Auditors have given Cheshire East Council the seal of approval over its financial management.
The report by external auditors Grant Thornton says they are ‘satisfied that in all significant respects the Council put in place proper arrangements to secure economy, efficiency and effectiveness in its use of resources’.
It also highlights that Cheshire East has made ‘significant improvements to its arrangements to secure financial resilience, developing business proposals and managing major projects’.
The report did, however, highlight some weaknesses around securing value for money and set out an action plan for the Council – which is already under way.
Councillor Peter Raynes, Cheshire East Council Cabinet member in charge of finance, said: “This is a very positive report on the healthy state of the Council’s management of its finances during a tough economic climate and big changes in how we are managing and delivering services.
“We take seriously the issues raised by the auditors about some internal processes. However, these have not affected the overall value for money we provide for our residents.
“Council Tax has been frozen for four years by this Council and this has saved the average household more than £200 a year.
“This Council is prioritising spending money where its residents want it to be spent – such as repairing more than 50,000 potholes so far this year and resurfacing more than 60 miles of Cheshire East roads.
“Investment in our waste collection service has also seen us achieve record levels of customer satisfaction of around 93 per cent.
“We have been vigorously following up the plan, developed between the Council and the auditors, to deliver improvements in those areas highlighted.”
At the Council’s audit and governance committee, last Friday (September 27), the auditors praised the authority saying: “It is a really good performance. In all significant respects the Council has adequate financial arrangements.
“It has been a challenging year but to have maintained the quality and timeliness of financial information is a significant achievement of which the Council should be proud.”
The auditors added: “There have been a lot of improvements by the Council in the second half of 2012/13. The direction of travel is very positive.
“There has been a large amount of progress to move the Council forward during what is a period of significant change for the authority. The new three-year medium term financial plan (MTFP) sets out the Council’s core purpose, reflecting the change to become a ‘commissioning council’ and the challenge of major funding reductions from government. All of these plans and policies are ‘joined-up’ and reflect that.”
The auditors’ report identified weaknesses in the areas of: arrangements to procure goods and services; understanding of costs and performance; and processes to develop business proposals and manage significant projects.
The key issue was that while by year end, these processes were significantly improved – they were implemented during the year and so the auditors were unable to conclude that good value for money had been embedded for the whole period.
Value for money is a high priority for Cheshire East as it plans to change the delivery model for some services and becomes a 'commissioning authority' in the medium term.
The report recognised a number of improvements have been made since the last Audit report in 2012. These included ‘improved financial planning and control arrangements in a number of areas’. It highlighted:
● The Three-Year MTFP (2013-16) is now the Council’s over-arching strategy linked into business plans and other strategy documents;
● A revised budget-setting process in place for 2014, with more explicit links to the Council’s stated policies and Sustainable Communities Strategy;
● The introduction of a Financial Resilience Update for Cabinet from July 2013 – designed to support member decision making to help create a sustainable financial environment for the Council.
In the important areas of ‘challenging economy, efficiency and effectiveness’, the report said ‘significant progress has been made to enable transparent decision making, subject to appropriate risk management, challenge and scrutiny review’.
A number of improvements in these areas were identified in the report since late 2012. These include:
● The new Gateway process for agreeing major projects and monitoring capital projects;
● Improvements to business planning process;
● Agreeing the new Three-Year Plan;
● Review and improvement of the Council’s performance management framework; and
● Updated guidance and monitoring over the use of delegated decision notices.
With regards to value for money, the report said: “All of the Council’s major change programmes are now supported by detailed business cases and implementation plans.
These are reviewed by the member-led Executive Monitoring Board. . . which is now starting to provide robust challenge to managers and Cabinet portfolio holders.”
Cllr Raynes added: “We as a Council recognise the need to provide more-detailed information on unit costs and wider use of benchmarking data.
“The Council also recognises that its approach to procurement needs to improve – and has recently engaged external advisors to ‘health check’ its procurement activity, which is leading on to a detailed project to transform its processes.”