FRESH concerns have been raised over the reputational damage caused by the lengthy delays to signing off the council’s 2017-18 accounts.

It comes as the Labour-run authority says it expects them to be signed off ‘very shortly’.

The council paid around £30 million to buy a 33 per cent share in Redwood Bank – before investing a further £2 million last year.

But it failed to sign off its 2017-18 statement of accounts before the deadline of July 31 in 2018 due to a valid objection questioning whether the investment was legal.

As reported in September 2020, auditor Grant Thornton found no ‘clear evidence’ that the Labour-run authority acted unlawfully in making the investment.

Grant Thornton is the authority’s independent external auditor. But the accounts have still not been signed off following significant delays.

Grant Thornton’s audit findings report, for the year ending March 31 2018, came before the audit and corporate governance committee at its meeting last Thursday.

Part of the report said: “The 2017-18 audit has been extremely challenging and protracted for both the council’s finance team and Grant Thornton.”

The report stated that ‘a small number of outstanding assurances and unresolved matters’ remain.

The outstanding items are receipt of a signed management representation letter and additional work following the outcome of CIPFA’s urgent task and finish group ‘which is considering the derecognition of infrastructure assets’ following ‘replacement’ expenditure, with a view to producing a bulletin and possible amendments to the accounting code. The timetable for this group runs to June 2022.

The report said, given this issue may change the audit opinion on the financial statements, the firm has decided to wait until CIPFA has reached a decision.

The committee approved the audited 2017-18 statement of accounts for publication once the two outstanding matters have been concluded, as recommended.

Final fees charged for the statutory audit services were also included in the report.

It stated the proposed fee for the group and council audit was £127,163, however, the final fee was £399,205.

And it said total fees, excluding VAT, were proposed to total £191,928, but the final fee was £472,237.

Text in the report stated the scale fee set by Public Sector Audit Appointments Ltd for 2017-18 financial statement audit was £127,163.

It said: “Since that time, there have been a number of local risk factors and national developments, which have significantly increased the cost of delivering the council’s audit.”

The council says it expects the 2017-18 accounts to be signed off ‘very shortly’.

A spokesman added: “However, there is an ongoing issue around highways infrastructure, which is currently preventing every council in the country from having their accounts signed off.

“We recognise that the challenges of signing off our 2017/18 accounts, along with a number of national developments, have led to delays and an increase in fees.

“However, public scrutiny is an important part of the work we do and we have continued to engage positively with our auditors throughout this incredibly complex process, so that our accounts can be signed off as quickly as possible.”

In a report to the committee, it said the auditor intends to issue an ‘adverse opinion’ for the value for money conclusion.

The town’s Liberal Democrats say the delay in signing off the 2017-18 accounts has been a sorry state of affairs.

Liberal Democrat finance spokesman Cllr Ian Marks said: “An adverse value for money statement from Grant Thornton is unwelcome even though it applies to four years ago.

“No one comes out of this well and reputations have suffered.

“The Conservatives have never told us how they would have done things differently to safeguard services in the face of sustained government cuts.

“There has been a large cost to council taxpayers and we must ensure nothing like this ever happens again.”

At the meeting last Thursday, the Conservative councillors on the committee voted against accepting the accounts and its annual governance statement.

The Conservatives believe that the council was not taking the implications of the Grant Thornton audit findings report seriously enough.

The party’s finance spokesman Cllr Ken Critchley said: “The audit findings report and its damning ‘adverse value for money conclusion’ are an extremely serious matter, going to the heart of the financial competence and governance of WBC’s Labour group and finding them lacking.

“For the external auditors to be questioning the decision-making, control and oversight of the council raises very serious questions.

“For the external auditors to also conclude that the council’s high borrowing is neither affordable, prudent or sustainable is a huge warning that the current reckless borrowing of the council must finally be brought under control.”