Wednesday 6 July 2011

Section 106 Update

At a Council meeting back in June 2008 I asked for a breakdown of S106 receipts by Ward and intended purpose for the 3 previous years:  I was given just the amounts (which turned out to have mistakes).

I, and other Conservative colleagues, continued asking for information on how S106 monies were spent.  What little information we got back was always very much delayed. [From our time in control of RBC, we discovered that officer answers could be delayed by Lead Members] 

A Section 106 is a legal agreement.  It is entered into between the developer and RBC, and both parties have to abide by it.  However RBC did not have one single system to track and monitor S106 monies until our coalition with the Lib Dems came into power last year. 

Before May 2010 nobody knows if, or how much, S106 money due for payment was left unclaimed by RBC because of the lack of a proper audit trail or triggers in place to prompt officers to chase developers at the appropriate time.  Conversely RBC's shambolic record-keeping has left the authority open to potential legal challenge from developers. 

Why has RBC not published Wokingham's findings in full?  The problems happened under the pre-May 2010 Labour administration.  Even though an internal RBC audit in 2008 (finalised in 2009) highlighted the serious lack of a proper accounting system for S106's, necessary remedial action did not kick in until the Conservative-led coalition took control. 

I've read and got both of Wokingham's independent reports (carried out earlier this year on the request of the Conservative-led administration) but because I was given them on a confidential basis by the Chief Executive, I'm prevented from revealing their contents.  Worryingly, the second "legally privileged" Wokingham report was not provided to last week's Audit & Governance Committee panel even though the first report was (albeit on 'blue' confidential paper).  If the second hadn't become available before Labour regained control of RBC, I very much doubt I would ever have known of its existence.  So much for Reading Labour's pre-election statements about their new-found desire for transparency!

One question posed by members of the public today has been "surely all councillors have a responsibility to ensure RBC's accounts are in order".  Well yes we do: however when procedures are disregarded, ie Decision Book Reports are completely ignored even though they have been agreed, opposition councillors effectively are rendered impotent. 

A second question has been "why wasn't the local coalition able to bring the S106 debacle into the public sphere when in control?"  The answer is we tried extremely hard to be able to do so, though were unable to for a number of reasons.  Our aim has always been to open up the system to public scrutiny as soon as possible whilst at the same time minimising the risk to Council Tax payers.  We sought independent legal advice (through Wokingham's investigation) so that we had a better idea of where the Council stood.  We acknowledged that monies might have to be paid back but our coalition agreed it was imperative to clean up the previous administration's mess and create a robust & transparent system.

It is a great shame the current administration has not recognised the need for calling the District Auditor in.  I do hope Labour will think again rather than just burying their heads in the sand whilst continuing to trivialise this serious issue.