By NEIL RIDDELL
A councillor is calling for an independent investigation into how much public money has been wasted on replacing and expanding the local authority’s fleet of vehicles – on which it spends around £1 million a year – after it emerged this week that no proper policies or procedures had been put in place for identifying how many were actually necessary.
Speaking at Tuesday’s meeting of the infrastructure committee in response to a damning report on the matter from executive services director Gordon Greenhill, South Mainland member Allison Duncan branded a substantial section of the SIC’s senior management a “disgrace” and accused them of “hoodwinking” councillors while spending money “willy nilly” on the ongoing replacement of its vehicles.
Mr Greenhill’s concise but hard-hitting report stated that “it appears the council has replaced vehicles, and added to the numbers, in an arbitrary manner”. It continued: “There is no process or procedure for assessing need based on service requirements and present vehicle condition. There are no reliable figures available to assess growth of the fleet and the reasons as to why vehicles were purchased.”
Mr Duncan said concerns had been raised by new councillors since their election in May 2007, first at an informal meeting and then at the audit and scrutiny committee, of which he is vice-chairman, and he was furious that council managers had not “come clean” on how much they were spending when they were given the opportunity to do so.
“It’s a disgrace, a waste of good public money where it could have been saved,” he said. “There’s no policy, no procedure. I would like to see senior management being accountable. They’ve hoodwinked us and made us look like fools and it’s got to stop.”
The replacement of vehicles is projected to account for five per cent of the council’s entire £20 million capital programme for 2009/10 and the current tendering exercise has now been suspended in order to reassess the process behind both procuring and disposing of vehicles after the number of requested replacements far exceeded the funds available for the coming financial year.
Agreed policy and procedures for replacing vehicles are to be drawn up and Mr Greenhill re-assured councillors that, while he “can’t say what the final spend will be”, it will definitely be no higher than the allocated figure of £1,080,000.
Councillor Andrew Hughson was also present at the informal meeting with officials about the vehicles and said he would back Mr Duncan “to a certain extent” because the message elected members had been trying to get across appeared to have “fallen on deaf ears”, with officials essentially ignoring pleas to clamp down on spending.
During the latest episode of ongoing dis-cussions over prioritising the capital programme at Tuesday’s meeting, councillor Jonathan Wills suggested that the budget for vehicle replace-ments could be more than halved to £500,000.
The issue was raised again at Wednesday’s audit and scrutiny committee, at which Mr Greenhill was present, and he has now agreed to meet with Mr Duncan to discuss the issue further sometime next week.
In an unusually candid contribution from an official during the meeting, the executive services director said the audit and scrutiny committee was a body which “isn’t utilised fully by officials – where’s my heads of service? The status and respect that should be given is missing. Something is missing in relation to how we’re doing our business”.
Mr Greenhill said the problem with vehicle replacements had been taken on board but now was the time to “draw a line in the sand” and get on with remedying the situation.
But Mr Duncan told The Shetland Times he was calling for an independent investigation into how hundreds of thousands of pounds had been squandered “for an unknown period of time”.
“Any investigation carried out about this issue, and this issue only, should be carried out by an independent person, an independent body, and the sooner that body reports to us the better,” he said. “This should never, ever have happened when we’re trying to save, save, save money, not spend, spend, spend.
“I feel very strongly about this, when I’m trying my best to try and find savings. We’re going to have to make some very hard decisions – the world will see before long that we don’t have the money to spend.”