opposition councillors and members of the public are given that right too.
In response, the following day at a meeting of the cross-party Finances & Resources Scrutiny Committee we decided to hold new quarterly meetings to discuss these new quarterly reports in depth. This was so we had the opportunity to feed back to the decision making Cabinet any concerns we may have.
When the Councillor in charge of finance addressed the Committee on the issue and confirmed that Councillors in the Cabinet would still be receiving monthly reports in private, a Conservative Councillor suggested that the Scrutiny Committee should also receive these reports to give its members a better idea of the trends in the financial position. I supported this proposal suggesting it was a good compromise, but the Conservative Portfolio holder said simply “I don’t agree”.
So that’s that! From now on, despite the worsening position of the County Council’s finances, an admission that the Council financially is in the worst time in its history, and of the ongoing criticisms and worries of the independent auditor (who have just been sacked by the way and won’t be performing the same role next year), the County Council will now only issue public reports about it’s ongoing finances four times a year instead on monthly which they always done up until now.
This at a time when questions have already been raised about accountability and transparency as the Council moves to its new model where all of its services will be delivered by bodies outside of the Council.