Council spending is questioned in audit

THE issue of over-spending and waste at Newtownabbey Borough Council has again been raised, this time by the Local Government Auditor and the TaxPayers’ Alliance (TPA).

The Local Government Auditor’s report into council spending has highlighted a possible unnecessary spending of over £300,000 during one of Newtownabbey’s flagship building projects.

The Chief Local Government Auditor, Louise Mason, in her report for the financial year ending March 2011 stated: “A capital project managed by the council suffered delays that resulted in potential nugatory expenditure of £310,000.

“An archaeological survey, which was a condition of the planning approval, lasted much longer than expected and a delay in the completion of a water feature contributed to the additional time that was charged to the council.”

The guidance was issued in Ms Mason’s first annual report on local government. She has also sent Letters of Audit to each council, summarising financial standing and raising specific concerns.

The annual report also confirmed the council had the highest debt amount among Northern Ireland’s local authorities at £44.6 million.

The debt represents £539 for everyone living in the borough, which is lower than the highest per head of population figure of £647 for those living in the Coleraine Council area.

Meanwhile, the TPA has said Newtownabbey Council, along with Northern Ireland’s 25 other local authorities, is still spending more on mileage payments than is recommended by the government, six months on from when the matter was first highlighted by the public spending watchdog.

Each council, it found, was spending 65p a mile for casual use when HM Revenue & Customs has recommended paying staff 45p per mile.

Rosie Greer, TPA Northern Ireland coordinator, said: “Is it deplorable that councils continue to pay these extravagant mileage rates, whilst at the same time complaining that their finances are squeezed?

“Paying staff 45p per mile is fair, and is in line with the HMRC recommended rate. The money saved should be used for frontline services - not spent lining the pockets of council staff.”

In a statement the council said: “The car allowance rates paid by Newtownabbey Borough Council are in accordance with agreements reached by the National Joint Council for Local Government Services.

“These rates vary according to the car [engine size] and the status of car users, for example casual or essential users.

“These vary from 13.7p per mile to 65p per mile. Staff are required to travel to visit customers, for example building control or environmental health, and in association with organising and attending events involving the council.”

On the auditor’s report the council said: “The project concerned was the Mossley Mill Phase II project.

“An archaeological survey was a condition of the planning approval. The excavation works had to be performed during the foundation phase of the contract. The survey lasted much longer than was originally estimated.

“The council was successful in securing the offer of a grant towards the cost of the water feature in March 2009 during the construction works. The installation of the water feature therefore delayed the completion of the contract.

“Post project evaluation is undertaken at the conclusion of all major capital schemes commissioned by the council. Recommendations from these evaluations inform and strengthen the management of future capital projects.

“The council has only recently received the [auditor’s] report and will consider the recommendations in due course.”