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Council Leader Apologises Following Publication of Damning Report on GBC

Published on: 8 May, 2024
Updated on: 9 May, 2024

Solace report published

By Chris Caulfield

local democracy reporter

Weak governance and poor scrutiny at Guildford Borough Council created a “quick fix culture” that allowed potentially millions of pounds to be defrauded from the public purse while vulnerable housing tenants suffered, a new report has found.

The council has apologised unreservedly and pledged to adopt every recommendation – of which there are more than 70 –  after a Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) review found its practices posed a serious risk to residents.

The report, released on Tuesday May 7, covered how the culture at the council created an environment where ring-fenced housing budgets were able to skyrocket and general fund spending combined with accounting errors also pushed the authority towards bankruptcy.

It covers a general overview of the stages that led to two council staff members being suspended and five agency workers having their contracts terminated, one of whom was briefly arrested.

In February 2022, the council agreed to invest a total of £24.5 million to bring its housing stock up to standard and a three-year contract with a value of £5.4 million was agreed for testing and inspection. In less than three years that ballooned to £18.9 million spent –  a £13.5 million overspend.

There was an increase in complaints concerning repairs and enhancements from tenants, the review found.

This happened while the Housing Surveyor Team was vacant and had no permanent surveyors.

The report read: “This lack of in-house expertise and capacity meant that the council often didn’t inspect and check work and were reliant upon agency staff.

“There was also incompleteness of data which compounded matters.”

It added: “After making initial enquiries, it came to light that there was concern regarding risk to the council.” The following matters were raised:

  • that work may have been ordered when it wasn’t necessary;
  • that work may have been ordered, invoiced and paid for when it was not completed at all or not to a satisfactory standard;
  • that duplicate invoices may have been submitted and paid for the same work; and
  • that works may have been ordered and undertaken that were not the responsibility of the council

This triggered a criminal investigation in August 2023 resulting in the following month the suspension of two employees and five agency workers having their contracts terminated.

Whistleblowers first raised the alarm in September 2022 but it was not until 2023 that serious action into how housing budgets of about £5.4 million a year had ballooned to more than £18 million.

The initial investigation was conducted by Reigate and Banstead Borough Council’s anti-fraud unit before being handed over to the South East Regional Organised Crime Unit of the Police.

The council then ordered a series of reviews, with the results published late on Tuesday, May 7 – although the allegations of potential fraud were outside the review’s scope.

Despite that shortcoming, the review did find there was serious failure to follow due process in the procurement and management of housing maintenance contracts.

The council has now published an in-depth improvement plan, with more than 70 recommendations, to address every finding from the two reports, and, it says, to ensure it provides services of which residents and businesses can be proud of.

Council Leader  Julia McShane said: ‘The people of Guildford deserve better from their council and for that we give a heartfelt apology and a commitment to put right the long-standing issues which we have uncovered.

“We have invited scrutiny and embraced accountability and will not rest until we have a resilient, well-managed council of which we can all be proud.”

Deputy Leader Cllr Tom Hunt said: ‘We apologise unreservedly to the residents and taxpayers of Guildford.

“The SOLACE reports identify serious issues around the council’s governance, operations, and controls.

“This is unacceptable. We are utterly determined to root out every problem and to put matters right. The people of Guildford deserve nothing less.”

Pedro Wrobel, chief executive of Guildford and Waverley Borough Councils, said: “‘I recognise everything that the SOLACE reports identify, and accept all the findings in full.

“This is not okay, and I came here to deal with it.

“Over the past two and half months, we have been developing a comprehensive Improvement Plan to address the issues at Guildford Borough Council. It addresses every recommendation from these reports and goes further.

“I am delighted with the appointment of the Independent Assurance Panel. It is critical that we make everything open and transparent. We are here to do the right thing, not the easy thing.

“I am determined to ensure the council is sustainable, delivers excellent value for money, and provides services that our residents and businesses can be proud of.

“We will not do this alone. I look forward to working with partners and our communities and businesses to make Guildford a brilliant place to live, work and do business.”

A police investigation and an employment investigation carried out by an external law firm are continuing, the council said.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service has read through the  documents with this being the first of several stories to be written about the findings.

