Birkenhead MP Frank Field has been piling on the pressure for publication of an Audit Commission investigation into a multi-million pound Wirral Council highways contract.

Last week he said: “If this inquiry throws up a similar pattern of poor governance witnessed over the council’s handling of the Cheshire Lines building, I will expect the very strongest measures to be taken against those responsible.”

He also made a reference to Cheshire Lines in a speech to Parliament in February, when he described to MPs the “crass inefficiency” of council chief officers in the way the takeover of the building was handled.

Here the Globe investigates the “Cheshire Lines issue” which was probed by the Audit Commission in 2005.


ASTONISHING parallels have emerged between a highly critical investigation into Wirral Council's inadequate ethics and governance in 2005 and an equally damaging inquiry conducted six years later.

A review by local government watchdog the Audit Commission published in August of 2005 found Wirral guilty of alarming errors at the most senior level as it sought to transfer its highways administration centre from Bebington to the Cheshire Lines building in Birkenhead.

The auditor said the council chief officer group had combined weak corporate governance with a lack of concern for legislative procedures and had failed to inform elected members of major decisions taken exclusively by directors.

The chief executive of Wirral Council at the time, Steven Maddox, said such non-compliance with good governance would never again be tolerated and that he expected his officers to comply fully with constitutional requirements.

In 2011 another investigation, this time by consultant Anna Klonowski into abuses by the Department for Adult Social Services, reached worryingly similar conclusions to the earlier audit report.

Ms Klonowski's inquiry paper published in September last year stated Wirral had failed to respond to numerous top-level warnings sounded by the Audit Commission and Care Quality Commission.

The "Corporate Governance" report said that for most councils, just one of these warnings would have been enough to sound alarm bells.

But in Wirral, practices other authorities "would consider abnormal were viewed as commonplace."

It said: "In short, the evidence confirms the conclusion that over a considerable period of time Wirral Council has been consistently unable to get a grip of a range of related issues.

"This indicates Wirral’s corporate governance arrangements were, and probably remain, inadequate."

Ms Klonowski found the town hall has struggled to generate accurate information, not responded to complaints and failed to properly execute agreed decisions.

The 2005 Cheshire Lines inquiry was prompted by the then leader of the council Cllr Steve Foulkes.

He called in the Audit Commission to conduct an investigation under the Public Interest Disclosure Act - a law introduced in 1998 protecting whistle-blowers from detrimental treatment by their employer.

The auditor's report found the council had been guilty of "weak corporate governance" combined with a lack of concern for value for money and a disregard of proper procedures.

Councillors on scrutiny committees had failed to challenge chief officers: "The members did ask appropriate initial questions - which were answered inadequately - but failed to ask the more challenging follow-up questions which may have led them to draw different conclusions."

The inquiry states that as the authority moved to transfer its highways and technical services administration centre from Bebington to Cheshire Lines in Canning Street, a former railway warehouse, the assistant borough solicitor signed a lease for the whole building even though the council had no overall plan for its use.

There had been no reports to elected members suggesting it would cost more than £500,000 to make the building suitable for office use.

In September of 2004, the deputy chief executive and the directors of finance and technical services presented a report to cabinet which set out, for the first time, the costs of the work required.

The report showed that £173,000 had already been spent - without councillor or budget approval - and that a further £550,000 was planned.

And by 2005, the council found itself tied into a 20-year lease for Cheshire Lines having paid £1.4m to adapt the building with a further £750,000 of expenditure planned.

The leasing and running costs were £630,000 per year, partly offset by the savings achieved from buildings at Bebington no longer needed.

Over the lifetime of the lease annual costs equate to £12.6m at today's prices.

Under the heading "What Went Wrong" the auditor said she had identified "significant deficiencies" in the decision making process.

The review concluded: "The council's leadership of the project was weak and chief officers have not always done what they should have done."

A positive note at the end of the document may ring hollow as it chimes with almost identical assurances six years later: “The chief executive is developing a detailed action plan for approval and subsequent monitoring by cabinet members and myself. I am pleased the council is already starting to address the issues I have raised."

The Klonowski review ends with more or less the same assurances.

The new investigation by the Audit Commission into Wirral Council's handling of a multi-million pound outsourced highways maintenance contract - triggered after the town hall admitted it did not know if the deal represented value for money - is expected to be made public towards the end of next week.

To echo Frank Field, will it again show senior officers breaking council rules?

At this point only the auditor, the new chief executive Jim Wilkie and his legal director Bill Norman know - nobody else has been allowed to see the document.

You can read the 2005 Audit Commission PIDA report by clicking on "related links" above.