Argyll and Bute Council: Accounts Commission calls for 'urgent action'

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Scotland's local government auditor has called for urgent action to improve the running of Argyll and Bute Council.

The Accounts Commission said local services could suffer if the quality of political leadership did not improve.

The strongly-worded comments follow a damning report from Audit Scotland earlier this month which highlighted political instability at the authority.

The leader of Argyll and Bute Council said both reports were a "wake-up call" and improvements would be made.

A new administration made up of Liberal Democrat, Conservative and independent councillors took charge at the council last month.

The Accounts Commission said it was "seriously concerned" about substantial risks to Argyll and Bute Council caused by instability in its political leadership since last year's elections.

Culture of instability

In a response to a recent report by the public spending watchdog Audit Scotland, it said the quality of leadership of the council has been inadequate and the current political management arrangements were not fit for purpose

The role that the full council plays is unsustainable and progress in securing effective scrutiny has also been inadequate, it stated.

In its findings, the commission said: "The council's ability to set and maintain a clear strategic direction is at risk of being compromised and the commission is concerned that this will, in time, negatively affect the services that the council provides for the people of Argyll and Bute."

The Audit Scotland report outlined a culture of instability and mistrust at the council.

It said working relationships between councillors - and between some councillors and officers - were strained.

The council - which covers one of the largest geographical regions in Scotland - has had three different leaders since May last year and had no depute leader and no clear administration from May until September of this year.

The Audit Scotland report was compiled before the new administration was formed in September.

The SNP - the largest single party on the council - led the administration after last year's local elections.

In May the group was temporarily suspended by the SNP nationally after inviting the Conservatives and Lib Dems to join the administration without the approval of the party's National Executive Committee.

'External support'

The fallout saw the SNP's James Robb step down as leader of the council.

The chairman of the Accounts Commission, John Baillie, said: "Argyll and Bute Council now stands at a crossroads. There has been instability and lack of consistent political leadership for a long period.

"There is now some evidence that lessons have been learned and measures are being taken to develop new political management arrangements, training and development support for councillors and bringing in external support.

"All of this is encouraging. However, we urge the elected members and the corporate management team to work together to provide stronger and more effective leadership for the council, to ensure urgent progress is made. We have asked for a further report on progress made over the next six months."

Council leader Dick Walsh said: "The recent Audit Scotland report and the Accounts Commission's findings have been a wake-up call for all of us.

"We take very seriously the comments made by the commission and we are very aware of what needs to be done. The people of Argyll and Bute can be assured that we are getting on with the job.

"Since becoming council leader just over four weeks ago, considerable progress has already been made.

"We now have a strong, sound and stable administration in place and, working together, members are very focused on tackling head-on the issues raised in the report, with the support of the council's experienced, knowledgeable and committed senior management team."

Mr Walsh added that it was important to remember that local services and the day to day business of the council continued during the period of political uncertainty.

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