Proposal over Advance Northumberland descended into row during council meeting

County Hall, Morpeth. Picture by Jane ColtmanCounty Hall, Morpeth. Picture by Jane Coltman
County Hall, Morpeth. Picture by Jane Coltman
A ‘fairly straightforward’ proposal relating to council-owned company Advance Northumberland descended into a row with accusations of ‘political interference’.

As previously reported, a proposal was on the table for Northumberland County Council’s audit committee to take on responsibility for oversight of its regeneration company and any other of the authority’s subsidiaries.

It follows on the back of a suggestion from the authority’s new external auditors Mazars for a group audit committee approach, ‘to enhance oversight of governance throughout all the entities within the county council’s accounting group boundary’.

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The move had been supported by the audit committee at its meeting on Wednesday, September 30, but as it required a change to the constitution, it had to go to the full council for approval.

On Wednesday, November 4, Cllr Nick Oliver introduced the item by saying he would keep it brief, ‘as it’s fairly straightforward and will hopefully have a lot of support’ given that ‘it’s another step to improve the governance’, however, that did not turn out to be the case.

A proposal by Lib Dem Cllr Jeff Reid that the report should go to a scrutiny committee first – as it appeared that the audit committee had agreed to expand its own remit and given itself more work – descended into a spat.

Cllr Mark Swinburn, a Conservative on the audit committee, highlighted that this proposal had been a suggestion of the council’s new external auditors, Mazars.

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Labour leader, Cllr Susan Dungworth, raised concerns about ‘political interference’, while Cllr Georgina Hill, the chair of audit committee, noted that Cllr Reid was a director of Arch and then Advance, before suggesting that those speaking in support of his motion (all Conservatives) were seeking ‘revenge’ for the vote to oust the former Tory council leader, Peter Jackson, in September.

A frustrated Cllr Reid responded: “The only thing you can ever say about me is that I’m straight. I’m less devious than every single one of you.

“The corporate services and economic growth scrutiny committee might look at it and say, this is absolutely fantastic, we’re not going to change any of it, which would be absolutely fine by me.”

Cllr Reid and Cllr Hill were then talking over each other, with Cllr Reid heard to say, ‘you shut up’, before they were both muted by the business chairman, Cllr Barry Flux.

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Eventually, after more debate and a 10-minute adjournment for officers to confer and consult the constitution, council leader Glen Sanderson said: “I assure that this is not any kind of plot or something which has been thought up before.”

The advice to members was that the recommendations have been made to the full council, which is the appropriate place for this to be reported and scrutinised, and that it does not fall within the remit of the scrutiny committee.

Therefore, Cllr Reid withdrew his motion ‘under duress’, after explaining that he had ‘just wanted things to be done properly’, and the proposal to designate the council’s audit committee as the group audit committee was approved by a large majority on a show of hands.

During his initial comments, Cllr Reid had also mentioned that some council audit committees have an independent (non-councillor) member as a chair and Cllr Sanderson later said that he had asked for some work to be carried out on this.

However, this was not part of the proposal for this meeting and following the bickering, Cllr Reid apologised if his mention of this sparked the whole row.

Cllr Sanderson also emphasised that he was talking about the future and ‘it was not in any way a reflection of the situation now’.

After the meeting, Cllr Hill said that the ‘long-standing governance issues’, notably with Advance’s predecessor Arch, are ‘inevitably a cause of embarrassment to those members who have been directors all the way through’.

‘Fortunately, common sense prevailed in the end,’ she added, suggesting that she was ‘sure that most residents in Northumberland will be pleased that the council’s audit committee is now taking on this wider role given all the historical problems’.

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