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Nearly 20 years of failings blamed for £31 million Moray Council budget gap

A damning Accounts Commission report says modernisation at the council has been "frustratingly slow".

Graphic showing Moray Council HQ and image showing £31 million budget gap.
There are concerns about Moray Council's dependency on using financial reserves to balance budgets.

Eighteen years of failings by Moray Council have led to a £31 million budget gap, a damning new report by the Accounts Commission has revealed.

The auditors are “extremely concerned” the local authority is relying on unidentified savings and the unsustainable use of financial reserves.

The report also details that the council must make a further £20m of savings in 2024/25, of which only £6.5m are identified.

This comes after a separate report in January revealed the council had already burned through £17.2m of savings.

The commission says the local authority ’s modernisation plans must set out clear targets, deadlines and lines of responsibility “to manage money effectively”.

The report warned that if the council does not do this it will fail to identify savings needed to tackle a budget gap of £31m.

Further criticism was aimed at the council’s annual performance not being done in a “timely manner”, with the report from 2022/23 yet to be submitted, and the last report using data from as far back as 2021.

‘Moray Council progress frustratingly slow’

Jo Armstrong, chair of the Accounts Commission, said the council must come up with a plan to change how it deliver services.

Ms Armstrong said: “The fact we’ve now got council leaders collaborating and willing to take on the responsibility of turning this organisation around, has got to be seen as a good opportunity for them to reset the clock and deliver the change required.”

However, she went on to criticise the pace that Moray Council has worked at with regard to plans to fix current issues, saying: “It is nearly 20 years since we first published a Best Value report on Moray Council, and progress on plans to transform how it works, and delivers services, has been frustratingly slow.

“This has limited the council’s ability to make vital financial savings, ensure strong financial management and produce accurate financial forecasts.

Lollipop person helping child across the road.
School crossing patrollers were axed across Moray to save cash. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson.

“Relying on money from reserves and one-off savings is unsustainable.”

The report stressed the council intends to produce a combined action plan, setting out how it will address the highlighted issues.

This includes bringing in external support to help improve collaborative working across political parties.

Ms Armstrong added: “Recent we have real concerns the council won’t be able to attract and retain enough senior staff, with the right skills, to deliver on the transformation that’s required.

Moray Council must take note of the Accounts Commission’s findings, which are there to support the council to make the improvements necessary.”

‘Not all councils receive Accounts Commission reports like this’

The report went on to brand Moray Council’s capital plan “ambitious” – within the next 10 years, the council plans to fund 80% of its £501 million expenditure through loans.

Council leader Kathleen Robertson welcomed the findings despite the fact they made for a “difficult read”.

Moray Council leader Kathleen Robertson feels she has no option but agree a 100% council tax increase on second homes. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson
Moray Council leader Kathleen Robetson. Image: Jason Hedges/DC Thomson

She said a “full and frank” discussion within the council will take place before the summer.

Moray MSP Richard Lochhead said the report was worrying compared to other councils.

He said: “There are some hard messages and the ruling administration and management clearly have a big task. Recent years have been tough for all local authorities but not all councils receive reports like this.”