South Somerset battery row
The Audit Committee meeting of South Somerset District Council (SSDC) on Friday was quite something. Auditors, Grant Thornton issued a report which raised serious questions about three issues at SSDC. The failure of the finance function tom prepare working papers on a timely fashion was just one. But is as good a place to start as any. The Leveller attended and put a number of questions to the meeting. A fact that has been strangely airbrushed out of the meeting report that was published by the County Gazette!
We have written several pieces about how the audit process has gone off the rails this year. Staff being rude and uncooperative the auditors was a starter for ten. Working papers late, working papers with no adequate explanations of the numbers and deadlines repeatedly missed. The 2 September meeting was supposed to be the latest date for signing the 2020/21 accounts. But no, signing the accounts was not on the agenda. Again.
On the plus side, Mike Hewitson, chair of the Audit Committee pointed out some good news. The members of staff who had been obstructive, were “no longer in the employ of this authority.” The flip side of that, is that the auditors point to a lack of staff continuity. SSDC acknowledge that only one finance team member remained in post during the audit. The others left, were promoted, replaced etc and there was generally a high turnover of staff.
The audit though remains outstanding still.
The main hindrance being a difference of opinion between SSDC and the auditors. This is over the value of the battery park just outside Taunton. Again a topic that the Leveller brought to public attention and has written about many times since. Bear in mind that SSDC Opium borrowed over £12m to finance the construction of the Taunton battery site. SSDC Opium valued the facility at £20m which sounds positive. However on being closely questioned by the auditors that was reduced to £16m.
However the auditors own valuation valued it at less than that. However as no agreement could be reached, a third valuation is being sought. All, we should point out, at the taxpayers expense. So the audit (the deadline for sign off was 30 September 2021) remains ongoing. An SSDC finance officer, Paul Matravers, suggested it would take at least a month to get the third report. Plus time to be allowed for Grant Thornton to do their work. We may be lucky to get signed accounts this side of Christmas.
Meanwhile the audit fee keeps climbing. The original fee proposed was £67,000. The latest figure being discussed is £170,000. Not all of that increase can be put against the performance of the finance team. But a lot of it can. And once again, these are costs that the taxpayer will be bearing.
Cllr Lock also suggested that “it would be interesting to know what the extra audit cost would be that was down to this authority. I think Transformation played a big part in staff shortages, not just in finance.”