Council consultancy bills point to weak leadership

This morning, BBC Radio Shropshire called council leader Keith Barrow into the studio to justify spending £619,000 on consultants (begins at 2:07). The interview was very revealing, not just on the huge consultancy bill but also on his leadership.

It was fascinating and disturbing in equal measure to hear Keith explain how he had no control over consultancy costs for three years and only got a real grip when the council’s chief executive moved on.

In trying to justify the bill, Keith more than once pleaded that other councils were spending more on consultants than Shropshire. Anyway, “it’s only one-thousandth of the gross budget,” he said. “It’s like someone who earns £30,000 a year spending £30 on a meal.”

I don’t run with the argument that because other councils are splashing out on something, it’s okay for Shropshire to do so. Neither do I believe that because overall budgets are big, small amounts are trivial. No matter how large Shropshire’s budget is, every £30 counts.

As Keith admitted, matters used to be a lot worse. Until controls were implemented in March 2012, consultants seem to have been employed rather willy-nilly.

The March 2012 controls did not, however, order a review of consultants already retained by the council. As Keith told Radio Shropshire this morning: “When the previous chief executive left, we got rid of two consultants who were on substantial sums.” It seems that at least one consultant at this point was on £1,500 a day. “We terminated that contract immediately the week after Kim [Riley] left us.” Riley departed five months after the policy was introduced. Five months in which tens of thousands were spent on consultants that it seems were not necessary.

Why did it take nearly three years to get a grip on consultancy costs? Keith Barrow did not explain that. Why were consultant’s contracts not terminated earlier? Again he offered no explanation. Could he not have shown leadership and told the chief executive to get rid of the consultants?

None of this bodes well for Shropshire Council’s future plans.

The council is ploughing onwards with its plan to transfer staff and services to a new company known as ip&e – though the project timetable is slipping fast. The company, underpinned by a £800,000 council loan, is predicted to make money. But when a council takes three years to get a grip on its consultancy expenditure, what faith can we have that the new company will be launched and managed effectively? And what happens if it does not make money?

ip&e is a huge and risky gamble with council funds and services. We can only guess what might happen if the company fails. But one thing we can perhaps be certain of. There will be jobs for consultants!

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