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Accountability queries on underspend from non-delivered Council projects

“Why are we consistently throwing up this underspend?”

The Chief Executive of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council expects to be “held to account” by members in the event of future project shortfalls.

Alison McCullagh made the remarks on potential underspends and emphasised while there have been issues in the past, arrangements are now in place to avoid their recurrence.

Independent Councillor Donal O’Cofaigh referenced planned expenditure of just under £77m on various projects in 2021/22, of which more than £58m is council-funded.

He said: “The estimates assume we won’t spend £11m in time. Previous projects show a 16 per cent shortfall, occurring primarily and overwhelmingly in our own projects.”

He enquired how the Council could be certain £58m would go on projects, leaving a £20m underspend, and sparking questions around capacity to deliver.

The Director of Corporate Service and Governance, Celine McCartan, advised: “The new Council was established in 2015 with some projects in train.

“It has taken time to get others fully developed. There have been delays, but it still remains our aspiration to significantly enhance our facilities and services.”

On the non-delivery of some Council-funded projects, Sinn Fein’s Councillor Thomas O’Reilly enquired if there is sufficient personnel for preparation and delivery, and: “Why are we consistently throwing up this underspend?”

Ms. McCullagh said there a number of reasons for under-delivery, including the previous splitting of the commissioning and delivery role “which I don’t think helped”.

She continued: “We have now brought those together. In addition, our planning has been poor … also the scale of expenditure on a number of Council-owned facilities, particularly in leisure and heritage, will be much greater that projects undertaken, to date.”

She added: “Members are right to highlight their concerns, and if previous performance is an indicator, we would again be underdelivering.

“But we have put the appropriate arrangements in place to ensure the capital plan will be delivered.”

Councillor Sheamus Greene, Sinn Fein, enquired: “If it turns out the same things happen and there’s an underspend, who takes the fall? Is it the councillors who agreed it?

“Surely the officers are deemed to have actioned [agreed plans]. Apart from councillors losing their seats, what are the consequences?”

Ms. McCullough responded by pointing to the “elected members and front-facing dimension”, but stressed plans for performance management.

She said: “We are looking at some very significant Council facilities which are absolutely essential for business, so there would be consequences impacting directly on our services and roles.”

She concluded: “It is part of our performance appraisal and we are closely monitoring from a management perspective. We have an additional layer of governance built in to give assurance and oversight.

“It’s also something I’m sure members will be holding me to account [for] personally.”

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