Further stories will look in greater detail at the steps the council is taking, the impact of the collaboration with Waverley Borough Council and the views of the community and residents.

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Responses to Council Leader Apologises Following Publication of Damning Report on GBC

  1. George Potter Reply

    May 8, 2024 at 5:45 pm

    “The impact of the merger with Waverley Borough Council”

    There is no merger with Waverley Borough Council. This has been spelt out many times. Please can our local journalists get this point correct?

    George Potter is a Lib Dem borough councillor for Burpham.

    Editor’s response: The article has been corrected. Thank you for pointing out the error.

    • Richard Benson Reply

      May 9, 2024 at 7:17 am

      Cllr Potter is dancing on a pinhead.

      Collaborations can be terminated at will, but it will be nigh on impossible for Waverley to walk away quickly from Guildford due to the complex structures that have already been put in place.

      For the last three years the Waverley and Guildford Executives have been busy cooking a merger omelette and as we all know “you can’t unscramble an omelette”.

      Most sensible people would say it would be negligent to doggedly follow a flawed strategy as this usually leads to a financial crisis and service failure to the residents.

      This is a common mistake made by inexperienced councils.

      If the “collaboration” has been a financial success to date, Cllr Potter would surely be shouting about this from the rooftops, but the deafening silence indicates the merger adventure has not been going well and has been a very expensive mistake.

      If it looks like a merger, has the features of a merger and everyone calls it a merger, then it probably isn’t a collaboration.

  2. Richard Benson Reply

    May 8, 2024 at 7:02 pm

    In the private sector Council Leader McShane and the Executive would been made to resign. The reputation of Guildford Borough Council is that of a “laughing stock council”.

    The collaboration with Waverley since July 2021 has drained a huge amount of officer time and money from both councils with the inevitable consequences for both.

  3. Christian Holliday Reply

    May 8, 2024 at 10:47 pm

    This is an utterly damning indictment of the Lib Dem regime at Guildford Borough Council. Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has simply walked out the door. The sooner Conservative administration is returned to Millmead, the better.

    Christian Holliday is chairman of Guildford Conservatives

  4. Jules Cranwell Reply

    May 9, 2024 at 5:34 am

    Apologies are all very well, but the buck stops with the leader, and she should do the decent thing and resign. After all, she also held the housing portfolio, while this scandal was allowed to happen.

  5. Jeremy Holt Reply

    May 9, 2024 at 7:23 am

    What a change it is to see Pedro Wrobel take personal responsibility in his statements using the personal pronoun “I”.

    Too often those responsible fudge personal accountability by using the pronoun “we” implying there were other people involved as well so there is little they could do about the problem.

    • Wayne Smith Reply

      May 10, 2024 at 3:43 pm

      No surprise to see that Cllr McShane and her deputy Cllr Hunt both use “we”!

  6. Geoff Tonks Reply

    May 9, 2024 at 9:58 am

    So the fire sale of Guildford’s assets, the increases in parking charges with their knock on adverse effect on local businesses and any cutbacks in council services are due to the incompetence of the Lib Dem council.

    It is reported: “Whistleblowers first raised the alarm in September 2022”. If whistleblowers (plural) first raised the alarm back then, why was no action taken until the summer of 2023? This is inexcusable and the lead councillor for Housing needs to take responsibility and resign.

  7. Michelle Gardner Reply

    May 9, 2024 at 10:51 am

    Yes, the buck stops with the councillors, and the leadership but what about staff and contractors? And could “Future Guildford” have disorganised or reorganised staff so much that they didn’t know what they were doing?

  8. David Daniels Reply

    May 9, 2024 at 6:04 pm

    A simple question – will the needlessly spent money be retrieved from those who took it?

  9. Frank Emery Reply

    May 9, 2024 at 7:36 pm

    Hollow words once again! How much did those responsible for this fiasco get paid off?

  10. Hyde Peter Reply

    May 10, 2024 at 6:34 am

    Speaking as a former Local Authority chief executive I think there should be an end to the joint management arrangements of the two Councils. It is a fundamentally flawed concept. You simply cannot serve two masters.

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