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County council hid £10m overspend

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councilIN 2013/14 the council’s approved cost reduction target of £1.6m was said to have been achieved. This was accepted by Cabinet without query. However, a retired auditor, John Hudson, has revealed that there was actually a £10m overspend during that financial year. Our correspondent questions who is accountable for the way the Authority spends our money, and who is actually running the Council. MANY years ago, in 1995, I became aware of a significant spend on refurbishing the Garden Room at the Haverfordwest Community Learning Centre, with furniture and carpet way above the standards expected for a class room.

I naively thought that details of this project would have been reported to a committee of Councillors for approval. After considerable toing and froing, the then Education Officer, Gerson Davies, informed me that this £40,000+ project was an initiative of the newly installed Chief Executive of the new PCC. No report or Councillor approval was sought, or deemed necessary in order to spend our money. This room was apparently required as a temporary meeting room for the Council, before building of the new £10m County Hall.

Having been involved in budgeting and monitoring in a previous precomputer life, I became interested in the Council’s budget and financial monitoring processes and concerned at the lack of information and explanation provided to Councillors (and us) by officers in Budget and Monitoring Reports. Nevertheless, a lack of information has never affected the readiness with which the Cabinet have supported the officer’s proposed Budget recommendations to Councillors, or accepted monitoring reports without comment or question.

Some broad guidelines are appropriate:- The Council is responsible for approving the annual budget, income and expenditure, and for setting the Council tax, based on a report and recommendations made by the Cabinet.

• Directors of Services are responsible for ensuring the annual cash limited service budgets as set by Council are adhered to.

• The Cabinet is charged by the Council to undertake the monitoring of financial performance through the financial year on a quarterly basis against the approved annual budget by way of reports from the Chief Financial Officer. Reports are submitted to relevant to Overview and Scrutiny Committees for Scrutiny, with the opportunity to report back to Cabinet. (This has never happened).

• The Council’s budget position is long stopped by a Statutory duty placed on the Chief Financial officer by Section 151 of the LG ACT 1972 as amended, whereby he/she is responsible for ensuring that the Councils Budget is balanced, i.e annual expenditure is matched by annual income and is required to recommend remedial action if necessary. Officers and the Cabinet prefer to focus attention on the Council’s Net cost of Services.

Perhaps it is considered that the finer details of budget control are beyond the capabilities of comprehension of mere councillors and us, or perhaps it is an easier life for officers if the mystique and secrecy can be preserved with support by a supine Cabinet which requires no explanation of priorities or detailed changes to the levels of service provision bought by officers during the year as determined by events. As the following headline figures illustrate, the Council’s Revenue Net Cost of Council Services is an element of the whole financial picture.

Using the Actual expenditure and Income figures from the 2013/14 accounts and for comparison, this year’s Approved budget, an interesting picture emerges. The figures on the left show that the overall statutory required “ balanced” budget requirement for 2013/14, was more than met with an excess of Council Tax income that, in accordance with approved priority policy was allocated to the 21st Century Schools programme Reserve. Actual Net expenditure on providing services, £211,894,000, narrowly equalled the Budget amount of £211,845,000.

However, closer examination reveals that the Gross cost incurred in providing Council Services to us in 2013/14 was actually some £9.8m MORE than the original Council Approved 2013/14 budget. This increase in gross expenditure was mostly met by additional income of £9.5m. All this behind the Preferred Net reporting curtains, with councillors kept in the dark about how officers had “controlled” departmental expenditure within the Council approved budget. Here it must be said that the 2013/14 out-turn Monitoring report was only submitted to Cabinet, who “received” the report without comment and may not even have been made aware of the £10m overspend on providing services matched by income.

Contrary to the Council’s Standing Orders, the out-turn monitoring reports were never submitted to relevant scrutiny committees for investigation, comment or even information. What about the Council’s Annual Accounts? This weighty (and incomprehensible) document is only submitted to the Corporate Governance committee, in draft, pending formal Audit. The Audited accounts are submitted to this Committee and the Audit Committee. The majority of councillors, assuming they are remotely interested in what officers do with our money have no formal opportunity to consider the annual financial performance in committee or Council.

 

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Brand new features unveiled at Scolton Manor Park

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ONE of Pembrokeshire’s best-loved family destinations has announced it will be unveiling several new attractions in June, ready for the summer holidays.  

Among the new features at Scolton Manor are an eco-explorer village, a 1.2km woodland cycle track, an outdoor pirate ship play area and a dedicated railway attraction complete with steam train locomotive ‘Margaret’ and ‘Scolton Express’ play train.

Mark Thomas, manager of Scolton Manor Park, said the team were looking forward to showing visitors the new attractions.

“We’re delighted with our new facilities and believe they will perfectly complement the attractions we have here already at Scolton,” he said.

The woodland eco-explorer village aims to give children more opportunities for outside play and spark their enthusiasm to discover more about the natural world.  

Cllr Paul Miller, Cabinet Member for Economy, Tourism, Culture and Leisure, said the village is perfect for all young explorers from toddlers right through to older children.

“Children love playing outside and we want to inspire them through their play to not only find out more about biodiversity and the environment but also how to care for it,” he said.

“As well as eco-explorer areas, games and activities there will be fun tips on how they can reuse, reduce and recycle more and protect the environment.”

