An internal investigation has been demanded into how the SIC ended up in a financial mess following what one councillor described as a 10-year period of mismanagement.
Dissatisfaction with the council’s re-jigged democratic processes led another councillor to announce his withdrawal from a “sounding board” set up as part of the SIC’s efforts to streamline its processes and management.
It follows last week’s marathon budget meeting at which councillors agreed to cuts of £15.2 million and a series of reviews that will examine a whole swathe of further cuts in the coming years.
The SIC’s audit and standards committee resolved today to seek answers to the question that is foremost in the political arena given that even if it succeeds in making these cuts the authority will still be partly reliant on its oil reserves to fund revenue spending.
Councillor Jonathan Wills called for a thoroughgoing report to be ordered by new members of the committee elected in May, pinpointing exactly where the council had gone wrong over the past decade. He was backed by fellow councillor Gary Robinson who wanted to know how the SIC had ended up drawing £47.4 million from the reserves in the latest budget.
Dr Wills stated that the restructuring had uncovered “bitter things” about the council’s finances and demanded to know when the council had opted to gamble with the public purse. “We are now in the business of buying and selling shares on the market rather than living on the dividend,” he said.
Dr Wills said that the council’s restructuring did not go far enough and proposed the merger of the chief executive’s office and the corporate services department, with the chief executive taking over the role of the director of corporate services.
Mr Robinson added that the difficulty of moving amendments to proposals was not even a “school level of debate” and that the council’s submission on rural education to the Audit Commission had not even been discussed at the executive committee, but was nonetheless forming the council’s view as far as Edinburgh was concerned.
The executive committee was an example of the council operating “circles within circles”. Mr Robinson’s dissatisfaction led to his resignation from the sounding board which was part of the SIC improvement plan intended to “deliver real change”.
His letter to sounding board chairman Cecil Smith said: “It’s disheartening that having gone through the change process, committee meetings are being cancelled or postponed on a whim and little in the way of substantive business is being put in front of members when meetings are held. To me that would seem to go against what’s expected of good governance and make the whole improvement exercise a pointless one. I share the concerns already expressed by some long-standing members in respect of the new committee structure and the conduct of meetings.”
The move came after the committee had expressed gratitude to Audit Scotland and council officials for helping turn around a worsening financial situation. However Carol Hislop of Audit Scotland warned that the council was in danger of not submitting its accounts on time for the third year in a row, as the deadline had been moved forward by two months till September. She called on the council to seek help and advice from the auditors to help meet deadlines and requirements.
Dr Wills did not share the “rosy glow” with which council and Audit Scotland’s achievements had been received by the committee.
And it was alleged that the council was now in the business of rubber stamping plans that had been passed without proper scrutiny by councillors.
Councillor Laura Baisley said that a “gulf” had formed between the executive and back bench councillors and there was a “feeling of lost empowerment”. She added: “We are rubber stamping things rather than debating them. If they are not careful, new councillors will end up feeling like spare parts and this could lead to accusations of cabals and cliques.” She added that the drive to achieve change must not come at the cost of losing the experience and abilities of committee back benchers.
Committee vice-chairman Allison Duncan said that in the past certain aspects of council governance had been a shambles and there had been no alternative but to put a new structure in place.
But he was in no doubt where responsibility for the financial doldrums lay. “The answer is that the council have had a priority of spend, spend, spend, not save, save, save. The buck stops with the council,” he added.