Andrew Burns: Auditors appreciate how far we’ve come in a year

Audit Scotland says Edinburgh City Council is addressing its financial challenges. Picture: Greg Macvean

Audit Scotland says Edinburgh City Council is addressing its financial challenges. Picture: Greg Macvean

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THE finance watchdog for local councils is backing Edinburgh’s plans to balance the city budget, says Andrew Burns

I’ve a shocking revelation to make – not everything at the City of Edinburgh Council is perfect; sometimes mistakes are made; and things do indeed go wrong.

Actually, there are very few – if any – organisations (whether public or private) the size and complexity of the council, where everything goes right and mistakes just never happen.

Large organisations, by their very nature, are made up of lots of individuals of varying talents and abilities. And I would contest the vast, vast majority of public servants – for that’s what they are – who work for the council, do a good job and take huge pride in their roles. But, like all complex organisations, mistakes are sometimes made. It’s human nature.

But what differentiates the City of Edinburgh Council (alongside the other 31 local authorities in Scotland) is that we are – quite rightly given our public status – monitored very carefully by external, independent bodies.

The principal external auditor for the council is Audit Scotland, and back in December 2014 it raised significant concerns about the level of savings the council was yet to identify to meet forthcoming (reducing) funding levels; all as part of the “Best Value” audit process.

As a result of those findings, Audit Scotland – again, rightly so – has been carefully monitoring the council’s developing financial plans over the last 14 months. I’m pleased to say they reported their findings just a few weeks ago, and those findings will now be debated at our own full council meeting on Thursday.

In summary, the auditors have concluded that the council has made considerable progress in addressing its financial challenges over the last year. The report signals a step-change in the council’s performance, and 
recognises our strategy for changing the way we deliver local services. Audit Scotland has thus acknowledged a range of improvements since the last “Best Value” audit and the report welcomes the council’s approval of a new four-year budget framework and business plan, and how a balanced budget will be achieved for each of the next three financial years.

The findings particularly highlight both managers’ and elected members’ efforts to prioritise key frontline services, while remaining willing to make difficult decisions where necessary.

The report further acknowledges the operational changes made under the council’s transformation programme, including the signing of a new ICT contract, the restructuring of departments based around four “localities” and the development of a full workforce strategy – and the auditors particularly welcomed the fact that by engaging with the public throughout the budget-setting process, the council was uniquely able to agree a four-year budget framework. 

As council leader, I obviously welcome this latest Audit Scotland report, which demonstrates just how far the council has come over the last year to address its financial challenges. I’m particularly grateful to the thousands of council staff who have continued to deliver front-line services to the very best of their ability, throughout a period of significant uncertainty.

With an increasing demand for services and limited funds, setting the council budget for 2016/17 has unquestionably involved some of the toughest decisions of my 17 years in local government. But, in very difficult circumstances, we have aimed to prioritise those services that matter most to residents and I am confident that we are now in a stronger position to meet the challenges ahead of us.

Obviously, now the budget has been set, we need to implement the detail of the agreed changes, and continue to make more efficient use of the reducing resources available to us whilst continuing to improve the services we provide. Staff have told us they are keen to maintain the pace of council transformation – but also that it’s crucial we deliver these changes while ensuring continuity of service.

That’s going to be difficult, and I’m under no illusions about the problems that still lie ahead – but the council is now on a far sounder financial footing than it was a year ago, and is in a much stronger position to meet future service demands.

Councillor Andrew Burns is leader of Edinburgh City Council