Leader Paul Foster admitted “significant failings” in the council governance in recent years, including a flawed costing and tender process for Leyland’s £24m leisure centre, and promised to “put things right”.
His comments came after the resignation of South Ribble Council’s chief executive Heather McManus after she was placed on extended leave in May 2019, and the publication of an internal audit report by the council this week that identified serious issues in how the council has been managed.
“In the report, it [the audit committee] asks the council to recognise that there has been significant failings in the operation of the organisation and that certain individuals have, at times, disregarded controls put in place to act as checks and balances for the authority,” Cllr Foster said in a statement yesterday.
“We’re being completely open and transparent by detailing all of the findings, and the honest truth is that the organisation hasn’t delivered for residents as it should have been doing and we want to apologise for that.”
Among the specific issues raised were the management of a project to build a new leisure campus in Leyland to replace the existing, outdated facility.
The first proposals in February 2019 detailed a £15m scheme. By September, the project’s estimated cost had escalated to £24m, without the new figure being brought to cabinet for formal consideration and without a “detailed evaluation” of a bidding process for a design team for the project, according to the report.
The study also found that the council was exposed to “potential risk of fraud and error” because of a faulty invoice system, and that two senior posts and salaries had been created without “proper approval” and explanation.
The report, ordered after concerns were raised over the council’s 2019 annual governance statement, was presented to the council’s governance committee on Tuesday.
It concluded that rules and procedures were “consistently breached” at all levels by staff, fuelled by a culture “from the top” that disregarded “checks and balances”.
Cllr Foster was elected leader last May, bringing South Ribble under Labour control for only the second time in 45 years and pushing out the Conservatives. McManus was put on “special leave” soon afterwards and has now resigned, the report shows.
The new leader has overseen the compilation of a revised annual governance statement that outlines 22 procedures to be adopted to ensure better governance.
“While the report is hard reading in places, I’m pleased that we’ve been able to get to the bottom of some of the issues that have hung over the organisation for a number of years and we are well on the way to putting these things right,” Cllr Foster said.
“We are already in a far better place than we were 12 months ago – there has been significant improvement across the board – but we clearly cannot ignore what has taken place in the past. To move on we need a clean plate [sic].”
He added that it is “really frustrating” that the report confirms there are generally robust policies and procedures in already in place, but that they were not applied consistently. “We continually challenged this while in opposition.”
The furore comes in the same week that leaders of all 15 local authorities in Lancashire voted to form a combined authority for the county, to improve governance and economic prospects.