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‘What’s with the column of zeroes?’ – Bemused Highland councillors query ‘evolution’ in budget reporting

Highland councillors share a joke during the housing committee meeting.

It’s the stuff of homeowners’ dreams – a scenario where your budget is based on the amount you end up spending.

Yet when this scenario is presented at a Highland Council meeting, it raises some eyebrows.

This was the case at Thursday’s housing and property committee, as opposition councillors grappled with figures presented in the capital expenditure report.

Budget ninja baffled

In the capital monitoring report, the section detailing overspend or underspend contained only a column of zeroes.

Councillor Derek Louden – known for his eye for figures – was visibly bemused by the data.

Mr Louden said: “In terms of the rows, I’m really happy – that part of the spreadsheet I commend you for. In terms of the columns, I found this a little bit more challenging.

“There’s a universality about the outturn which tends to suggest there’s no overspend and no underspend on any project on the list. I tried to figure out how this can come about, and then spotted in the third column the ‘reprofiled budget.’

“The budget has been reprofiled to bear a similarity to the actual spend. What concerns me about this, is if we’re not told where there are overspends or underspends it’s difficult for the committee to do a job of monitoring.”

When will we get the numbers back?

Chairman Ben Thompson acknowledged that the report was going through a process of evolution, and said that officers had shaped it in response to members’ feedback.

Leader of the opposition Raymond Bremner replied: “When did this evolution take place, where all the zeroes come into the picture, and when will we go back to the pre-evolution stage so we do actually know what the original budget was?”

There were laughs all round, as the chairman and officers sought to respond.

Finance manager Mike Mitchell took the hit, saying “I’ll put my hand up, I came up with this format.”

Mr Mitchell explained that council agreed in December 2020 that the housing capital budget should be reprofiled to take account of the costs of the pandemic, delays and project slippage.

Zero to hero

Mr Mitchell added that large-scale capital programmes cover several years, and variance in spend is difficult to capture in reports.

He reassured the committee that future reports will include colour-coded progress indicators and paragraphs detailing slippage on specific projects.

“Councillor Bremner will no doubt come back now and have a dig at me,” he added.

Mr Bremner said that it was important to put the explanation in the public domain, and expressed some reservations about lengthy explanatory paragraphs coming to future committees.

However, members broadly welcomed the new reporting format and – perhaps with tongue-in-cheek – said they look forward to seeing the next stage of this budget evolution.

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