The eco-explorer village is funded by a £50,000 grant from the Landfill Disposals Tax Community Scheme and £25,000 grant from Community Facilities Programme (Welsh Government), in partnership with the Pembrokeshire Beekeepers’ Association.

Mark Thomas said the current attractions at Scolton have also proved very popular since the outdoor areas at the park re-opened to the public earlier this spring.

As well as an adventure play area for older children which includes a 30-metre zip wire, a spinning climbing web and ‘super swings’,  younger visitors can enjoy the wooden playground, sensory musical play area and woodland play features.

“The many and varied attractions at Scolton enhance its role as a community facility while providing a wide range of countryside experiences at a lower cost,” said Mark.

“The new features in particular will also help to continue the development of the site into a must-visit tourist attraction within mid and North Pembrokeshire.”

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Public engagement exercise over new hospital between St Clears and Narberth

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HYWEL DDA is asking the people of Pembrokeshire to help it further shape and deliver future services by taking part in a six-week engagement exercise.

Since the publication of its strategy, A Healthier Mid and West Wales: Our Future Generations Living Well in 2018, the health board has worked with partners to provide care and develop services. However, the coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on health and care services. As a result, the health board now wants to learn from the public about how the pandemic has affected their health and care, and access to it.

This week, Hywel Dda UHB has been distributing a discussion document for the public to consider, along with a questionnaire for completion.

Hywel Dda UHB is also asking for the public’s feedback in relation to its long-term strategy to develop and build a new hospital in the south of the Hywel Dda area, somewhere between and including St Clears, in Carmarthenshire, and Narberth, in Pembrokeshire.

This location is the most central for most of the population in the south of the Hywel Dda area, and it was determined through the public consultation held in 2018.

The public is also being asked to nominate sites for a new hospital based four criteria:

The nominated site must be within the zone between and including St Clears in Carmarthenshire and Narberth in Pembrokeshire. This location is the most central to most of the population in the south of the Hywel Dda area.

The nominated site should be a minimum of 35 acres of reasonably developable land.

The nominated site should have realistic prospects of obtaining planning permission for a new hospital.

There should be appropriate transport infrastructure for a major hospital site.

Steve Moore, Chief Executive of Hywel Dda UHB, said: “The global pandemic has had a major impact on all areas of our lives so it’s crucial that the health board considers, reflects and learns from this extraordinary period. This engagement exercise will allow the public to tell us in their own words how COVID-19 has affected their health and care, and access to it.

“I would encourage as many people as possible to participate because the feedback we receive will play a major role in helping shape future services. This in turn will allow us to deliver on our long-term commitment for a healthier mid and west Wales.

“I would also stress that this engagement exercise is part of an ongoing process. Over the coming months and years, we plan to engage with the public, stakeholders and partners on a wide variety of issues, such as service models. Everyone will have their chance to give their views and opinions because we are committed to continuous engagement with the public to ensure we provide the best possible care.”

The engagement exercise will run until Monday June 21.

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Paul Sartori taking action to support climate with National Lottery grant of nearly £14,000

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LOCAL hospice at home charity, Paul Sartori Hospice at Home, is taking action to support the climate with the installation of solar panels at its main head office in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire.

The charity which delivers end of life care services across Pembrokeshire, has been awarded a grant to fund the purchase and installation of solar panels at Paul Sartori House, Winch Lane. This investment is part of an ongoing commitment to address the climate emergency and the charity joins many others who are taking action. Paul Sartori was one of 35 community groups, who were selected to take part in the Climate Action Boost scheme, funded by The National Lottery Community Fund.

Working alongside Renew Wales, a partner in the initiative, the group explored methods to help tackle the causes and consequences of climate change, and to operate more sustainably. A number of options were discussed to reduce their impact on the environment and Renew Wales helped the charity to develop an environmental action plan, which is to be implemented over the coming months. The scheme available to cover a variety of environmental reduction activities, including renewable energy, reducing consumption, local food and reduced or less impactful travel.

Paul Sartori Hospice at Home wouldn’t normally be associated with environmental activity. Through regular consultation over many months, the charity has been really encouraged by what they have learnt.

“We have invested a lot of time in developing the plan; discussed a number of alternatives along the way, but feel that the solar panel installation will have the biggest impact for the charity in the long term”, said Sandra Dade, Charity Manager. “The National Lottery Climate Action Boost has really inspired our charity to minimise our impacton the environment and we will continue this journey,” added Sandra.

Jemma Nurse, Funding Manager at The National Lottery Community Fund said, “The climate emergency is everyone’s business, which is why The National Lottery Community Fund is acting to support and inspire communities to minimise their own impact on the environment. We are proud to be a significant funder of environmental projects and Paul Sartori Hospice at Home, along with the other groups participating in Climate Action Boost, will play a valuable part in building our knowledge so we can share our learning with other funders across Wales and the UK.”

The services provided by the Paul Sartori Hospice at Home enable people in the later stages of any life-limiting illness to be cared for and to die at home with dignity, independence, pain free and surrounded by those they hold most dear, if that is their wish.

All of the services are free of charge, available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, thanks to the generosity of the Pembrokeshire Community. Further information on the charity and its services can be obtained by visiting their website www.paulsartori.org, or by phoning 01437 763223.

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