The national scrutineer, Audit Scotland, has published its 2015 report [attached below] on Argyll and Bute Council this morning, 4th December 2015.
Of comfort to the local electorate and to the Commission is the finding that the council is ‘a significantly different council now than it was when we reported in 2013, with a consequent reduction in risk’. Specifically, ‘The stability of the council’s political leadership that we reported in July 2014 has been sustained and confidence amongst elected members is growing’.
The report notes that: ‘The council does a number of things well and communities have a generally positive view of local services. But the amount of public criticism that the council attracts has an impact on its reputation among local communities and more widely.’
In relation to this is the focus on continuing internal tensions. These do not relate to the SNP opposition groju of nine councillors, with the report saying ‘The Administration and the main opposition group have established a working relationship, although this will face the stresses and strains that will apply in many councils over the next 18 months.’
The auditors instead highlight that: ‘Despite considerable member development activity, and improved relationships between most councillors, long- standing political and personal differences remain amongst a small number of key individuals in Argyll and Bute. These differences are played out in a very public way and are damaging the council’s image and reputation, with implications for relations with local communities.’
They emphasise that: ‘Whatever the merits of the individual views and motivations of those involved, the discord must be resolved in the best interests of he people of Argyll and Bute’.
However, while the issue of the damaging impact of criticism is well taken, a major paragraph in the report’s summary of its findings identifies a core inability in the council’s thinking, mindset and strategic planning that leaves those frustrated by this faced with the choice of continuing to be critical – which is virtually all they can do in a continuingly manipulative and closed administration – or being silent, lending tacit consent to inability and letting it run.
The paragraph in question is paragraph 14 in the Summary statement and reads:
’14. The council’s approach to meeting future financial challenges needs to improve. It has agreed a strategy, “Planning our Future, which aims to transform the work of the council to invest in the future and support communities by protecting jobs and preserving the most important services. However, in a public consultation currently underway, options for longer term savings are heavily based on low-level cuts to individual service budgets and involve reducing or stopping services, rather than doing things differently. Links to Planning our Future are not clear, nor is the impact that the proposals will have on strategic priorities. There is no indication of what sustainable services will look like in the future.’
This indicates two parallel features in the council’s current operation:
- the ability to produce competent proposals on how the work of the council may be transformed – in future;
- the inability to put those insights into action in the way they are continuing to work.
The divorce between the former and the latter speaks for an administration that is either cynical or incapable.
The report is correct that the council does a lot of things well. The ‘client facing’ staff are largely very good at what they do and the lower levels of management are largely honest, competent and hard working.
The highest level of management, though, is where the greatest failings are to be found – and this is the level that dictates the operations and the culture of the council – and the source of power that is as often used to obstruct as to enable.
There is an impediment even on hope for the future, when staff changes and new appointments come. The highest level of appointments are made by a panel including those at the same level; and the strategies behind the appointments they have made are transparent and too often addressed to varieties of convenience rather than need.
It is clear from the report that the auditors’ perception is that the nature of the culture within the council is largely unevolved and needs to change.
A side issue but one of local interest, is that the report gives an up to date account of just which group of councillors is part of the administration or of the opposition just now. This continues to be something of a lobster quadrille. With a by-election reported to be in the offing in Oban North and Lorn, this picture may change again to some degree, one way or the other.
The full summary from the report is reproduced below verbatim; and the full report itself is attached at the foot.