Austerity to blame for cash issues, says Tory councillor

Councillor Paul Yallop blamed austerity for the councils' low reserves
Councillor Paul Yallop blamed austerity for the councils' low reserves
  • Council cash reserves among lowest in country
  • Ongoing austerity blamed for low funds
  • Staff sickness leads to higher audit bill

A CONSERVATIVE councillor has bemoaned the Government’s ongoing austerity programme after it transpired council finances were among the lowest in the country.

Auditors found Worthing Borough Council’s cash reserves were among the lowest ten per cent of comparative councils nationwide, following several years of funding cuts.

Adur District Council’s reserves were also low, ranking in the lowest 20 per cent.

Speaking at a meeting of the joint governance committee, former Worthing Borough Council leader Paul Yallop blamed continuing austerity for the financial difficulties.

He said: “I hear what they are telling us about reserves but I also heard two or three years ago what the secretary of state said about using reserves instead of cutting resources.

“It’s just unfortunate that having done that the government has now decided to carry on with austerity and that leaves us with less options.

“We were told austerity would be over by now and clearly that has moved on a bit.”

The joint committee – comprising of councillors from both authorities – was briefed on the councils’ annual finances by external auditors Ernst and Young last week.

Auditors noted Worthing’s £122,000 underspend in 2014/15 and the council’s short-term savings plans but stressed there was ‘much work’ to be done to secure longer term savings.

Adur District Council, meanwhile, had overspent by £399,000, further threatening the low reserves.

In a further financial blow, Ernst and Young audit director Kate Handy told councillors the bill for completing the mandatory audit would be higher this year, due to errors in the accounts provided by council officers.

She said: “It’s fair to say that it didn’t go as smoothly as they have in the past. We identified a number of errors and the audits took a bit longer than expected.

“After several years of cuts its is obviously getting harder to balance the books and this is not uncommon across local government.

“Your reserves were already in the lowest ten per cent of comparative authorities and were reduced further in 2014/15. It means your room for manoeuvre is less.”

‘Extraordinary’ pressures with several staff signed off with long-term sickness problems and a freeze on replacing staff which had left the council were blamed for delays in providing auditors with the required information.

Executive head of financial services Sarah Gobey said: “We’ve been through an extraordinary period. We have had, I believe, four members of staff on long-term sick leave and three vacancies held pending a restructure.

“We have been considerably depleted in recent months. The heart of this is resources but I wouldn’t take this as a typical year.

“I have never known the level of sickness that I have received.”

A spokesman for Adur District Council said processes had been put in place to investigate the council’s overspend.

He said: “Hotspot budget monitoring is underway to investigate the budgetary overspend and to help the service improve for the future. So far, this monthly in-depth monitoring and investigation has identified £76,000 worth of work which was carried out but not charged within the accounts in the year.

“This has now been corrected and work continues to identify work incorrectly charged for and instances where work had cost more than anticipated.”