Long-awaited external review shows how well council is managing its budget
A review of Waltham Forest Council’s finances concludes the authority is doing a good job – but needs to better prepare for future risks such as Brexit.
The “financial health check” carried out by external accountancy firm Grant Thornton found the council to be performing well in five out of ten assessment areas and needing to improve in five others.
Although the report was compiled by Grant Thornton last year, it has only now been made available to the public. A Freedom of Information (FOI) request made by Bureau Local, a regional reporting project run by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, found that the council was one of only ten local authorities in the country to have commissioned such a review – and also revealed that it had cost taxpayers in Waltham Forest around £20,000.
The areas in which Grant Thornton recommends the council improve include “aligning” its financial plan to strategic objectives; reviewing the potential for more “income-generating activities”; ensuring it has “adequate contingencies” in place; considering “a range of options” for financial planning beyond 2020; and making more effort to challenge the way that services are delivered across the council.
One specific suggestion was that the council should look at its fees and charges in comparison to other London boroughs and consider whether there was potential to generate more income from them.
Grant Thornton also highlighted an upcoming “budget gap” of £8million, which the council currently expects to be filled by increased tax revenues. Changes to the way local authorities are funded mean the council will soon be able to retain more of its local business rates, while council tax income is also increasing as 12,000 new homes are built. However, according to the report: “There is large uncertainty in relation to business rates and there has not been a range of scenarios formally presented by the council.”
Regarding service delivery, Grant Thornton suggests the council should consider cutting bureaucracy, as in one particular department “there is still a lot of manual form filling and data entry, which is clearly time-consuming and inefficient”.
The report also revealed the council has set up a policy group to examine the impacts of Brexit, in line with precautions being taken by many other local authorities, but that “the council should continually monitor and deal with the challenges and opportunities of Brexit”.
In a statement, a council spokesperson said: “The financial resilience review shows that the council has managed its finances admirably in the face of unprecedented cuts to government funding. We have put ourselves in a position to improve services for residents while at the same time being prepared for future pressures.
“The report also helps us to understand how our spending compares with that of other boroughs and informs our Creating Futures strategy, a new way of working to ensure residents have the best start in life.”
This article was written with assistance from Gareth Davies at The Bureau Local. Read the Grant Thornton report: