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Why we can’t find out how most Kent councils are spending our money

Councils in Kent have failed to publish annual accounts detailing how they have spent hundreds of millions of pounds of public money.

Analysis by KentOnline reveals that most local authorities have yet to comply with their legal requirement – but in most cases, the delays have been caused by auditors.

Several Kent councils have failed to publish their accounts
Several Kent councils have failed to publish their accounts

One has not been able to publish their accounts in four years.

Councils say that they are not to blame for the delays and are in limbo because auditors have yet to sign off their accounts, which they are required to under legislation.

The publication of accounts is considered to be important in terms of openness and transparency, providing electors with detailed information on how much their local authority has spent and why and on what.

The law requires all councils to publish annually their statements of accounts and no later than three months from the end of the financial year.

A growing number of councils have not been able to publish their accounts because auditors have not completed their assessment.

The delays mean that the public cannot use their right to raise questions with auditors about particular areas of expenditure in the most recent year, as they have not had access to information.

The documents often run into hundreds of pages and contain detailed financial information on expenditure and income.

Dover District Council is among those who have had to delay publication, saying the Covid pandemic was one of the reasons.

It apologised for the hold-up, saying it had made some progress – but that three sets of accounts had yet to be fully signed off.

In a statement, the authority played down the implications. It said it had never resulted in significant changes to its financial position and was “about independently verifying the accounts and checking technical and presentational matters”.

Kent County Council owns several windmills, its accounts reveal
Kent County Council owns several windmills, its accounts reveal

The last two years of accounts would not be published until the audit for 2021 was complete.

Folkestone & Hythe District Council also faces delays. Its website states: “The 2022-23 statement of accounts have been delayed and the statutory deadline has been missed. Apologise for the delay.

“Resourcing challenges have arisen due to delays in preparing and finalising/auditing the statement of accounts for 2020/21 and 2021/22. As result, the draft accounts for 2022-23 were delayed.”

Thanet District Council has not been able to publish the accounts for 2022-23 due to delays preparing for 2020-21 and 2021-22. Its website states: “These have caused resourcing challenges in 2022-23, resulting in a delay to the completion of the 2022/23 draft accounts.”

But its backlog extends to 2018-19 and 2019-20. The authority says auditors have not yet concluded its examination of the council’s financial management in 2018-19.

Meanwhile, the accounts for the following year have been held up by formal objections from residents which the auditors have not considered.

Gravesham Borough Council said its hold-up was down to the failure to have its statement of accounts for 2020 signed off and the process was not yet concluded.

Maidstone Borough Council blamed a delay in completing the audit for 2020-21 which “in turn delayed the commencement of the audit for 2021-22”.

But it also cited “resource capacity constraints” on the part of the external auditors, Grant Thornton UK LLP.

Medway Council blamed the delay in publication on the on-going impact of the coronavirus pandemic on resources.

Ashford Borough Council said it had been unable to publish this year’s accounts because “resourcing challenges” had led to delays in signing off accounts in 2020-21 and 2021-22.

A council spokesman said that while its draft accounts for 2022-23 were published in accordance with statutory deadlines, they had yet to be signed off by auditors.

They added: “There is a national issue with resourcing local government audit, and therefore our 2021-22 accounts are still not signed. It is likely that our 2022/23 accounts will also miss the statutory signing deadline.”

Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, Kent County Council, Canterbury City Council, Dartford Borough Council, Swale Borough Council and Tunbridge Wells Borough have met the deadline.

The issue of delays has drawn criticism from MPs. The Public Accounts Committee issued a report in the summer flagging up concerns. It warned delays in publishing annual accounts reduced transparency of how councils spent £100bn.

They also said delays had increased the risk of more councils failing financially.

Analysis, by political editor Paul Francis

Running in most cases to at least 100 pages, the idea of leafing through a forest of figures about how your council has spent millions of pounds might not be the most appealing of prospects.

But the information available can be pretty interesting, highlighting exactly where money has been spent.

Welcome to the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014.

This gives you the right to inspect the accounts, ask questions and request auditors to consider investigating spending in areas where there may be questions about the costs.

Here are six things we’ve spotted in this year’s accounts:

*Exit packages for staff earning between £20,000 and £40,000 losing their jobs at Kent County Council cost £459,500.

*KCC has £90m of “lender’s option, borrower’s option” (LOBO) loans where the lender has the option to propose an increase in the rate payable;

*KCC owns eight windmills valued at £1.93m; it also owns a former Second World War air raid warden’s post in Dover;

*So-called “heritage assets” owned by KCC include paintings, sculptures and other art worth £7.03m;

*KCC has a string of trading companies, mostly set up as “limited liability partnerships”, several of which are with other councils, including Dudley, Luton and Surrey;

*Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council raised £974,000 from its garden waste collection - after budgeting it would bring in £700,000.

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