TOUGH questions on Wiltshire Council’s financial shortfall and governance were fired at chiefs by councillors.

They wanted to know when the authority would be bringing back its financial task group, in light of the council’s potential £51.5m shortfall on budget because of coronavirus.

And councillors asked about the‘threat to the authority in its current form’, and how it can return from the current officer-led approach.

The group put questions to the leader Cllr Philip Whitehead ahead of the cabinet meeting next week.

Cllr Ruth Hopkinson said: “I sincerely believe that we ought to be reinstating the financial task group, so they can focus on what is probably the most serious threat to this council.”

Responding, Cllr Whitehead said: “My problem at the moment is having to sort resource to deal with two formal task groups, which will just damage my resource allocation going forward.

“That’s why we kept it to one scrutiny group at the moment.”

Cllr Whitehead stressed that the council would not know the full financial impact of coronavirus until later in June at the earliest.

Councillors expressed concerns that Wiltshire will be subjected to a Section 114 notice – this would halt all council spending other than statutory spending without approval. It is applied when an officer believes that they cannot balance the budget.

Cllr Whitehead said that the notice normally signifies a breakdown between the officers, executives and political leadership, which he assured members was not the case.

But he said that there is no guarantee that a Section 114 notice will not be issued. “We will not be clear on our financial position for another month or so, and therefore, I'd expect that within that timescale we can look at allowing that (the reinstatement of the financial task group) in the future,” he added.

“My recommendation that we have a single scrutiny task group that can ask whatever questions they want.”

Under normal circumstances, 65 per cent of matters determined by cabinet are subject to overview and scrutiny.

Since the outbreak, there has been an officer-led decision-making process. Those decisions are then passed through cabinet.

Cllr Alan Hill questioned why there was no mention in the report of moving back to the normal process. He said: “What can members do to influence the way that the council is operating on behalf of our constituents?

Cllr Whitehead said that the decision to delegate to officers was a council decision, and will be driven by councillors ‘when it is right’.