01:39PM, Thursday 11 November 2021
The council got ‘stuck’ with steep legal consultancy fees for much longer than it intended – spending nearly £1m on this in 2021/22.
At a meeting of the Overview and Scrutiny committee on Thursday, leader of the council James Swindlehurst broke down some of the expenditures over the course of the year.
As the council has a ‘historically small’ legal team, it has used consultancies for legal matters to account for a multitude of different aspects of the law.
It was receiving this from RSM UK but managed to ratchet up costs of £975,000.
“Clearly, in terms of costs, this isn’t satisfactory,” said Cllr Swindlehurst. “It started as a six-month arrangement (and it) crept into the future of the organisation.”
During that six-month period, the council was unable to recruit permanent staff.
“We were stuck needing ongoing support from a consultant,” he said.
Committee member Cllr Fiza Matloob (Labour & Co-Operative, Baylis and Stoke) asked why the matter was not discussed with members of the council – as should happen with costs over half a million pounds.
“This is something that should definitely have been discussed in Overview and Scrutiny,” said Cllr Matloob.
Chief financial officer, Steven Mair, replied:
“We can’t explain why it didn’t come forward but we are now being transparent with this matter.”
Cllr Swindlehurst said he thought that this contract may have been included in a list of 30 or 40 and was thus missed.
“It isn’t satisfactory at all but I assume that’s what happened,” he said.
As a result, there are plans to change not just the numerical threshold of half a million, but also to introduce much more oversight in general.
“Handing over large sums of money to a consultants’ with very little chance of scrutiny... is not an efficient thing for the council to be doing,” Cllr Swindlehurst said.
“We want to get out of an arrangement like that as quickly as possible.”
Mr Mair agreed that tighter control over such expenditures was ‘absolutely essential’ moving forward.
A number of other problems with the council have also led to high costs, including an 'off the wall' officer decision regarding reserves for repaying debt.