Councillor 'astonished' by remark at Royal Borough cabinet meeting

Shay Bottomley
Councillor 'astonished' by remark at Royal Borough cabinet meeting

An opposition councillor has expressed concerns over the council’s handling of finances after a cabinet member made an ‘astonishing’ remark at a cabinet meeting on Thursday.

Cllr John Baldwin (Lib Dem, Belmont) questioned lead member for finance Cllr David Hilton (Con, Ascot & Sunningdale) after it emerged there had been a ‘significant change’ in the spending on council services.

At the meeting, Cllr Hilton presented a report on the Royal Borough’s financial outturn against the budget for the previous financial year.

In his report, Cllr Hilton explained that the council had underspent on its services by £2.353million for the financial year, a ‘favourable movement’ of £2.162million from that reported in month 10.

“This is a significant change, which is great news as it increases available resources,” said the lead member.

“But I recognise it’s not so good from the point of view of financial control.”

Cllr Hilton added that he believed this ‘hiccup will not recur’ following the council’s appointment of a new team of senior accountants.

Cllr Baldwin referred to this comment later in the meeting, adding that the size of the change in two months was ‘far more than a hiccup’, but ‘a sign of a failure of control and reporting’.

“We’ve been hearing for some time since the CIPFA report and the appointment of our executive director of resources that these matters were being dealt with,” said Cllr Baldwin.

“And yet, we’re now in a situation where the lead member for finance describes these late savings as effectively a failure of control.”

In response, Cllr Hilton said the administration had ‘set out to manage our finances very prudently and carefully’.

He added: “The moment I see a change which is greater than one might reasonably have expected it to be, it rings alarm bells.

“I had conversations with the S151 officer and also with our new senior business partner, and we talked through the situation which had occurred at month 10.

“We had some interim accountants who did not know the services as well as maybe they would have liked, and were not as challenging as Julian McGowan (senior finance business partner) believed they should be.

“The consequence is that some things absolutely slipped through.”

This response sparked concern from Cllr Baldwin, who reminded Cllr Hilton he had been lead member before, during and after the CIPFA report.

“How is this possible that you can so blithely say that things just ‘absolutely slipped through’? That’s an astonishing thing for you to be able to say,” said Cllr Baldwin.

As the lead member for finance went to respond, the leader of the council interjected, and denied Cllr Hilton had made the remark.

“I’m not entirely convinced that the phrase he used [was] ‘slipped through’,” said Cllr Andrew Johnson.

“What I would say is that we’ve got a cabinet member for finance who during his tenure has delivered, for the third consecutive year, a substantial budget underspend, has delivered upon our commitment to putting money back into reserves – which is a call I’ve heard time and time again for as long as I’ve been on this council.”

Cllr Johnson added that the lead member had ‘proactively engaged with CIPFA’ throughout the process and has ‘tirelessly worked to implement’ the subsequent recommendations.

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