AUDITORS have identified a catalogue of weaknesses and potentially unlawful practices at a Yorkshire council after residents raised concerns about the way it was being run.
A report into Keighley Town Council, published by the Audit Commission, uncovered “a number of significant weaknesses in the Council’s governance.”
The report said: “In particular we have identified evidence that poor governance has led to the Council to make decisions due consideration of its legal powers and, as a consequence, to take actions that may be unlawful.”
The focus of many of the problems raised by the report is the decision by the council to embark on an ambitious project to develop a civic centre and the poor financial performance of the centre which resulted in a large increase in the council’s 2013-14 precept charge to local householders.
The 13-page report concluded that the council failed to properly safeguard public money because of a lack of internal controls.
The report states that the council entered into a major financial commitment in the civic centre with an inadequate business case.
It says that the council did not comply with its own financial regulations as it failed to routinely obtain quotes on purchases over £1,000.
The authority also failed to maintain adequate documentation in support of cash receipts and did not ensure payments were properly authorised.
Auditors also picked up on “mathematical errors” in budget documents which “could potentially have influenced decisions made in respect of funding required for 2013/14.”
The report also criticises the authority for the way it handled transactions with “family members of councillors and employees,” adding: “Such transactions are likely to be subject to greater public scrutiny but the Council’s Financial Regulations do not contain additional safeguards concerning such transactions.”
The damning report concludes that Keighley Town Council may have acted unlawfully by trading via the museum shop at the civic centre.
The report adds: “The Council acted outside of its powers in making payments on behalf of the unincorporated association known as the ‘Police Experience’. In making these payments the Council made a loan which it had no power to make.”
Auditors have recommended that the council commissions a review of its governance arrangements and ensures that the clerk and councillors are “properly supported in the exercise of their duties with comprehensive training.”
The report makes nine recommendations for improved internal controls relating to finances and the employment of consultants to ensure compliance with tax laws.
In response to the report, Elizabeth Mitchell, one of the objectors who raised her concerns with auditors, said she would be writing to Keighley MP Kris Hopkins and Bradford Council to ask for Keighley Town Council to be taken over.
She called the town council “dysfunctional, disgraceful and not fit for purpose.”
“I shall be writing to my MP and the Bradford District Council, asking them to take Keighley Town Council into ‘special measures’, as not only is it inept, but it may well be trading outside its legal powers. The council is incapable of managing its finances and as suggested by the town’s MP some 16 months ago, when he described the council as ‘dysfunctional’; they should seek help from the district council.
“The council’s civic centre, mentioned in the report, makes a loss each year of over £200,000. It runs a café and bar subsidised by the rate payer and this disadvantages other struggling café and bar traders in the town.
“Closing these trading activities would reduce the council tax precept considerably and would prevent the Town Council being in direct competition to those traders.”
Mrs Mitchell said there were a “handful of decent councillors” but called on the rest to resign.
The Yorkshire Post asked the town council to comment but no-one was available.
Keighley MP Kris Hopkins said: “I have been a long-standing critic of Keighley Town Council and, alongside a number of tireless and committed local residents, have raised countless concerns about its reckless and arrogant approach to spending public money. This report confirms in graphic detail that our fears were well-founded.
“It is a catalogue of disaster and those responsible for what has happened – they know who they are – must immediately consider their positions.
“The fiasco surrounding the civic centre and the absence of a proper business plan to guide its operation was bad enough. And now we have host of new charges including a failure to keep a record of cash receipts, making unauthorised payments and failing to properly monitor financial transactions to relatives of Councillors and employees.
“It is not for me judge whether illegal activity has taken place, but the report explicitly states that the Council has taken ‘actions that may be unlawful.’ I have therefore sent a copy to Dee Collins, the Temporary Chief Constable of West Yorkshire Police, and asked for an urgent investigation to be launched.
“In the short-term, Keighley Town Council must now seek assistance from another institution to begin the process of implementing the recommendations made. It might be Bradford Council, Craven Council or a competent parish council within the district.
“The people of Keighley deserve so much better than this, and it is shameful that our town’s name has been dragged through the mud in this way.”