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Moray Council: ‘Difficult decisions’ spark huge £30million improvement in finances

Moray Council leader Graham Leadbitter.
Moray Council leader Graham Leadbitter.

Audit Scotland has praised a £30million improvement in Moray Council’s annual finances after years of crisis talks.

Cash warnings have been regularly repeated in the chambers as allocations from central government have continued to decrease.

However, yesterday external auditors praised the authority for a turnaround after it declared a £9million surplus for 2019/20 – compared with a £19.5million deficit the previous year.

Huge budget cuts totalling £12.6million that included axing school crossing patrollers, introducing a garden waste collection charge and reducing grass cutting and maintenance all contributed to the reverse.

Meanwhile, large returns of money, including a seven-year refund of VAT paid on the leisure service totalling £1.8million, have also been logged.

Forres councillor Claire Feaver.

Construction work at RAF Lossiemouth and the opening of the new Macallan distillery have also been highlighted as potential reasons for retaining £1.9million worth of business rates locally.

Yesterday councillors praised the work of finance officers for the turnaround, which led to £7million being banked to potentially support future budgets.

However, opposition members urged caution following a publication of a damning Accounts Commission report this year, which warned of “serious concerns” about the pace of improvements.

Forres councillor Claire Feaver said: “I am not comforted by this. There are still words running through the report warns of ‘long-standing issues’.

“There is also mention of the ‘pace of change’, which shows that some work is too slow and nothing seems to be done.”

Despite the praise for last year’s improvement in finances, Moray Council’s sustainability continues to be a concern for Audit Scotland.

The annual report has warned officers need to “increase the pace” of modernisation projects so it can make savings to address “significant funding gaps” forecast until 2022/23.

Forres councillor Aaron McLean.

Aaron McLean, chairman of Moray Council’s education, communities and organisational development committee, said: “I think we should take comfort from the key messages from the report, it shows the difficult decisions we have made have had an impact and we have been able to put money in the reserves.

“It also goes to show the good the work that all our staff have done in getting us into this position too.

“While Covid-19 will have a financial impact on us this shows we can take comfort from the work that has been done so far, which will help us into the future.”

Council leader Graham Leadbitter described the Audit Scotland report as giving the authority “a clean bill of health”.

However, Brian Howarth, external auditor of Moray Council, stressed change was still necessary to ensure the continued improvement of finances.

He said: “There are long-standing issues we brought to attention through the Accounts Commission report.

“This report is more upbeat than that though because we have seen a turnaround in financial results from what we have seen in the last three years.

“Yes, there are still recommendations outstanding and I do think more could have been done to address those.

“Whether Covid-19 has been a factor or not, I don’t know, but it is a trend we are seeing from council to council this year.”

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