‘THE cracks are beginning to show’ at West Sussex County Council, according to opposition councillors – a claim that was dismissed by members of the ruling Tory Group.
The authority debated its Annual Report for 2014/15 at County Hall on Friday, and while leader Louise Goldsmith admitted ‘nothing is perfect’ she described their financial performance as ‘exceedingly good’.
But Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Crawley Central) described how the Conservatives had tried to ‘paper over the cracks’, but they were ‘beginnning to show’. He questioned what impact a ‘constant carousel’ of staff in senior management roles was having and the ability of the council to properly outsource services in some areas.
Mr Jones added: “I sincerely believe there has not been enough frank discussion in this council and this has contributed to the problem.”
His comments follow a report last month from the council’s internal auditors which raised concerns over ‘systematic failures’ in the management of its highways maintenance contract.
It included questions over how the county council was ensuring value for money was provided by contractors.
Mrs Goldsmith (Con, Chichester West) said: “I have to say this is a little bit of a painful morning for me. I don’t like this very much. I don’t like it.”
But she described how all local authorities needed to get better at managing contractors, but felt the issues related to a very small part of the highways contract. On the council’s performance more generally, she felt they had gone a long way to achieving their key priorities, including helping to stimulate the West Sussex economy through their five bold ideas programme.
These include the Beautiful Outdoors campaign, marketing the South Downs as a destination for tourists and visitors, and plans to create a cluster of health and life science businesses.
Richard Burrett (Con, Pound Hill and Worth) said he did not recognise the picture of the council that Mr Jones had painted, called his speech a ‘masterpiece of theatrical hyperbole’, and felt he was ‘playing to the gallery and getting quite desperate’.
He added: “When a situation arises on rare occasions when we have a report or something is unearthed which does not make pleasant reading and which needs to be addressed we will address that and leave no stone unturned, and we will do that and at no point has anybody said, ‘sorry we’re not looking at this there’s no problem’. It’s been considered, addressed and dealt with.”
Pete Bradbury (Con, Cuckfield and Lucastes) argued that the report was ‘full of good news for residents and taxpayers of West Sussex’ and was not surprised that ‘opposition speakers have seized on one fly in the ointment’, while Steve Waight (Con, Goring) questioned Mr Jones’ reference to not enough rocking of the boat.
Mr Waight said he was ‘proud’ of being a boat-rocker, and added: “There’s a difference between being a boat-rocker and someone who just doesn’t like the boat and Michael Jones just doesn’t like the boat.”
The council’s financial performance for 2014/15 was summed up by cabinet member for finance Michael Brown (Con, Fernhurst) as ‘remarkably successful’.
Their revenue budget was £536.1million and represented a £13.1million underspend, while reserves totalled £232million at the of March 2014, with £204m of this earmarked for future projects, and £18million held in general reserve. Meanwhile spending on capital projects totalled £138.6m in 2014.15
Mr Brown added: “It’s been a very good financial year and one in which everybody in this chamber can be rightly proud of.”
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