Independent CBC Councillor Questions Rise in Unaccounted For Expenditure

By Cllr Adam Zerny, Central Bedfordshire Councillor


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Until now, before Central Bedfordshire Council (CBC) spent more than £60,000 on capital expenditure (actual solid things as opposed to running costs) it was obliged to produce a detailed business case.

Which makes sense doesn't it. If anyone in your company was advocating spending that sort of money on a new building or new machine, you'd expect a well-researched financial argument for it.

At CBC's General Purposes Committee yesterday, councillors voted to increase the amount the Council could spend without a detailed business case, from £60,000 to £150,000.

How did CBC justify it?

The Council said it was "simply trying to bring the policy up today (sic), given that over the years inflation has eroded the value of money significantly" adding it felt there was only a "marginally increased risk" but it was worth it to achieve "more efficient working by concentrating on the schemes that have most financial impact" adding that it felt this was "just simplifying the process for those of low value". The Council noted "This limit has been in existence since 2009 when the Council was created"

Except...inflation wouldn't account for a raise to £150,000. £60,000 in 2009 adjusted for inflation is still less than £80,000. See attached.

When asked to justify the figure of £150,000, at the meeting, a Council officer said "There is no calculation. It's just a number".

So why is this such a big deal?

At present, if large spend was to be approved by the Council, someone has to do provide some evidence justify it. And put their name to it.

This detailed business case contains evidenced costs and revenues and an indication of what should happen if it all goes wrong. It includes a few paragraphs of explanation of what the project involves and which Council officers are associated with it.

The Council tells me there were just five occasions where spend was over £60,000 on such a project last year so this is not too onerous for them.

However, CBC has now decided this work should not be conducted and the only costs and revenues involved will be mere estimates and there will be no back-up plan if it goes wrong.

Take away this level of scrutiny and at a later date, the Council could say "well it was only really an estimate, don't blame us because costs got out of control". It also means if ever in future a political party wished to push through lots of expenditure that might benefit them, the Council would not be obliged to provide this detailed business case.

There were bizarre scenes at yesterday's General Purposes Committee meeting where the proposal was considered.

A Council officer initially insisted everything was above board because the Council would still have to do an 'outline' business case, just not a detailed case, for all capital spend.

I asked the Chairman of the committee, if he had by any chance, seen examples of these outline and detailed business cases so he could compare them. He insisted he had.

Independent councillor Bec Hares then asked the Chairman if he could explain what these business plans looked like (given none had been shown to the committee) and to the sound of laughter in the room, the Chairman promptly asked if a Council officer could explain.

In the interests of ensuring proper scrutiny, I proposed the amount of money the Council could spend without a detailed business case was reduced to £30,000. This felt more than generous. Despite the Independents present - Cllr Hares, Cllr Baker and I - voting for this reduction, the majority Conservative councillors present instead voted to increase the limit to £150,000.

Scrutiny? What scrutiny?

Contact Cllr Adam Zerny

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