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Mark Wallace: Aberdeen City Council – a case study in bad local government

Markwallace Mark Wallace writes this regular column for the Local government page of ConservativeHome.

Just about every council gets things wrong on occasion: it’s almost inevitable. Far worse, though, are those councils where mistakes and waste occur more regularly, threatening to become the norm rather than the exception.

In the TaxPayers’ Alliance press office it is interesting to note which councils crop up most often in media calls, public complaints and insider tip-offs. Of course, the regularity with which bad news emerges about one council or another is a relatively crude measure – they may just have an unusually energetic opposition or local newspaper – but there are some examples where no amount of mitigating factors can hide the fact that a council is in trouble and is failing to get back on track.

Aberdeen City Council is indisputably one of those councils.

The backdrop to all of Aberdeen’s activities is the severe financial difficulties that they have got themselves – and therefore taxpayers – into. With a reported budget black hole of around £50 million, this is a council which urgently needs to cut out the dead wood, tighten its belt and bring its finances back under control.

Rather than having made one or even a couple of mistakes, it seems that there is a serious failure of management and a culture of wasteful spending at Aberdeen that runs right through the council, leading to massive strategic errors, huge big-ticket bills and continual smaller wastes of money across departments.

Important matters, that should merit the most careful decision making and the most effective management have been bungled to an appalling degree. For example, in April Audit Scotland passed a report to the police that showed a series of multi-million pound council buildings had been sold for far less than their market value. The auditors expressed concerns that the council was practically giving away millions of pounds of property, and said that they could not decide if the losses were down to “naivety, incompetence or a deliberate attempt to mislead”.

What makes matters worse is that whilst large financial deals are being so disgracefully mismanaged, smaller spending is apparently riven with waste, too. In fact, the scale of idiotic, low-level waste is staggering. Here are a few examples:

  • Only a fortnight ago it was revealed that the council is still spending tens of thousands of pounds on politically correct training courses and seminars for their staff, including “Spirituality” and “Spiritual well-being”.
  • Traffic wardens are being bussed up from Manchester rather than recruited locally, leaving taxpayers with accommodation and travel bills to pay as well as salary costs.
  • A special equality assessment has been carried out in order to make sure the council’s mobile phone policy was not discriminatory against minorities.

And the list goes on.

There have been attempts, of course, to sort things out at Aberdeen, but they have brought their own problems. They are already onto their second specialist consultant costing thousands of pounds a week to give advice on how to sort out the council’s finances. As part of the deal with the latest consultant, taxpayers are even paying to fly him up from Birmingham for three days a week on top of his £100,000 bill. One can’t help but think that perhaps fewer consultants, or at least getting a better deal on them, might be a good start in reining in spending.

The fundamental problem at Aberdeen City Council – and others like it – is that the whole organisation is rotten with a big-spending mentality. Councillors can spout as much rhetoric about fiscal responsibility as they like, but as long as they continue to think it is a good idea to spend thousands of pounds teaching bin men to be in touch with their spiritual side, things will never improve. This is a clash between hard reality and impractical politics – and the failure of the latter to adapt to the former is costing people in Aberdeen dearly.

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