03:12PM, Monday 24 May 2021
Tory councillor Wayne Strutton (left) and council leader James Swindlehurst
Slough's council leader faced a grilling from the opposition about the two damning audit reports at an extraordinary meeting.
Councillor James Swindlehurst (Lab, Cippenham Green), leader, was faced with tough questions from the opposing Conservatives and Independents following the highly critical papers of the local authority’s financial governance.
In the external auditor’s reports, Grant Thornton UK LLP found:
At an extraordinary audit and corporate governance committee on Tuesday, May 18, the leader of the Conservatives, councillor Wayne Strutton (Haymill and Lynch Hill), heavily criticised the leader and asked him when he was made aware of the issues highlighted in the reports.
He also accused him of supporting poor decisions and practices damaging the council’s finances and its governance.
Cllr Swindlehurst denied this, adding he was made aware of the production of the accounts last September by the chair of the audit committee, councillor Waqas Sabah (Lab,Farnham), that the deadlines were not met, and the information appeared not to be complete.
It became ‘clear’ there wasn’t ‘adequate’ officers’ resource or expertise to finish this work in a timely fashion following weekly meetings after Christmas with the leader, Cllr Sabah, the auditors, and the council’s chief executive, Josie Wragg.
He said: “I don’t deny there are inefficiencies in the financial team and in the state of accounts we’ve produced.
“Clearly, we need to take the steps to correct that and is something I intend to do as I am the elected leader of the council and I will take responsibility for doing that – but I think it will be wrong for me to step into the operational space because that is not members role and will much more likely make things worse.”
Cllr Strutton put some of the issues down to the political leadership being ‘over-ambitious’ in major regeneration schemes, saying: “We have taken more than we can manage, which is why we have the capacity and capability issues.
“Do you [Cllr Swindlehurst] take some responsibility in that? And for a small unitary authority with a big potential redevelopment of the town and everything else, we try to take on too big of a bite then we are capable of running.”
In response, Cllr Swindlehurst said: “I’m not apologising for being ambitious.
“I accept though we need to resource our finance team more robustly and get a better level of expertise there, and make sure that we’ve dealt with all the auditors’ recommendations in and around statutory.
“We will be working on that going forward.”
In February, the council requested from the government a capitalisation directive of £12.2 million which would allow them to sell some of their assets in order to plug a £10 million hole in their finances.
This blackhole was caused by owing a company in Slough a one-off payment of £5.3 million in business rates since 2010 following a tribunal and absorbing the Slough Children’s Services Trust’s £5.5 million debt.
Independent councillor Madhuri Bedi (Foxborough), who was not present at the meeting, asked via a written question when the council leader was aware of these 'huge problems'.
Cllr Swindlehurst said he was made aware of the business rates issue in October 2020 and knew about the Children’s Trust deficit since last summer and has been talking with the Department for Education and the area’s Children’s Commissioner to replace the organisation