Councillors want to ‘scrutinise’ Northampton museum project after auditor concerns over building projects

Northampton museum is undergoing a renovation
Northampton museum is undergoing a renovation

Councillors want to cast a scrutinising eye over the museum project in Northampton after auditors highlighted concerns in the borough council’s handling of major building projects.

New internal auditors BDO found that project paperwork and agreements had not been signed for some capital projects and that some reports were not produced monthly and ‘lacked detail’ when they did come in. BDO’s July progress report for 2018/19 also found that a project risk register had not been updated since April 2018.

The audit committee met at The Guildhall this week

The audit committee met at The Guildhall this week

Members of the audit committee found the report ‘concerning’ given the council’s recent history of major projects, including the Sixfields redevelopment saga and the overrun of the Delapré Abbey budget.

And councillors will now ask their counterparts on the scrutiny committee to look at the current Northampton Museum restoration to check everything is above board. The museum closed in September 2017, and is set to reopen next year after a £6.7million makeover.

Councillor Mary Markham, a previous leader of the council who succeeded David Mackintosh and launched enquiries into the missing Cobblers money, said: “Based on what happened with the football club this was one of the major areas to look at. This gives me the greatest concern especially after what we have been through. I would have thought there would have been a proper process.

“There were assurances given to this committee that this was all in place and it was being kept updated.”

This led Councillor Matt Golby to request that scrutiny look at the processes in place on the current museum project, a recommendation which was agreed by the committee so that they could ‘seek more clarity’.

But chief finance officer Stuart McGregor responded: “We have been refining our project management. Some of the risks with Delapré Abbey for example are quite old in terms of how they have been managed in the past.

“There are particular processes where auditors do not think we are documenting things in quite the manner that they would prefer, but it doesn’t mean that the controls or transparency aren’t there.”

Auditors have listed a number of recommendations for the council to work on. It calls on them to hold a review and report on why project agreements and contracts were not signed, which will feature a ‘lessons learnt’ section to ensure that such documents are ‘promptly signed’.

BDO, which overall gave the council an underwhelming ‘limited assurance’ rating, also calls for the Delapré Abbey risk register to be updated to reflect the current position of the project.

Other recommendations include reminding project managers by email that they need to produce monthly highlight reports, and that the reports should contain ‘greater detail’ of the project spend against forecast spend.

And finance reports for the museum and Delapré Abbey projects should include actual spending against budget spending on a line-by-line basis to provide ‘greater clarity on the cause of variance’.

The latter recommendation proved worrying for Councillor Danielle Stone, who said: “I would have thought that would have been absolutely key to good financial management given where we have been. One of the big problems has not been just the Cobblers, but also the overrun of the Delapré Abbey budget.”

The report concluded overall: “The council has a moderate design of controls in place for major capital projects based on the three projects we reviewed. While the overall framework was sound, we found weaknesses in contract agreement, risk management, reporting and scrutiny on individual projects.”