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Surrey appoints interim finance director as external audit delayed

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Surrey CC has appointed an interim finance director at a time when external auditors are having to carry out more work to assess the council’s financial health.

The council has now appointed Leigh Whitehouse as its interim director of finance. He will join Surrey on 3 September from Bexley LBC where he is currently interim director for finance and corporate services. The recruitment process for a permanent post holder will start in September.

The appointment follows after auditor Grant Thornton said it had “identified the council’s medium term financial health as a significant risk” earlier in the year.

However, because the council had asked the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy to do another financial resilience review, following one it did in 2016, Grant Thornton decided to delay its work to assess the Surrey’s finances as it was led to believe there would be “considerable overlap” between the two reviews.

In Grant Thornton’s report, which went before Surrey’s audit and governance committee on 26 July, it said: “At the time of writing we have not received Cipfa’s terms of reference or their interim report, however we now understand that it is unlikely that Cipfa’s work will overlap with our proposed value for money work. We will therefore need to carry out our work as previously planned. We are therefore not in a position to issue our [value for money] conclusion at this time.”

Grant Thornton’s review did, however, look at the state of Surrey’s children’s services. LGC has previously reported how a government commissioner has been appointed to oversee improvements in Surrey CC’s children’s services following a damning Ofsted report.

While Grant Thornton noted that Ofsted reported Surrey had “begun to address” issues, the auditor added it was “too early to judge whether these changes will have the desired effect and whether they will become embedded across the organisation”.

It added: “Our review of the most recent Ofsted report has led us to conclude that the processes and procedures you have in place in relation to children’s services are not conducive to providing value for money for residents.”

Surrey’s former finance director Sheila Little left the council last month. Earlier in the year she had warned about needing to use “an unprecedented level” of reserves to balance its budget in 2018-19 as the council seeks to make about £66m savings this year alone.

Leigh Whitehouse

Leigh Whitehouse

Leigh Whitehouse

Surrey leader David Hodge (Con) said Mr Whitehouse’s appointment comes “at a critical time for the council as we take forward our transformation programme and continue the vital work of achieving a sustainable budget that can deliver the best possible services and support to our residents.”

Joanna Killian, Surrey’s chief executive, said Mr Whitehouse “has an excellent track record in the sector and solid experience of managing council finances.”

Mr Whitehouse said: “I’m delighted to be joining Surrey at a time when strong financial leadership has never been more important. The financial challenges facing the council are significant, but so is the commitment to tackle them and the potential within the organisation to do so. I’m looking forward to meeting colleagues and getting on with things as soon as possible.”

Prior to his role at Bexley Mr Whitehouse held senior financial officer positions at Kingston upon Thames and Hammersmith & Fulham LBCs.

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