Lack of leadership and difficult decisions

Thursday July 4th 2019

Midlothian-Council-Fairfield-House

Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Marie Sharp

A lack of leadership and failure to make difficult decision are among charges made against elected councillors in Midlothian in an Audit Scotland report.

The auditors report on the council’s performance delivers a stinging rebuke to its elected members who it says are all responsible for providing best value to its residents.

The report, prepared for the Accounts Commission, pointed to the fact the local authority had been governed by minority administrations since 2012 and changed leadership which it said had led to “tensions” between the elected members and officers.

It warns: “Elected members need to show better leadership to deliver the necessary change and make difficult decisions about the future shape of services.

“The duty of Best Value is a responsibility of all elected members.”

Council leader Derek Milligan, who heads up the minority Labour administration in the council which has six councillors, with SNP opposition made up of seven councillors and five Conservative councillors, said they must find a way to work together.

He said: “All councillors need to start working better together. That is the clear message, we have to find a way to have closer working relations.”

The Audit Scotland Best Value Assurance Report does praise the significant high-profile projects which have been delivered by the council and its partners.

It points to new school facilities, housing and transport projects which are “reshaping Midlothian’s public services to meet population demands”.

It also recognises that Midlothian has the fastest growing population of any local authority area in Scotland.

And it praised the chief executive for her efforts in implementing a recovery plan which led to a projected balanced budget last year after two yeas of overspends.

However, it accused councillors of using the local authority’s reserves fund to plug shortfalls in its budget rather than making difficult decisions, saying the fund had seen over £11million used in the last three years

It said: “Elected members have been unwilling to take potentially unpopular decisions which are necessary to balance the council’s finances in times of extreme financial difficulty.

“Instead, members and officers have been choosing to use reserves to balance its finances. In the last three years, members have approved the use of £11.1 million of general fund reserves.”

Mr Milligan disputed any suggestion the reserves had been depleted by his administration.

He said: “The previous administration used over £4million from the reserves in 2017. We have not drawn from our reserves to balance our budget over the last two years as is suggested here.”

The findings of the report, which is prepared for the Accounts Commission, the public spending watchdog for local government, were welcomed by a spokesperson for the council.

They said: “The report highlights a number of ambitious projects delivered by the council since the last Best Value report was published in 2012. These include new schools, community facilities, housing and transport.

“Although performance across services is mixed, the report points to evidence of improvement in some of the council’s priority areas, including improved outcomes for children and young people.

“However, it is recognised that the council still needs to focus on some of the key requirements needed to demonstrate Best Value, including financial sustainability, financial management and service transformation.”

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