‘A very long way to go’ at council, warns Accounts Commission

Much more work is needed at Argyll and Bute Council following a damning report last year, the Accounts Commission said this week.

A follow-up report published today charts what has been done since October 2013, when the Commission voiced serious concerns about risks to the council from political instability, inadequate leadership and scrutiny.

Though the commission has noted the initial steps taken to address these concerns, it has urged the council to continue making progress on an action plan agreed by the local authority earlier this year.

The report, available here, says some councillors highlights the fact that the council’s audit committee suffers from remarkably poor attendance – only two councillors at the December 2013 meeting, and just one in March this year, despite the well publicised problems.

Also in March, only 16 of the 36 councillors attended a seminar that included a session on standards and behaviour, involving the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.

The report states: “Councillors need to recognise the importance of attending seminars and training sessions.

“The council should review why the attendance at this session was low, particularly given the profile of this issue in the council and consider whether further or different approaches to training on this would be beneficial to councillors.”

Local MSP Jackie Baillie has responded to the report, saying: “The SNP has still not apologised to residents in Helensburgh and Lomond for putting our public services at risk with their political scheming and petty squabbling.

“The report also says that there is still a degree of tension and mistrust between councillors so the council must take on board Audit Scotland’s recommendations and work swiftly to secure long-term stability.

“With the council planning £77m cuts over the next four years it remains to be seen whether this fragile peace can be maintained.”

The commission says it wants to be assured that scrutiny, working relationships and political management have been strengthened as improvement work continues, and has requested a further review by Audit Scotland by the end of next year.

Whilst the leadership of the council is now more stable, the situation remains fragile. A newly introduced structure for the political management of the council provides a foundation for improved governance. Shared understanding of these arrangements and effective communication are required to ensure they fulfil their potential.

Scrutiny also needs to improve, and councillors must be willing to engage with that process.

Accounts Commission chair Douglas Sinclair said: “We welcome the steps the council has taken so far, but there is a very long way to go before necessary changes are embedded and the serious problems highlighted last year are fully addressed.

“Difficult decisions lie ahead, particularly with regards to reducing finances, which will undoubtedly test the improvements made by the council.

“The council must continue to work together – elected members and officers – to build upon the progress made to date.”

“The Commission will continue to monitor developments at Argyll and Bute and has requested a further update on progress from Audit Scotland by the end of 2015.”