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Council / What next for the Orkney and Shetland Valuation Joint Board?

Chairman of the Orkney and Shetland Valuation Joint Board Andrew Drever.

AFTER a truly bruising audit report was delivered last month, Orkney and Shetland Valuation Joint Board (VJB) now has to look ahead, writes Orkney based local democracy reporter Andrew Stewart.

The report said the board’s leadership overstepped its bounds and undertook actions that were unlawful.

However, this was in an effort to make sure it had an assessor and could keep carrying out its statutory duties. Chairman Andrew Drever says he was in “panic mode” after they continually failed to fill the role.

Made up of councillors from both local authorities, the VJB looks after the valuation roll and council tax valuation lists.

Now, the board is trying to prevent anything similar from happening again.

There’s plenty to sort out and the work has already begun. However, the confusing nature of the board also needs to be addressed.

What went wrong?

Drever, who is an Orkney councillor, and its clerk, Orkney Islands Council’s Karen Greaves, spoke to the Local Democracy Service one week after the board accepted the external audit’s findings.

They were asked for their take on what went wrong. Drever said half the problem is that events go back nearly three years.

“I will be absolutely honest, I was in panic mode,” he said. “We had no deputy assessor and we were heading for the retirement of an assessor. I was concerned about the statutory service provision of the VJB and how to make it work.

“We had tried recruitment campaigns for deputies in the past – quite a number of them over a five-year period – and had been unsuccessful.”

“The board has a statutory function. It failing would mean it would have to go back to the council and Scottish Ministers have to be informed. The two local authorities would then have to deal with the situation.”

Last month, he apologised for involving the two north isles councils’ chief executives in the situation. The auditor had taken issue with this.

Drever said if the board had failed it would have to go back to the chief executives to sort out anyway. As it was nearing that point, he felt he was giving “early warning.”

This demonstrates the confusing nature of the VJB. Information-sharing is restricted in a way you don’t have on other council committees or boards.

Finding a new clerk in Greaves – who is also head of executive support at Orkney Council – has been one of the issues the board has had to resolve.

Adding to the confusion, council employees are asked by the council to take up roles within the VJB. However, they then become accountable to the board and can only share information within “the VJB family.”

As they say, a large part of what is needed now is a refresh of the board’s constitution to clear up what is allowed and what isn’t.

Referring to the actions taken over the assessor role, she says it was “a series of events, done in the wrong order, resulting in the same outcome.”

She explained, Drever had asked for there to be a discussion about how they go about the next recruitment round. Feedback from assessors told them the terms and conditions attached to the job would need to be better.

She said: “A meeting was called as a steer to inform the report that would consider what the improved recruitment package would look like. That’s quite normal to do that.”

They decided to offer the job at the top pay point, at a 37-hour week, and with a “market supplement” or “golden hello.”

While looking over these ideas, they included the two councils’ chief executives and HR departments, to “gather informal ideas for a report to go to a meeting of the board.”

She said the clerk is able to take action after consulting with the chair and the vice-chair. However, they consulted with the whole board.

“The view of the auditor was there had been ample time to have a formal meeting within the four weeks we had. We just did the steps in the wrong order.”

Having asked their outgoing assessor to delay his retirement, Greaves said it would have been “a bit strange” not to offer him the same terms and conditions they were advertising his job with. She says a figure reported in the press for the pay rise is “grossly exaggerated.”

She said the top pay level for the isles board’s assessor would be equal to that of a deputy assessor elsewhere.

What are they doing about it?

The board has actually been addressing its problems for some time. The most obvious point is that they need to find a new assessor by the end of March. However, the recruitment of a deputy assessor is now underway.

There will also be plenty of training for board members and VJB staff. This will be needed, with a likely influx of new board members after the elections in May.

The board has appointed both a clerk and treasurer and its administration has been handed over from Shetland to Orkney. Performance reporting has also been completed and a review of pay and grading has been done.

Other improvements are underway, such as having a look at the roles and responsibilities of the VJB in governance and developing a medium-term financial plan.

Drever said he accepted that audits “are meant to be bruising, if you’ve done things wrong.”

However, he also said people shouldn’t be put off joining boards. He’s confident that training people to understand their responsibilities will make all the difference going forward.

He said: “We’ve got a solid audit plan to work through now. We know the parameters of it. There are good guidelines for making progress. Hopefully, we’ll be in a position to have good leadership, with an assessor and deputy assessor in-post.”