Public spending watchdog calls for hard decisions over council finances

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Councillors in East Renfrewshire need to be “more actively involved in taking hard decisions”, a public spending watchdog has said.

An Audit Scotland report for the Accounts Commission found the local authority has largely retained the high performance noted in a previous audit in 2005.

Auditors warned a “significant” increase in the scale and rate of change since 2005 presents “risks” to workforce capacity and service provision and highlighted “unprecedented” savings targets of £26 million by 2021/22.

The report states: “It is crucial that elected members play a more prominent role in leading this change. M ember decision-making needs to be more prominent and transparent, and supported by more robust scrutiny.”

Auditors criticised the amount of scrutiny carried out informally but praised the council’s clear vision and direction, its good relationships with officers and partnership work.

The report found performance is “good overall” as most indicators have remained stable or improved in the past six years, with the largest improvements in education and household waste recycling.

One indicator that fell significantly was the proportion of people aged 65 and over with intensive needs receiving care at home.

The report states the council is in a strong financial position as it has high levels of reserves and low levels of borrowing, but consistently underspends its revenue budget, generating high levels of unplanned year-end balances.

Auditors recommend the council discovers the reason for continual underspends and introduces “more realistic budgeting policies and practices which reflect actual spending levels and patterns more closely”, particularly in the face of increasing financial pressures.

Ronnie Hinds, Accounts Commission acting chairman, said: “East Renfrewshire has made progress since 2005. However, like all councils, it faces the challenge of serving a changing population with a reducing budget and few easy ways to save money.

“It is consulting local residents on savings options, and a priority now is for councillors to be more actively involved in taking hard decisions.”

East Renfrewshire Council chief executive, Lorraine McMillan, said: “We are pleased that the best value audit report from Audit Scotland reflects the significant progress which has been made across the council in recent years.

“The report highlights a wide range of areas which demonstrate sector-leading practice, with some areas of challenge highlighted for future years as our population continues to grow and budgets become tighter.”

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