Value for money audits: lessons for local authorities

business team meeting image
Local authorities are facing significant financial pressures, which are impacting their ability to maintain essential services and governance arrangements. Paul Dossett and Guy Clifton share the findings from recent Auditors' Annual Reports.

In April 2024 we reviewed 92 auditors' annual reports (AARs) that we produced for our local government audited bodies, which represents approximately 30% of councils in England. AARs are the key annual deliverable relating to our value for money audit work. These AARs covered the audit year 2022/23, and thirty also covered 2021/22 due to joint reporting. They were published between April 2023 and March 2024. It should be noted that 22/23 and 23/24 were years where inflation and the cost of living crisis had a significant impact on council finances.

Considering recommendation types

Where our value for money audit work identifies weaknesses in arrangements, or potential improvements, we make the following types of recommendations:

Statutory recommendations

These relate to significant weaknesses reported under Section 24 (Schedule 7) of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014. They require a published written response.

Key recommendations

These relate to significant weaknesses identified under the NAO code of audit practice. They set out actions the council should take, but don't require a published written response.

Improvement recommendations

These, if implemented, should improve the arrangements in place at the council, but aren't a result of identifying significant weaknesses.

Key findings

The reports in our sample showed an escalating rate of significant weakness in arrangements for financial sustainability. They also showed rising rates of significant weakness in arrangements for financial governance, internal control, performance management, and procurement. In our view this is because the financial pressures some councils are facing have resulted in some poor decision making and a weakening of often traditionally strong governance arrangements.

Common areas of weakness were in relation to:

  • savings and transformation plans
  •  the dedicated schools grant, in particular special education needs and disability (SEND) services, including escalating transport costs
  • financial governance and internal control, sometimes linked to workforce issues
  • performance management and procurement

When we reviewed improvement recommendations raised in relation to the 2022/23 audit year, we found that almost half of them related to the same issues as the key recommendations, but weren't as significant areas of concern. Left unaddressed, there's the risk that the councils with improvement recommendations could escalate to significant weaknesses in their arrangements by 2024/25.

The Housing Revenue Account

Councils across England who have responsibility for a housing revenue account (HRA) need to take a strategic approach. Delaying capital investment in one year has led to increased needs for high-cost emergency repairs and maintenance work at some councils in the next year.

With new housing consumer standards being mandated from April 2024, any short-term savings in repairs and maintenance now could lead to very high costs in the future.  Similarly, at some councils savings on rent collection and landlord costs in one year have led to reduced income in another year. However, at other councils, digital landlord roles are now being successfully explored. Common improvement recommendations for the HRA in our AARs for 2022/23 are:

  • maximise rental income where possible, within the statutory constraints that exist
  • maintain strong financial and performance reporting on the HRA
  • keep stock condition records and repairs activity registers up to date so that gaps can be identified accurately
  • ensure that committee oversight is effective; is the same committee cited on housing risks as on housing performance?
  • explore efficiencies around the landlord role

The report

For more insight and guidance, get in touch with Paul Dossett or Guy Clifton.