Western Isles Council has sparked concern among local politicians with the news it has handed out almost £5 million in consulting fees since 2013. The council has claimed that, as a small authority, it does not have all the necessary specialist skills in its employee base; however, the council has recently been reducing its workforce, which may have contributed to its spiralling advisory spend.
A small Scottish community in the Outer Hebrides has become the latest in a long line of UK populations to scrutinise its local government for spending public money on private consulting services. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, known in English as Western Isles Council, is the local government council for the Na h-Eileanan Siar council area of Scotland, comprising the Outer Hebrides.
Based in Stornoway in the Isle of Lewis, the council reportedly spent around £5 million on consultants since 2013. The news comes just months after another such report found that Highland Council had spent £37 million on consultancy and specialist fees in the past six years.
In recent years, a succession of local councils have come under fire from officials and the general public for their consulting spending. Local councils across the UK spent around £400 million on consulting firms in the last year alone. According to the figures released by The Times, spending on consultants has risen by 21%, from £327 million to £395 million, over the last four years.
It is a common practice for local authorities to outsource services and change management functions, something often cited by councils which encounter friction to their consulting spending. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar is no different, and according to local news outlet The Press and Journal, the council has argued that as a small authority it has no choice but to tap external companies for specialist skills, thanks to the smaller talent pool it is working with.
A Freedom of Information request revealed that the local authority spent £4,999,023 on consultancy fees since 2013, including £705,320 in the last financial year, with a hefty top figure of $1,016,660 for the financial year ending 2015. According to a source at the council who spoke to The Press and Journal, this large spend was due to a number of complex projects which have been undertaken in the last six years, noting that hiring consultants always involved a rigorous process of policies and contract regulations, while the use of consultants remains monitored and reported to the council’s auditors.
A Western Isles Council spokesperson argued, “Comhairle, being a relatively small authority, does not tend to have permanent access to these specialist skills and services… Capital projects are a significant factor in consultancy costs and amounted to £3 million during the years in question. The Lews Castle Project, total project costs of £19.5 million, was included in the first few years of the data and the Goathill Care Development, total costs estimated at around £30 million, is in the last two years. Both had or have significant consultancy costs.”
However, Scottish National Party Councillor Rae Mackenzie said, “I am surprised at the total amounts and I will be asking for more information on this. There are obviously many specialised requirements, on capital programs in particular, which the council, unlike larger councils, does not have, I would imagine… I would hope that outside consultants are not used when the expertise – and work load – is already available in the work force.”
The council has reduced staff over recent years, and though it is unclear if this directly impacted on the hiring of consultants, the state of the national Civil Service would likely show that it has. Following a decade of austerity which has led to a Civil Service a fraction of its previous size, the occurrence of Brexit has quickly become a cash cow for the consulting industry, as the UK Government has scrambled to paper over the cracks at Whitehall and complete Brexit planning by supplementing its workforce with external contractors.
Western Isles MP Angus Brendan MacNeil remarked on the sum, “This figure raises more questions than it gives answers. It would be good to have a bit more detail from the council as to which consultants and for which purposes. Given that the council chose to cut lifeline air services, this spend will raise more than a few eyebrows.”