Council ‘over-reliant on outside contractors’

Gavin Corbett. Picture: Jane Barlow
Gavin Corbett. Picture: Jane Barlow
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CITY officials have been accused of an unhealthy reliance on contractors, with a top legal firm set to be hired on a £600,000 deal to pursue millions worth of general debt.

Morton Fraser, which has offices in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London, are expected to be granted the two-year contract later this month.

The firm will be responsible for progressing the recovery of about £4.5m of debt a year linked to sundry, non-domestic rates and council tax.

The council has estimated it will save about £100,000 a year by having a single company handling debt recovery rather than multiple firms, as under existing arrangements.

However, questions have been asked over why the contract is needed at all at a time when the local authority is still yet to recover – let alone bill – most of the £30m debt linked to the property conservation scandal.

Green finance spokesman Councillor Gavin Corbett said: “This contract is bringing together a range of separate contracts from separate departments, so should be more efficient.

“However, the bigger question is around why this work needs to be contracted out at all. On the face of it, the tasks set out don’t look so specialist that they could not be carried out by the council’s own suitably-qualified legal staff. Over time I am worried at ‘hollowing out’ our council internal expertise, such that we are left at the mercy of private contractors who can name their price.”

Morton Fraser was selected as the standout candidate following a tender process.

A potential one-year extension will be part of the contract, which is expected to be approved by the city’s finance and resources committee on November 28. No extra money will be paid to Morton Fraser by the council if recovery work extends into a third year.

The debt to be chased up is not connected to the scandal-hit statutory repairs scheme.

The scheme involved the council sending in contractors to carry out communal repairs without the consent of homeowners, who were 
subsequently billed for the work. Council leader Andrew Burns has confirmed that letters will be sent out to 17 properties across the Capital before Christmas, notifying them of outstanding statutory notice bills to be paid.

The notices will include financial assistance information in efforts by the council to be as “sensitive as possible” about recovering the debt. Individual sums being billed to 170 people will be between £100 and £20,000.

A total of £22m of the original £30m outstanding from the property conservation scandal still remains unbilled.

A whistleblower who helped break the scandal said: “People are standing firm because they think they got screwed, either because people did things that were dodgy or due to incompetence.”

• A £66,000, three-year contract will be awarded to James Ritchie & Sons to maintain Edinburgh’s 38 civic clocks and time ball. The Dundas Street clockmaker has been doing the work for half a 
century.

Thirteen of the clocks are in the City Chambers, with others including the Hearts’ memorial clock at Haymarket and the Tron Kirk’s timepiece.