Council forced to write off £64,000

A council has been forced to re-employ its last chief accountant as a consultant after it emerged that £64,000 of taxpayers' money had to be written off.

A council has been forced to re-employ its last chief accountant as a consultant after it emerged that £64,000 of taxpayers' money had to be written off.

South Norfolk Council was yesterday criticised over "a gross waste of public money" following an audit of its finances highlighted significant concerns.

A report from the Audit Commission says that it can only grant the council a "qualified" value-for-money rating, preventing it from obtaining status as a top-performing local authority, because of problems with its internal control procedures.

But last night, the council's financial managers insisted it was going in the right direction and pointed out that the commission had praised it more highly than before on financial reporting and financial health.

It has emerged in the commission's report that the council had to write off £64,000 - equivalent to 1.2pc of council tax - after going through a five-year backlog of monthly financial statements that had not been filed to the council's bank.

It also had to dedicate about nine months of an officer's time to the painstaking work.

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The auditor is also critical of the council for giving principal accountant Graham Arnup permission to take early retirement last summer but still not having a successor in place as the financial year neared its end.

Yesterday it emerged that former deputy Emma Teviotdale has now been promoted - but Mr Arnup will continue to work from home on the accounts as a private consultant.

"We are concerned that the authority will experience problems with the production of the 2006-07 accounts," the commission states. "This is of particular note given the issues raised in the report and the imminent retirement of the principal accountant without an identified successor."

Andy Radford, the council's head of finance, said: "We are responding to the Audit Commission's annual governance report positively and expect to close the 2006-07 accounts soon.

"The Audit Commission has scored the council more highly than before on financial reporting and financial health.

"In particular, we score highest on value for money, as well as financial health. We are pleased with these improvements, which show we are going in the right direction."

But eyebrows have also been raised by a deal between South Norfolk Council and Saffron, the trust that now runs its former housing stock, that has seen a house worth £180,000 in Long Stratton given away for the promise to build two 'affordable' homes.

John Fuller, leader of the Conservative opposition on South Norfolk Council, who also sits on its accounts committee, said: "It beggars belief that the council just gave away a house for nothing in exchange for a promise to build two affordable homes Saffron was going to build anyway.

"I consider that to be a gross waste of public money."

Last night, Mandy Smith, the council's cabinet member for care, fairness and housing, said: "Homes for families are our number one priority, and if we have the means to enable more to be built, then we should do it.

"Housing land sold that does not result in housing results in half the proceeds being returned to the government - now that would be a waste of money."