Midlothian Council 'needs better political leadership' says watchdog

CASH-STRAPPED Midlothian Council needs better political leadership and must face up to difficult financial decisions instead of dipping into its reserves, Scotland’s local government spending watchdog warned today.

Wednesday, 3rd July 2019, 4:48 pm
Updated Wednesday, 3rd July 2019, 5:48 pm
Midlothian Council has started work on building Shawfair new town
Midlothian Council has started work on building Shawfair new town

And it said officers and elected members needed to work together as a matter of urgency to agree a medium-term financial strategy.

The Accounts Commission said Midlothian faced big challenges with the fastest-growing population of any local authority in Scotland.

It praised the council for high-profile projects in schools, housing and transport.

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But it said the record so far did not give it confidence the council was well placed to deal with the £14.5 million funding gaps over the next three years.

The report said the council had not made satisfactory progress on securing “best value” since the previous report in 2012.

It said from 2016 onwards, the council had “used its reserves rather than making some difficult decisions”.

And it continued: “Elected members need to show better leadership to deliver the necessary change and make difficult decisions about the future shape of services.”

Based on 2016 projections, the population of Midlothian is expected to increase to 100,410 by 2026, an increase of around 13.3 per cent.

The commission said since 2012 the council had completed a school catchment review and approved a strategy for its school estate; played a key role in opening four stations on the Borders rail line; started work on Shawfair new town; and improved its housing stock.

But it said there was a “mixed” picture on performance of services overall and there had been “limited progress” on the council’s transformation programme.

Accounts Commission member Tim McKay said: “Midlothian needs to address the significant challenges it faces - the cumulative funding gap and the additional pressures from a fast-expanding population.

“The council has a good record of working with its partners and local communities. This will help in supporting a medium-term strategy and transformation programme to get its finances and services in good shape for the future.”

Derek Milligan, leader of the council’s minority Labour administration, admitted the lack of an overall majority made running the authority difficult.

But he said the council had recently agreed a new medium-term financial strategy and was putting robust plans in place to bring about the transformation in services now needed.

And he challenged some of the points in the report. “We have not drawn on our reserves to balance our budget over the last two years as is suggested here, and indeed this year we have come in under budget.

“When it comes to showing better leadership, the Best Value report is actually highlighting the need for closer working between the three political groups – something that we have already addressed in developing our new financial strategy.”

But he said the parties would work together to address the report’s recommendations. “The council is aware of where it needs to improve and we are focused on working with our communities to meet our key priorities.”