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Highland Council blasted for plummeting service delivery by financial watchdog

By Scott Maclennan

A damning report by Audit Scotland has severely criticised Highland Council for its performance and sustainability outlining a whole range of issues going back years.

The financial watchdog was tasked by the Accounts Commission to review what is known as Best Value, which ensures local government delivers for the public.

Looking at the years from 2010 to 2019, the report flagged-up plummeting service delivery standards and underlined the “unsustainable” financial performance.

There has been a “disappointing” lack of progress since the previous audit in 2010 that has left the Accounts Commission particularly concerned the council is not demonstrating financial sustainability.

The local authority’s record in making cuts was considered “poor” and the current pace of change is too slow to deliver £77 million in savings by 2023 if it is to “ensure it can live within its financial means.”

With the council finances in disarray, education has been the worst hit service over the last five years as performance against the national context has deteriorated.

Compounding the problem is the difficulty the council has in evaluating its performance in service delivery.

Ensuring good governance, effective management of resources to deliver the best possible outcomes for the public cannot be demonstrated by the council either.

Andrew Burns, Accounts Commission.
Andrew Burns, Accounts Commission.

Andrew Burns, a member of the Accounts Commission, acknowledged that though there were some positives, there were significant failings.

“If the council cannot make its savings then it is simply not sustainable. The Accounts Commission is concerned. The council has not delivered a balanced budget without the use of its reserves for some time,” he said.

“If that continues the reserves will be wiped out and that is why we have asked Audit Scotland to keep a close eye on what happens at Highland Council over the next 12, 24 and 36 months.

“There is a contradiction in the education findings with positive destinations for pupils continuing to be high but in terms of attainment – exam results basically – it is falling behind.”

One of Audit Scotland’s main recommendations was on the issue of staff consultation, something chief executive Donna Manson has personally undertaken.

It stated: “The council needs to seek to ensure that all staff are fully engaged in the transformation programme and that budget holders are clear on expectations to deliver the planned savings set out in ongoing transformation work.”

The local authority will meet on March 5 to discuss the findings but council leader Margaret Davidson welcomed the draft report.

“The audit report recognises that the Highland Council has a clear strategic vision and has made significant strides forward in a journey of transformational change to becoming an outward looking, high performing and ambitious council,” she said.

“Meaningful scrutiny of performance is key and the changes we have put in place in recent months will enable the council to do this more effectively.”

Conservative Group in Highland Council Leader Andrew Jarvie was less welcoming, he said: “This speaks to the number one frustration I have with the council and that is any cuts are not rationalised, they are just bludgeoned into the system until there is nothing left.

“There is huge waste in the council in cash and staff time. For example, if you want to register your child with additional support needs there is a 57 step process, it was recently found that around 40 of those steps are redundant and removed two tiers of management.”

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