The chairman of the House of Commons public accounts committee has backed calls for the UK’s public spending watchdog to investigate Teesworks, the flagship government-backed regeneration scheme overseen by the Party’s highest-profile mayor. Conservative, Ben Houchen.
Labor Dame Meg Hillier urged ministers to allow a full National Audit Office investigation into the scheme in north east England after a Financial Times investigation raised concerns about value for money, governance and transparency.
In a letter to the Financial Times, Hiller said it would be “wise” if Secretary Michael Gove ordered an investigation, adding that the existing system of financial oversight for England’s directly elected mayors was not “robust”.
Your call echoes one of the shadow leveling secretary Lisa Nandy last week. Subsequently, Houchen, the mayor of Tees Valley, who is overseeing the plan, wrote to Gove and asked the NAO to investigate in order to reach a “swift and decisive conclusion” of the situation. The chairman of the House of Commons business select committee, Labor Darren Jones, has made a similar demand.
The FT investigation raised concerns about the 4,500-acre Teesworks project, which involved decisions, made in private, to hand over public assets to two local developers.
It is the largest brownfield industrial site in the country and is overseen by the South Tees Development Corporation (STDC), chaired by Houchen. The project, now 90 per cent privately owned, aims to regenerate the huge former Redcar steel works and forms a large part of the Teesside Free Harbour.
Previously, the government, STDC and the developers defended the project and the way it was being managed.
Under current law, the government has to order the NAO inspecting the books of local bodies, whose accounts are only open to locally appointed private auditors.
In the letter, Hillier noted his committee’s longstanding concerns about the strength of the existing market for local public sector auditing, noting that only 12% of council audits were completed in time for the 2021 deadline. -22, while some municipalities have not had any audit. for two years.
He criticized the financial supervision arrangements for the English mayor model. It “did not include robust local audit plans” when it was filed in 2015, she wrote.
When asked by the Financial Times in April why many of his subsidiary accounts had been filed late For the past 18 months, STDC said local auditors had been “operating in a market where there are limited resources and significant delays.”
Like Hillier, he also singled out Sir Tony Redmond’s government-commissioned review of local audit arrangements, which found the market to be “fragile”.
However, in response to Hillier’s letter over the weekend, STDC said it “did not agree” that there was a shortage of public sector auditors with market experience, adding that “our auditors have thoroughly examined our decisions that fall within its competence”. His own finance team had “significant experience in the public sector,” he added.
In the letter, Hillier also said that when he met Houchen in 2018 he had “emergencies[d] asked him to establish a stronger local audit structure to reassure his voters that he was delivering value for money and demonstrate to the government the profitability of transferring funds to local areas.” The STDC did not rule on this point.
The government said it was “carefully considering” requests for a NAO review and would “respond in due course”, adding that it had seen “no evidence of corruption, wrongdoing or illegality”.