Local authorities need to invest in finance teams

Alison Ring, ICAEW director for public sector, tells Room 151 that local audit reform is not enough on its own.

Alison Ring, ICAEW director for public sector, recently contributed an article to Room 151, an online news, opinion and resource service for local authority section 151 and other senior officers.

Reforms mean local government will soon see a new audit regulator, but investing in local government finance teams and better reporting are priorities too.

The government’s decision to set up a dedicated local audit unit within the new Audit, Reporting and Governance Authority (ARGA) addresses one of the key recommendations of the Redmond Review – that there be a ‘system leader’ for local audit, bringing together many of the different aspects of audit regulation currently dispersed across a variety of bodies, including ICAEW.

Nevertheless, ARGA has a big challenge on its hands.

Problems

The National Audit Office reported recently that 55% of local authorities in England missed the deadline to obtain an audit opinion on their 2019-20 financial statements, despite an extension of four months to take account of the pandemic. While there were significant practical issues facing both local authority finance teams and audit firms that contributed to these delays, they are symptomatic of wider problems in the local audit market and in the preparation of local authority financial statements.

Local audit in England relies on a small pool of eight firms to audit hundreds of NHS trusts and local authorities within a short time frame each year. Audit firms struggle to find sufficient qualified and experienced individuals to deliver local authority audits, an issue that will only grow as the existing cohort of experienced auditors approaches retirement over the coming decade.

Even with the additional £15m in funding provided this year by the government, audit firms highlight how the risk profile of many councils has increased in recent years as reserves have declined and balance sheets have weakened, with many councils borrowing to invest in commercial activities. The impact of the coronavirus pandemic has damaged the financial position of councils even further.

At the same time, more intensive regulation has – quite rightly – put pressure on audit teams to improve the quality of their work, but that has cost implications too, with firms expressing concern about the viability of their local audit practices. There is a real risk that one, or more, firms could withdraw from the market, reducing competition and putting even more pressure on the remaining firms.

There are also significant barriers to entry, starting with a requirement for audit partners to qualify as a key audit partner in addition to being a registered auditor, a requirement specific to the local audit market and not applicable to other sectors requiring equal or much greater sector-specific knowledge and expertise.

This is an obstacle to new firms considering bidding for local audit contracts, even where they have audit partners with experience that would make them eligible to apply and the ability to train and recruit staff with the necessary capabilities. The limited number of key audit partners in each individual firm also makes it more difficult to manage multiple audits within the short time frames needed to achieve audit deadlines.

Stabilising the local audit market and working with the government to ensure there is a viable pool of expertise available to carry out quality audits will be one of the first items on the ARGA agenda.

Priorities

However, audit reform is only part of the story. There is also a need to invest in local authority finance teams and in making the local authority finance profession an attractive career choice. Local authorities need to place a higher priority on the importance of producing high-quality financial statements that meet best practice and how doing so can increase financial understanding among both officers and councillors. Success in this area would also benefit local taxpayers’ understanding of and ability to scrutinise spending decisions, improving accountability and transparency.

There also needs to be investment in the quality of the underlying financial records and the supporting working papers provided to external auditors – a cause of delays in some audits. Not as sexy as many of the budget proposals that go to councillors for approval, but we know that poor financial controls and a lack of financial understanding by decision-makers and those to whom they are accountable can cost a lot more in the long run.

Unfortunately, far too many local authorities appear to treat their annual financial statements and the audit as a compliance exercise, something to be ‘got through’ rather than an opportunity to give a full account of how well they have stewarded public resources on behalf of residents.

Poorly formatted and difficult to read, too many council financial reports and accounts are seemingly designed for depositing in the round filing cabinet, rather than taking their place alongside flagship reports. Such reports are often of much less importance and priority than the hundreds of millions of pounds of public money spent on delivering local services or, in some cases, that have been wagered in speculative commercial investments.

I believe that the new regulator will need to look beyond the audit firms and engage with local authorities and their finance teams to demand and encourage improvements. Although audit firms can, and do, insist on changes to financial statements where they fail to comply with accounting standards or are actively misleading, they can’t insist local authorities follow best practice or that they invest in making the financial statements understandable to elected representatives and to the public. There is a role for the new regulator to bring up reporting quality across the sector.

