Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Feedback from October Copeland Council meeting

The October meeting of the the full Copeland Council was held this evening.

The meeting began with a series of civic presentations to organisations and individuals who had worked to contribute to the local environment.

This was followed by discussion on the Executive report. The first hour of this was taken up by a debate on the problems with the council's accounts. It was the kind of angry debate which is sometimes described as "A full and frank exchange of views."

Copeland Council is still in the final stages of closing the accounts for 2006/7 and finalising those for 2007/8. There have been some serious difficulties in sorting them out, and large sums of money have had to be spent on external consultants to do so.

At the July meeting of the council I had asked for a report to be prepared on how the council got into this situation, how much it would cost, and what could be done to make sure it didn't happen again. The Conservative group wanted that report to come back to full council, but instead Labour amended our motion to take out this requirement. Instead they presented the report to the Audit Committee at the end of September. The District Auditor attended the same meeting and expressed a number of serious concerns about the council's financial management.

These included -

* Total lack of formal management systems to control the checks and balances of the process, absence of quality checking.

* Absence of contingency or HR succession planning

* Submissions to Audit panel were in the first instance incomplete and not signed by 151 officer

* District Auditor was quotedas saying on the resubmission of accounts that "There was so much discrepancy between first and second submission figures, the alarm bells should have been ringing". This apparently related to more or less static items such as fixed assets.

* There was no accurate maintained asset register, which again pointed to lack of Management Systems.

* The rush to meet the delivery deadline in order to avoid one of the penalties no matter how accurate the accounts were was a factor.

* Submissions were only made available to Committee on day of meeting, they could not therefore have really been expected to scrutinise to any degree.

* The officers did not draw the obvious discrepancies between the two submissions to the attention of the Committee

So naturally we wanted to discuss those concerns and did ask questions about them, which was met with outrage from the Labour executive. The tone was set when the Deputy Leader of the council accused the Leader of the Conservative Group of talking rubbish right at the start of the debate, which was not a good indication of an awareness of the problems facing the council since most of his first batch of questions were pretty much quotes from the District Auditor. Then the Leader of the Council accused me of going for "a cheap headline" (e.g. in the local press) for daring to ask questions about concerns raised by the External Auditor and items in the council officers' own report to Audit Committee.

To give you an idea of how desperate the Labour party was to avoid discussing the issues, at one point they started answering questions we hadn't asked but to which the answers would have made the council look good. For example, they congratulated themselves on the fact that Copeland Council had not invested any money in Icelandic banks. (We already knew that - see previous blog posts - and Conservative councillors had not accused them of doing so.)

The debate on the accounts went on for more than an hour, at the end of which the leader of the council reluctantly admitted that perhaps not everything in the way they had been managed was perfect, and we then went on the rest of the executive report ...

Other highlights from the rest of the meeting

* Possible hospital sites - the council had previously identified five possible sites for the rebuilt West Cumberland Hospital to feed back to the NHS Trusts. They are concentrating on two of these at Hensingham and The Ginns. See item on hospitals blog - link at right.

* Flooding - the council's performance in dealing with floods a week ago had been much better than the previous month but the frequency of the problem is raising concern. There are particular worries about the Pow Beck area.

* Recycling: the extended system of recycling bags has proved popular with many people but there have been teething problems in some areas with making sure all residents understand when the bags will be collected. I asked for and was given an assurance both that further efforts will be made to publisise the collection arrangements and that a lenient view will be taken of people who make an honest mistake about when to leave their recycling bags out.

* Arts & Leisure - there are a number of initiatives to increase access to leisure facilities, including reciprocal arrangements between Copeland and Allerdale councils, and there was some discussion on extending these, both to additional services and geographically towards the Millom end of the borough.

* A Town Council for Whitehaven - the recent consultation on this got a very low response and most of what came back was against the idea. It was agreed that we need to consult more effectively and get views of a wider range of people, but we also need to look at alternatives to a Town Council, such as using an Area committee of the councillors we already elect to address issue of more local, democratic accountability, and using "special expenses" to address the issues of fairness between different parts of the borough.

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