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S151 officers should be on the board

  • Comment

The section 151 officer is key to the sound management of local authorities and should undoubtedly be on the board.

This officer has a dual responsibility for the protection of taxpayers’ money and the effective delivery of financial strategy for an organisation.

In the case of the London Borough of Hounslow the turnover is in the region of £1bn per annum, and it is essential that the lead officer with responsibility for the effective management of this is on the top-level board.

There is a legal requirement for local authorities to set balanced budgets, and with ever-increasing spending pressures and diminishing resources, I believe it would be improper for a local authority to be making decisions at the most senior level without the officer who is legally responsible being involved in that decision-making.

Officially, the role of the s151 officer is extending - aside from financial responsibilities it is also his or her role to certify on matters of IT security and, to me, this really emphasises the need for that officer to be at the top table.

The role is not simply about proper accounting, but an intricate part of the key decision-making of a local authority.

One of the reasons the s151 officer might not be at the top table is that the officer who has ultimate responsibility for strategic finance is not a qualified accountant.

As someone who qualified at the advanced age of 42, I appreciate that the barrier to entry created by the accountancy requirement can be a frustration.

Nevertheless, it does seem to me that in a major organisation the lead officer of finance should have the recognised financial qualification and be able to hold the section 151 brief.

I also believe the challenges of this role are somewhat underestimated. Key financial roles in the health service, civil service or, indeed, many large private sector organisations do not have a statutory requirement to certify that budgets are balanced.

This puts a particular pressure on the s151 officer, and I believe the post has to be highly valued as critical to the proper delivery of a local authority’s functions.

Stephen Fitzgerald, director of finance, London Borough of Hounslow

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