It is important to realise that the proposed new standardised statement of service information and costs won’t be enough on its own. Readers need to be able to understand the wider financial position of each local authority, such as the level of usable reserves and balance sheet risks—and that requires investment in the entire annual report and accounts to make the financial information presented more understandable.

High standard

The overall package of reforms is positive: a new system leader for local audit and a rationalisation of the regulatory environment; a new audited statement of service information and costs to enable budgets and spending to be compared; a review of audit requirements for smaller bodies; auditors to provide an annual report to full council; an independent member with financial expertise on council audit committees; and a willingness to look again at audit deadlines.

But we should not forget that external audit comes at the end of the process and that solving the problems in the local audit market will only go so far.

Ultimately these reforms will only be successful if the financial statements subject to audit are of a high standard in the first place. That means greater investment in finance teams and—most importantly—council leaders and officers placing a higher priority on the quality and understandability of the financial information they produce.

This article was originally published in Room 151, an online news, opinion and resource service for local authority section 151 and other senior officers covering treasury, strategic finance, funding, resources and risk, and subsequently published by ICAEW.

ICAEW chart of the week: Local government in England

9 October 2020: The complex structure of regional and local authorities in England is just begging for reform, but will the rumoured plan to abolish county and district councils fix it for good?

Chart with three rings: regional tier, county or unitary tier and then district council tier, showing lots and lots of councils in England.

Local government in England, as illustrated by the #icaewchartoftheweek, is pretty complex with eight different types of regional or principal authority and a patchwork quilt of different tiers of government across the country.

This complex system comprises areas without a regional tier of government involving unitary authorities or county & district councils, and those with combined authorities atop unitary authorities or metropolitan boroughs (and one county and its districts) and the Greater London Authority atop 32 London boroughs and the City of London. (This excludes the 9,000 or so town, village and other forms of parish councils in England, mostly outside the major urban areas).

This complexity makes it very difficult for the Government to interact with local authorities in the absence of a consistent model of local government or a country-wide regional tier of government to act as intermediary. This contrasts (for example) with the federal system in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel regularly speaks to the leaders of the 16 German states, who in turn deal with the local authorities in their areas. Similarly (although not formally federal), France has 13 mainland and 5 overseas regional administrations that President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Jean Castex can talk to and who will deal with their constituent provinces.

The UK Government can and does communicate with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, West Yorkshire Chair Susan Hinchcliffe, Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotherham, Sheffield City Region Mayor Dan Jarvis, North East Chair Iain Malcolm, West of England Mayor Tim Bowles, Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Mayor James Palmer, North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, each of whom can represent their constituent local authorities. But, they only represent 44% of the English population, with a further 24 county council leaders and 46 unitary authority leaders to speak to cover the remaining 56%. That is a pretty big Zoom call, assuming borough and unitary leaders within the regional authority areas don’t also insist on joining in.

The delayed announcement of a plan to abolish the 25 county and 188 district councils and replace them with between 25 and 40 new unitary authorities (perhaps with some mergers with existing unitary authorities) will go some way to rationalising the existing system by going to a single tier of principal local authorities. This would bring local public services together under one roof and save money, albeit there are some concerns about whether some of the new authorities would be too remote from the local citizenry.

However, this is still likely to leave English local government reform unfinished with over half the country without a regional tier of government. Will the Government want to continue with its existing organic approach of combined authority formation or go for a more comprehensive programme to establish regional authorities across the whole country, similar to the French reforms of the 1980s?

This chart was originally published by ICAEW.

New funding package for English local authorities

2 July 2020: Secretary of State Robert Jenrick has announced a new £2bn package for English councils to replace lost income and cover spending pressures.

The government has announced additional funding for local authorities in England to help alleviate the financial pressures they are under. This follows on from our previous article on council funding pressures, which reported that total lost income and additional expenditure could amount to £9.4bn by next March.

The funding package announced today comprises £500m to cover incremental expenditures being incurred by councils – adding to the £3.2bn already provided – together with a reimbursement scheme covering up to 71% of lost income from sales, fees and charges.

