Councillors at Comhairle nan Eilean Siar must provide leadership and clear priorities if the organisation is to improve public services and address significant financial and workforce challenges.
The Accounts Commission, the independent body that holds councils to account, says it is seriously concerned about the need for necessary improvements.
While the Comhairle has improved education services and grown the local economy, its redesign of services has resulted in fewer savings than expected, and the pace of change has been too slow. Both the performance of and public satisfaction with some services has dropped over the past five years.
The report points out that the Comhairle faces complex challenges: the largest real terms funding decrease of Scottish local authorities; depopulation; poor housing availability; and the most severe fuel poverty in Scotland. This places significant pressures on recruiting staff, particularly in critical areas such as social care.
William Moyes, Chair of the Accounts Commission, said: “The Comhairle must urgently develop a prioritised action plan to address the serious issues it faces. It already has some of the elements it needs to make fundamental changes; it has an ambitious vision for the future and works well with communities and other partners.
“But without clear strategic direction and leadership from its councillors, supported effectively by officers, as well as crucial effective financial and capital planning, it remains uncertain whether the Comhairle can achieve the improvements it needs to make.”
The report makes clear that the situation would improve if councillors could agree on a policy and then stick to it. The report points out: " In early 2022 the Comhairle introduced an operational plan to strengthen the links between the corporate strategy, the LOIP, and service business plans. The operational plan sets out supporting actions and measures to track future progress.
"The corporate strategy does not include actions to achieve its strategic outcomes. It notes that these will change over time and will be developed through service business plans and the operational plan. It does, however, include over 200 performance indicators to monitor progress toward the strategic outcomes.
"The corporate strategy does not identify its main priorities within its broad range of strategic outcomes. The Comhairle should set clear and specific priorities to identify exactly what it needs to do to achieve its vision. This would support elected members and the corporate management team in ensuring that the vision is achieved. It would also help communicate a compelling case for concentrated action on key issues to staff and stakeholders."
The report says: "Population decline is the most significant issue facing the islands and poses challenges for sustaining services such as social care and health services. The population is projected to fall by 9.4 per cent between 2018 and 2033 (the biggest decline for any Scottish local authority), whereas the Scottish population is projected to increase by 2.3 per cent. Over this period, the population of people in the islands aged over 75 years is projected to increase by more than 30 per cent, with a decline in the working age population of 13 per cent and a decline in the numbers of children by almost 20 per cent. Overall healthy life expectancy is higher than the rest of Scotland for both women and men, but rates of obesity and alcohol-related hospital admissions are high."
In an overnight media release, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar says it accepts the report's recommendations and will be implementing an Action Plan.
The Comhairle says it "is pleased that there is acknowledgement of the many successful initiatives underway and our good practice in areas such as community engagement, supporting the local economy and, importantly, being a strong advocate for the Islands. Our good collaboration with our partners to bring improvements to the Islands is fundamental to how we work and we welcome its recognition by Audit Scotland.
"The Comhairle knows well and fully accepts the challenges that it continues to face, particularly in the light of the financial situation facing local government. The need to increase the pace of change and develop our policies and strategies for achieving improvement are heavily influenced by the challenges of finance, workforce and leadership capacity. The risks associated with depopulation remains a concern for the Comhairle and we will continue to work with our partners to address these through all our strategic work."
The statutory duty of Best Value was introduced in the Local Government in Scotland Act 2003. The audit of Best Value is a continuous process that forms part of the annual audit of every council.
The Comhairle’s Leader Paul Steele said; “The Comhairle is committed to transparency and accountability in all we do and welcomes this report as an important contribution to that commitment. The report identifies many of the key strengths of the Comhairle and describes some of the challenges we face.
"We agree with Audit Scotland on the importance of clear and strategic policy, long term financial planning and the Comhairle calls on the Scottish Government, once again, to implement a multi-year settlement which will allow for greater security for Councils to plan and deliver improvements and change. We have campaigned vigorously against the cuts which all local authorities but particularly the Comhairle, have had to endure in recent years.
"No-one recognises more than the Comhairle the challenges of depopulation, providing social care and tackling fuel poverty.
"We note the findings of the Accounts Commission and remain committed to working for our communities in a challenging financial climate exacerbated by COVID and Brexit."