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Uttlesford District Council leaders challenged by all three opposition groups over auditors' refusal to sign off accounts

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The ruling Residents for Uttlesford (R4U) party has been told to “come clean” and explain why the district council’s auditors are refusing to sign off the authority's annual accounts.

The three opposition group leaders on the council – the Liberal Democrats’ Cllr Alan Dean (Stansted North), Green Party’s Cllr Paul Fairhurst (Saffron Walden Shire) and the Conservatives' Cllr Chris Criscione (Flitch Green and Little Dunmow) – are calling for clarity over what the council’s top finance officer has termed an “outstanding investigation”.

They have written to the council and R4U leader Cllr John Lodge, asking for an immediate explanation.

Cllr Dean said the situation was “unprecedented” in his 30-plus years at Uttlesford. “It’s not our officers’ fault and I have written to the chief executive and finance director to tell them so. It’s looking like a political failure by R4U,” he said.

Cllr Fairhurst said: “For an administration that campaigned on a promise of transparency, it is disappointing that an issue as grave as an auditor’s refusal to sign off accounts is veiled in such mystery and silence. This is very poor governance.”

And Cllr Criscione said that councillors from all parties were "being kept in the dark" by the council’s leadership on the investigation. "It’s time for R4U to come clean,” he said.

According to minutes of UDC’s governance, audit and performance committee, which scrutinises the council’s financial position and how it operates, the external auditor has taken legal advice on the way forward in relation to a governance issue.

This is R4U’s first attempt since being elected to power in May 2019 to get its accounts passed. It follows its failure to secure a Local Plan and the prospect of a costly planning appeal over its rejection of permission for Stansted Airport passenger growth.

Cllr Ayub Khan (Lib Dem, Stansted South and Birchanger) sits on the governance committee. He said that his enquiries had got him nowhere.

“I raised it at the public meeting. I’ve been raising it for the past week in emails to all councillors and with the portfolio holder for finance, only to be met with obfuscation and denial. This is shocking," he said.

“It paints a very poor picture of leadership by the current administration and their failure to get to grips with providing transparency as to why the auditor is refusing to sign off. The public would expect us to be clear about making sure we have robust practices in place and good governance.”

A statement from UDC said: “The approval of Uttlesford District Council’s 2019-20 accounts has been delayed due to an issue unrelated to its finances.

“A document called the Annual Governance Statement is approved alongside the accounts each year and it is a matter which could have implications for this document that means the accounts won’t be signed off by November 30. Once the matter is resolved through an internal investigation, we expect the accounts to be signed off.

“The financial audit of the accounts is complete and no major issues have arisen, which means, once again, the council expects to receive a clean bill of financial health from [accountants] BDO. The council is unable to give further details relating to the matter at this time.”

* Uttlesford District Council has 39 seats. The political make-up of the council is: R4U 22, Lib Dem 5, Con 4, Green 2, Independent 2, Thaxted & Eastons Independent Group 2. There are two vacancies: one in Newport following the resignation of Anthony Gerard and one in The Sampfords following the death of Alan Storah.

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