Larne Business Forum writes to minister seeking extraordinary audit of council's finances

Larne Business Forum has written to Communities Minister Gordon Lyons requesting an extraordinary audit of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s finances in response to concerns over “unsustainable non-domestic rates burdens being placed on local businesses”.
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The request comes after the borough council agreed a rise in non-domestic rates of almost 12 per cent and an increase of 9.78 per cent in domestic rates for the 2024/25 financial year. Council’s portion of rates amounts to just under 50% of the rates bills received by citizens in Mid and East Antrim, with the remainder set by the Stormont Executive.

Larne Business Forum said it believes “unsustainable non-domestic rates burdens being placed on local businesses are undermining the very survival of some in the small business sector”.

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The business group has claimed if these are not “curtailed”, they will do “great economic damage to Larne and across the wider Mid and East Antrim area”. The group has said it will also be contacting the Local Government Auditor to seek an extraordinary audit.

Brian McRandal, chair, Larne Business Forum. Pic: Local Democracy Reporting ServiceBrian McRandal, chair, Larne Business Forum. Pic: Local Democracy Reporting Service
Brian McRandal, chair, Larne Business Forum. Pic: Local Democracy Reporting Service

Brian McRandal, chair of Larne Business Forum, said: “We advised the minister that we were concerned to note in the Local Government Auditor’s Report 2023, published in December, weaknesses in procurement and contract management including the excessive use of direct business cases and weaknesses in completing the council’s contract database.

“We reminded the minister that the hard-pressed ratepayers in Mid and East Antrim still have had little or no clarity regarding how these were ever allowed to occur, the nature and extent of the recommendations made by the local government auditor and the extent to which the recommendations have or have not been effectively implemented.

“We believe that Mid and East Antrim ratepayers are entitled to much greater clarity on these matters.”

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Commenting on Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s 2021-22 financial audit, the auditor said: “My audit identified a number of significant weaknesses in the council’s procurement and contract management practices including poor control over the monitoring and approval of Direct Award Contracts. DACs should only be used on an exceptional basis but I found that there were a total of 94 during the 2021-22 financial year.

Business Cases

“Business cases were not always carried out by the council on a consistent basis. Weaknesses in the completion of the council’s contracts database were also identified as well as issues relating to the introduction of a new finance IT system during 2021-22.

“I made a number of recommendations which are being addressed by the council and I would hope to see measurable improvements during the audit of the 2022-23 financial statements.”

Larne Business Fourm also expressed concern over a £7.2m shortfall in the borough council’s finances saying “we noted that no suitable explanation has ever been provided to ratepayers as to how such an extraordinary shortfall was allowed to happen”.

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In October, Mid and East Antrim Borough Council’s interim chief executive Valerie Watts confirmed the local authority has a financial deficit of £7.2m. She told councillors “We are facing a significant number of legacy challenges as well as challenges that were identified in phase one of the PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers) support work.

“In response to budgetary challenges, it was clear that Mid and East Antrim required immediate support to stabilise our finance and procurement functions whilst improving existing processes and policies and designing new operating models, finance and procurement functions.”

The interim chief executive stated the council’s procurement systems were “not standardised and not always documented”.

She said “standardised processes will be implemented” meaning that Mid and East Antrim will have “robust processes in place with clear controls for all members of staff and all spending via procurement will follow clear strategies and approvals”.

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The council has said previously it is committed to delivering savings of £6.85m in the next financial year to meet the agreed budget, with all spend of public money subject to enhanced and more robust scrutiny, accountability and transparency measures.

“We are acutely aware of the struggles many people and our businesses are facing within our community and remain focused on doing everything within our power to help and support them, while safeguarding the essential services they rely on.”

Mid and East Antrim Borough Council and the Department for Communities have been asked for a comment.

Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter

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