Do better on your finances, council told

STEPHEN PULLINGER An independent watchdog has exposed a Yarmouth Borough Council's "Achilles' heel" as financial management, it was claimed last night.

STEPHEN PULLINGER

An independent watchdog has exposed a Norfolk council's "Achilles' heel" as financial management, it was claimed last night.

The annual Audit Commission report awarded Yarmouth Borough Council just one out of four for its financial reporting, financial management, financial standing and internal control and two out of four on value for money.

It said the council's overall scores for financial management and internal control had deteriorated on the previous year and that councillors "urgently need to develop and monitor an appropriate action plan to address the issues".

Production of the council's own annual reports remain inadequate and "material and significant amendments to the draft accounts presented for audit have been necessary".

It said the council's capital strategy was "out of date" and "not fit for purpose" and that its medium-term financial strategy, drawn up in early 2006, had insufficient content and support for the figures included.

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The council's Labour opposition spokesman Mick Castle said: "The report's clear message to the council is 'Must do better'. Whatever improvements have been made to environment and regeneration services, reports showing the council's finances as its Achilles' heel always run the risk of undermining confidence in the authority."

The report will be discussed by the council's ruling cabinet next month, but ahead of the meeting, Tory spokesman Bert Collins said the council was determined "to get everything right" and that its new resources director Jane Ratcliffe, appointed last year, had already managed to turn thing around.

Ms Ratcliffe said: "We have had issues around financial management. In particular, we had a very old ledger system in place which did not allow us to do as much as we could on financial reporting. We went out to tender for a new ledger system, costing around £350,000, and that has now gone live."

She said that while the Audit Commission criticised the council's record keeping, it had found no major errors or anything wrong in the finances.

Ms Ratcliffe said interviews would soon take place for a new £60,000 head of finances. A review would then take place to see if the council had the right skills and enough people in post.

She said: "The auditor said we are moving in the right direction and by next year we will have turned it around."

She stressed that the council retained its "good" rating for its overall comprehensive performance assessment (CPA) and the Audit Commission report highlighted progress in key areas, such as turning around around underperforming services including housing benefit and land searches.