A powerful watchdog body has discovered Highland councillors are being starved of the vital information they need to make key decisions on multimillion-pound projects.
Audit Scotland’s scathing report on the local authority’s handling of its finances has been branded an “embarrassment” by a senior member of the council.
It was published just weeks after councillors agreed their spending programme for the next five years.
It contains developments worth more than £900million – including the highly controversial Inverness West Link road and numerous new schools.
Last night, an arch critic of the West Link scheme said the Audit Scotland report was a “damning indictment” of the council’s handling of the road project.
The influential body said Highland Council members were unable to properly challenge and scrutinise multimillion-pound construction schemes because they did not get enough detail from officials.
It also claimed the local authority did not have “adequate systems and controls in place to ensure the proper administration of its financial affairs”.
And it found the council failed to examine the outcome of projects and learn lessons from its successes and mistakes.
Councillor Margaret Davidson, chairwoman of the audit and scrutiny committee, said that ongoing monitoring of the various multimillion-pound contracts was “very poor”.
She said that the Audit Scotland report, which outlines an action plan for improvement, was “embarrassing” for the local authority.
She added: “I believe there wasn’t nearly enough debate about the capital programme. Part of that is insufficient information for us to scrutinise.
“We should be doing more.”
Her comments were supported by other committee members when they met in Inverness yesterday.
Councillor Donnie Kerr said the lack of information was “incredibly worrying”.
He cited the River Ness Flood Alleviation Scheme as an example of a project which had provoked a raft of complaints from businesses.
He said after the meeting that he felt that the cost of the scheme would have increased by the time it was completed.
And Mr Kerr said the cost of the Inverness West Link could also be “disastrous” if not monitored closely.
Audit Scotland also highlight the project in its report, and said an 18-month gap between updates on costs was too long.
Steven Boyle, assistant director of Audit Scotland, said: “We would have expected to see more regular reports on the cost of the Inverness West Link.”
There were calls for more financial training for councillors, including on the implications of long-term borrowing to fund the projects.
As well as comments on a lack of information during projects, the document criticised the council for failing to produce reports when projects were finished.
It said that while debriefs were carried out by the development and infrastructure service, these did not assess whether the benefits predicted in the business case were achieved.
The results of the reviews are also not shared with other services or with Highland councillors.
Councillor Angela Maclean said: “We keep saying we are going to learn the lessons but we do not seem to be learning the lessons and we make the same mistakes over and over again.”
Yesterday, Stuart Black, director of development and infrastructure, said: “We always have capital monitoring reports at committees and it is always open to members to ask questions.
“But we recognise that we have to improve that.”
He added that he was in “robust” discussions with Morgan Sindall, the flood scheme contractor, over the ongoing work.