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Council / Watchdog considers failings at valuation joint board

SCOTLAND’S public finance watchdog is considering what actions, if any, it will take against the Orkney and Shetland Valuation Joint Board (VJB) in response to a multitude of errors and failures, some of which are described as “unlawful”.

A meeting of the Accounts Commission, streamed live on YouTube on Thursday, discussed a detailed report by controller of audit Anthony Clark which was prepared in the wake of a damning audit report by Deloitte in relation to governance and decision making.

“The VJB took numerous decisions that were unlawful or were not supported by appropriate or specified procedures, and which did not accord with good practice,” Clark wrote in his report.

Valuation joint boards oversee property rates and council tax valuation and look after the electoral registration.

Things started to go wrong for the joint board as early as February 2020 when assessor Dennis Stevenson handed in his resignation citing concern over his salary and the difficulties in appointing a deputy to his role.

The disagreement over a pay rise for Stevenson, who had agreed to stay on a rolling contract, resulted in the resignation of some board members, including Orkney councillors John Ross Scott and Dr Stephen Clackson, as well as SIC member Malcom Bell. Three SIC officers who held office bearer roles on the board also resigned.

Following a pay review Stevenson’s salary was increased from £75,839 to £79,200 while working hours were reduced from 37 to 35 per week, from April 2021.

Meanwhile, a recruitment process to find a replacement for Stevenson was unsuccessful.

Following an ‘informal’ meeting on 6 September the assessor’s salary was increased to £91,527. Stevenson accepted the offer a few days later and the changes to his pay were processed on 21 September.

A board meeting was subsequently convened on 30 September to retrospectively rubberstamp the earlier ‘informal’ decision.

Clark said in his report: “While the 30 September meeting attempted to ratify the actions taken following the 6 September meeting, it made no reference to the earlier meeting or the fact that the recommendations had already been implemented.”

Then, on 1 November, a revised contract – dated 5 October and confirming the verbal offer – was issued to Stevenson by the clerk to the board under the name of the chief executives of the two island councils.

This was done although the joint board had no scheme of delegation in place that would allow it to do so and had also not obtained approval from the SIC’s chief executive Maggie Sandison to use her signature.

Clark continued: “The processes followed, and decision taken, by the VJB in relation to the assessor’s contract were seriously flawed.

“The decision taken at the meeting of the board that was not properly convened limited the transparency of decision-making on a matter of public spending.

“The subsequent errors in relation to the contract offered and issued to the assessor were ultra-wires and unlawful, as were the additional salary payments made following the payroll changes made on 21 September 2021.”

It was pointed out during the meeting that the actions were unlawful. They were not illegal, and no criminality is alleged.

A second issue of significant concern highlighted in the report was how the pay rate for the depute assessor, contracted on a consultancy basis, had increased by 400 per cent over a period of five years.

Increases to the pay were made on five separate occasions, with no tender ever issued, no quotation for the job received, and no competition assessed.

While the amount of hours paid to the consultant reduced over the years, the annual cost to the board increased from £32,727 in 2016/17 to £49,956 in 2020/21.

The controller of audit also criticised the VJB for not undertaking effective medium-term planning and the lack of workforce planning which resulted in the board faced with vacancies in three of its four most senior positions.

However, he acknowledged that significant progress has been made on all the issues since the board had accepted an improvement plan.

Stevenson is due to retire at the end of this month, and a new assessor has been appointed to take up the post on 16 May. A depute assessor was appointed in October last year.

While the controller of audit’s report is available publicly, the Audit Commission is discussing in private how to proceed from here. It could either hold a hearing, carry out further investigations or make recommendations including the repayment of funds.

The commission’s findings are expected to be published later this month.

The Orkney and Shetland valuation joint board is the smallest in the country. The board consists of five councillors from each council. Since 2020/21 services to the board have been provided by Orkney Islands Council.