The reimbursement scheme kicks in where losses are more than 5% of a council’s planned income from sales, fees and charges. The government will cover 75% of the lost income above 5%, meaning that councils will need to cover around 29% of the shortfall from their own resources. Depending on the final details, councils could receive somewhere in the order of £1.5bn and £2bn to replace lost income.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) also announced that councils would be able to phase repayments of council tax and business rates deficits over three years rather than one, reducing cashflow pressures on councils. However, the apportionment of irrecoverable council taxes and business rates will not be decided until the Spending Review in the autumn.

This announcement should significantly reduce the risk of councils needing to issue s114 ‘bankruptcy’ notices – for the next few months at least.

Commenting on the announcement Alison Ring, ICAEW Public Sector Director, said: “Although the new funding won’t cover all the expenditure and lost income councils have suffered due to coronavirus, it should be enough to help most get through the rest of the summer, and the prospects of some having to declare themselves bankrupt with s114 notices should recede for now. 

However, we’re concerned that councils will still have to cut back spending to cover the lost income from areas such as car parking, leisure centres, planning fees and other charges that are not being covered by central government. This has the potential to damage local economies just as they are trying to recover.”

This article was originally published by ICAEW.

Local authorities running out of money as COVID costs mount

2 July 2020: English councils have warned that £6bn more funding may be needed to keep operating through the rest of the financial year.

Data collected by the Ministry for Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) from 339 local authorities in England indicates that councils expect lost income and additional expenditure as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic to amount to a total of £9.4bn.

Many councils are warning that they may not be able to continue operating without further infusions of cash from central government. Although £3.2bn has been provided by central government to date, this has only covered lost income and additional expenditure incurred up to the end of May 2020, with councils forecasting a further impact of £6.2bn over the remainder of the financial year.

Table 1 – English local authorities: financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic

 March
2020
£bn
April & May
2020
£bn
Forecast to
March 2023
£bn

Total
£bn
Lost income  0.17 1.82 3.70 5.69
Additional expenditure 0.08 1.17 2.46 3.71
Total covid-19 impact 0.25 2.99 6.16 9.40

Source: Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, ‘Local authority COVID-19 financial impact monitoring information’.

Lost income is expected to reach in order of £5.7bn overall, while additional expenses are forecast to reach around £3.7bn. Further detail is provided in Table 2 and Table 3 below. 

With no additional funding as yet forthcoming, councils have been using their reserves to cover shortfalls during June. A number of local authorities are now discussing the possibility that that they may have to issue s114 ‘bankruptcy’ notices, which would require them to freeze all non-statutory expenditures, severely affecting local services.

The Chancellor is expected to announce further financial measures when he updates the nation next week and councils are hoping this will include more funding from central government in line with the encouragement they received at the outset of the lockdown to “do whatever it takes”.

Alison Ring, director for public sector at ICAEW, commented: “These numbers from English local authorities highlight just how severe the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been. The £3.2bn in additional funding from central government announced so far is only a third of the estimated total of £9.4bn in lost income and additional expenditure expected to be incurred.

There is a risk that without clarity on further funding that some councils will start issuing s114 ‘bankruptcy’ notices. This would significantly reduce spending by local authorities at the same time that local economies need every bit of help they can get if they are to fully recover.”

Table 2 – English local authorities: lost income

 March 2020
£bn
April & May 2020
£bn
Forecast to
March 2021
£bn

Total
£bn
Business rates  0.03 0.44 0.72 1.19
Council tax 0.02 0.48 1.21 1.71
Sales fees and charges 0.08 0.65 1.15 1.88
Commercial income 0.03 0.17 0.45 0.65
Other 0.01 0.08 0.17 0.26
Lost income 0.17 1.82 3.70 5.69

Source: Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, ‘Local authority COVID-19 financial impact monitoring information’.

Table 3 – English local authorities: additional expenditure

 March
2020
£bn
April & May 2020
£bn
Forecast to
March 2021
£bn

Total
£bn
Adult social care  0.03 0.50 0.97 0.50
Children’s social care 0.00 0.08 0.22 0.30
Housing (excluding HRA) 0.01 0.06 0.12 0.19
Environment and regulatory services 0.01 0.09 0.11 0.21
Finance & corporate services 0.01 0.08 0.11 0.20
Other service areas 0.02 0.36 0.93 1.31
Additional expenditure 0.08 1.17 2.46 3.71

Source: Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, ‘Local authority COVID-19 financial impact monitoring information’.

This article was originally published by ICAEW.