Argyll and Bute’s financial approach ‘is not sustainable’

The council chamber at Argyll and Bute Council's Lochgilphead HQ.
The council chamber at Argyll and Bute Council's Lochgilphead HQ.

Argyll and Bute Council’s approach to the scale of the financial challenges it faces is not sustainable, according to Scotland’s local government watchdog.

A new report prepared by Audit Scotland also “notes with disquiet” the “dysfunctional relationships which persist between a number of individuals” - and highlights the “long-standing personal and political differences” between a small number of councillors, senior officers and local constituency MSP Michael Russell.

The report - the third compiled by Scotland’s Controller of Audit, Fraser McKinlay, on the council in the last two years - welcomes progress made since 2013 in the council’s decision-making, scrutiny and governance, and in improving relationships both between political groups, and between members and officers.

But Mr McKinlay’s report says it is not clear how most of the options in the council’s controversial ‘Service Choices’ consultation - which asks members of the public to prioritise almost 150 suggested savings as it seeks to bridge a budget gap of up to £26 million - relate to the authority’s strategic aims and objectives.

It says the council should consider more effective ways to consult with the public, in order to better inform people about the impact of its savings proposals, and to better assess public opinion on new ways of delivering services.

On the ‘Service Choices’ consultation, which runs until December 31, Mr McKinlay says: “It is not clear how most of the Service Choices options relate to the council’s strategic aims and priorities.

“The majority of the proposed savings options put to public consultation are heavily based on low-level cuts to individual service budgets – 109 of the 150 savings proposals are based on reducing or stopping services, or doing both; 43 represent service cuts of £20,000 or less.

“Given the nature of many of the proposals, it is difficult to see how the public would be able to offer an informed opinion on them.

“Many relate to management actions that the public might consider are simply efficiency measures that should be pursued as a matter of course.”

Mr McKinlay’s report, published by the Accounts Commission, says the council needs to:

* appear less defensive in dealing with conflict and minimise the amount of business it carries out in private;

* looke beyond reducing or withdrawing services and instead examine how it can do things differently;

* demonstrate more clearly how it takes on board consultation feedback from its communities;

* continue to seek a resolution to the long-standing relationship difficulties between some members and between the council’s leadership and constituency MSP Michael Russell;

* embrace the enthusiasm of local communities to be more involved in the council’s work;

* explore all options for providing training and development for all members in a way that is most accessible and has greatest impact.

Accounts Commission chair Douglas Sinclair said: “Argyll and Bute has made good progress but has more to do in key areas such as being more open and transparent, how it engages with the public, and developing a longer term financial strategy.”

Argyll and Bute Council leader Dick Walsh said: “We welcome these findings, which clearly show how much progress this council has achieved. We are a very different council from one Audit Scotland first visited in 2013. This level of progress is highlighted by the fact that there will be no follow-up visit to Argyll and Bute Council.

“We have made changes where needed. We have solid structures in place as well as support and positive attitudes which mean we are managing the business of the council more effectively.

“We have achieved this positive progress through the hard work and determination of councillors across the political spectrum, and the professionalism and commitment of officers who continue working to deliver the best public services possible for the people of Argyll and Bute.

“While we are pleased that the Accounts Commission has highlighted our progress we are committed to further improvements. We have good foundations in place and will build on these to work with our communities as we strive to grow our economy and attract more people to the area.

“Building a prosperous future, by working with our other community planning partners, is the key aim of this council.

“Despite the difficult financial position we find ourselves in because of reduced funding we are investing to create jobs, something which was highlighted as vital by our communities in a public consultation exercise in January this year. We are investing millions in our road network, in new schools and in key infrastructure improvements in our main towns, making the area a more attractive place for people to live in, to work in and to do business.

“Of course, as is the purpose of any audit, it highlights areas for further improvement and we have already taken steps to embrace these recommendations, from putting plans in place to develop a greater level of innovation in the way we work to identifying proposals for greater engagement with our communities.

“There are four elements to the planning our future initiative – growing our economy, innovation, investing for income and service choices. We are receiving a wide range of suggestions from our communities, ones which we will use to inform the budget decisions we take at our meeting in February.

“We are committed to working together to achieve success for our area.”

Read the report in full by clicking here.