City of York Council faced “a potentially significant loss of income” after its commercial waste service failed to keep track of which businesses were open during lockdown, a damning audit report found.
Auditors Veritau reviewed commercial waste collection and disposal processes and income collection and accounting, rating the service as providing ‘limited assurance’ – meaning “significant gaps, weaknesses or non-compliance were identified”.
The department saw a shortfall of £600,000 – £700,000 – about 50 per cent of its normal annual income – during 2020/2021.
But the council’s director of environment, transport and planning, James Gilchrist, said the “vast majority” of that amount was down to the council not charging businesses that weren’t open, rather than errors.
He said: “The vast majority of the businesses in the city closed down for a period of time, therefore weren’t producing waste – therefore, we weren’t collecting it.
“Trying to keep track of that…with a team of one or two people was incredibly difficult.
“I’m not trying to say anything other than we got ourselves in a mess over it and we didn’t have the data to make those decisions easy, but I don’t think we’re saying we’ve lost £600,000 -£700,000.”
Government Covid funding allows the authority to claim back much of the money, but it will have to cover more than £230,000 of this itself.
‘Rudimentary IT system’
Mr Gilchrist instigated the audit initially in 2019 because he noticed the service was still taking cash payments, despite a council resolution advising against this.
The report also found evidence of poor management information systems leading to discrepancies between waste services and the finance system, waste transfer notes not being renewed in a timely manner and crew sheets not being properly complete.
In York, 1,600 businesses have contracts to have their waste – around 140 tonnes per month – collected by the council.
Improvements have been made to the service and a review is ongoing into how best to manage it in the future.
Mr Gilchrist said: “We’ve got a small team with a rudimentary IT system which has actually served us pretty well in normal times as a lean model of operating that service.
“But managing those fluctuations and changes during Covid was difficult and exposed the weaknesses that were found in the systems.”
He added: “One of the actions in the audit is to do a more fundamental review of commercial waste – is it a service the council should be providing, should we be doing it on a franchise model?”